Third part in a series. First part here, second part here.
Alright, for this post I'd like to switch gears a little, go into a mode of contemplation.
I've written one post on why we do not wish to challenge our basic assumptions, and one on how norms and identity foreclosure can be harmful to your personal development. Now, I'd like to share some thoughts on the morality and ethics of deviation or rejection of authority.
I'd like to point out that this series of posts aren't leading to some specific conclusion, I would rather say I'm examining the bricks and laying a foundation to use the building analogy.
When to follow the rules, and when to follow your conscience?
First, an anecdote. During secondary school/high school, our class did a discussion exercise, which started with us being told the following story:
A duke was leaving his castle for a trip. Since he suspected his wife to be unfaithful, he ordered his guard to kill her if she tried to get into or out of the castle while he was gone, and he let her know this. He then left.
The duchess did indeed sneak out to meet her lover, paying a ferryman to whisk her across the moat. She spent the night at her best friend's place and then went to meet her lover. After the encounter, she would leave to sneak back into to the castle, but had no more money to pay the ferryman. The lover and her best friend refused to help her, and the ferryman refused to ship her over without payment. She pleaded with the guard to let her in, but he refused, and warned her he would have to kill her if she attempted to enter the castle. Out of desperation, she tried to enter the castle anyway, and was killed.
Who's fault is it that the duchess died? The duke's, the guard's, her friend's, her lover's, the ferryman or herself's?
My opinion was that it was the guard's fault, which was met with protests from my classmates, and the rationale "He was just doing his job!"
After a few years of reflection, and encountering the Milgram experiment (Which I have linked to before), it is my belief that "Just following orders" is not a moral argument.*
Terrible actions are made possible by people just following orders. Rather than a moral actions (By moral action, I do not mean an action for good, but rather an action that is evaluated morally, that can be moral or immoral) blind obedience is the rejection of morality. It is a rejection of yourself as an agent, as a human with the capacity for reflection and morality. Blind obedience makes you simply an extension of the morality and reasoning of the person making the decisions, an idea the wikipedia article on the Milgram experiment labels "agentic state theory".
I see humans in an existential light. It is our capacity to make meaningful choices that make us human, and even surrendering this power, or not doing anything at all, is a choice. Doing your job, following normality or following orders is not an excuse to act against your ethics... But, as the Milgram experiment clearly shows, we want someone to tell us what to do. We do not wish to take the full responsibility, or challenge the stability and security of societies structures. (Man, I guess really should read Sartre.)
But to what extent can you stay true to your own morality in society? I've just finished the course on ethics and law in psychology, which raised this question especially.
As a psychologist, you are in a position of power in your relation to your clients. You must handle your relationship and your intimate knowledge of your client in an ethic way. You must treat your client, and the system sie is a part of (such as hir family), with respect. As a psychologist you generally work alone, and you alone must weigh together all these considerations, somehow integrating your morality, the law, the professional ethic of psychologists, and of course pragmatic reality.
What if it is against my morality not to treat this client, but we just do not have enough resources to treat everyone we would like at this clinic? In this case, it is impossible for me to do the fully moral thing, and I must somehow accept this. I must somehow become neither despaired or jaded when I'm forced to go against my empathic impulses.
Likewise, ability takes a part in ethic conduct, to treat someone with respect is a question of ability just as much as morality. In an interpersonal profession such as mine, doing the right thing requires reasoning, as well as emotion and empathy, as well as ability. A psychologist needs to have wisdom, and not only to be a moral psychologist, but to be a succesful psychologist at all.
I would even question if i obeying the law is inherently moral. The law tells us what we must and must not do, but it doesn't tell us what we should do. As a psychologist, there are many things I can do in my work which are not illegal, but definitely not ethical either.
I sometimes feel people are justifying their actions with solely the fact that they had the right to take them, not at all adressing that they were, in facts, assholes just now.
Just as a person can hide their moral responsibility behind an authority, they can hide their own tendencies to greed and small-mindedness behind the fact that they have the right to do so.
But of course, there is a big difference between having a right, and doing right. The laws are only concerned with the former, and that's a good thing too. The state has no business in determining who is and who has the right to be an asshole.
Furthermore, there are even moments when I can feel the law is inhumane, and to follow my ethics would require me to go against the law, for instance when the law declare immigrants illegal.
This is a difficult situation. If I do not wish to go against my belief of what is good and right, I should break the law. At the same time, I wouldn't wish other professionals to break the law when treating or handling me - The laws protect me when I'm in a vulnerable position and at the mercy of policemen, social workers, doctors and psychologists.
So what do I do? Follow my consciousness? Obey the law? Or I could follow my conscience and break the law, but also follow the law and accept my punishment, as the law must be upheld for society to function.
So let's be pragmatic. Some things can only be achieved with orders and hierarchy. Without routines and standard procedures, lives would be lost everyday. Perhaps the act of submission to authority can be a moral action? I'd like to point to the movie Hero, in which the protaganist sacrifices himself to the authority in the end, because he reaches the conclusion that in this case, the authority is the good cause.
And if I enter a group, such as a community, a workplace or an organisation, have I not implicitly accepted the rules of this group? If I start work at a hospital only to work according to my personal conviction rather than standard routines, I sabotage everyone's work, doing more harm than good.
Finally, I believe that some aspects of society wouldn't function without the possiblity to "escape responsibility". The decision makers does not have to carry out their own decisions, and the executors does not have to make a decision. It is possible for both parties to scoot over the responsibility to the other.
Again, the example of illigal emmigrants: The police escorting them from their homes are just "doing their job", they do not have to justify their actions to their conscience or to the family being sent away. The decision makers do not have to confront those they send away, or their own feelings empathy for these people. And The Job gets Done.
When it comes to illegal immigrants, I do not believe in sending people back to something they've run away from, whether they are officially refugees or not, but we still need a cold, objective and just standard of procedures for many of society's functions. Individuals can be prejudiced against other people, or swayed into making exceptions for charismatic people. The official standard can not.
But we must remember that laws, rules, standard procedures and authority are in the end the formalized reasoning of ordinary hum,ans. They are not given by God or nature. They can be changed. They should be subject to critical scrutiny and revision.
I suppose my conclusion would have to be that, as usual, there are no simple answers. Just as you can not completely surrender yourself to laws, you cannot completely entrust yourself in a simple moral principle. Doing the right thing requires ever vigilance, care and thoughtfulness.
* We can consider my process of finding arguments for my cause in the light of my first post in this series. Here I examined the idea that humans often make emotional decision and then intellectually justify them rather than vice versa.
As a high schooler, had I already then grasped the problem that blind obedience meant, and later Milgram and the third reich simply provided me with the articulation of this into concrete examples?
Or where thes examples rather a way for me to intellectually justifiy a gut feeling against blind obedience?