Conforming to Good or Evil: More Moral Lessons in the Shadow of the Holocaust

Clear moral norms are crucial. But to be effective, those norms need to be embodied in moral communities and social practices, habituated in the virtues, and animated by a conviction that they are an essential part of human flourishing. We must create social structures and communities in which intellectual training and moral formation in the virtues can happen.

Yesterday, I argued that our current approaches to moral education would not have produced the kind of moral wisdom or moral fortitude individuals needed to resist the forces that drove the atrocities of the Holocaust. I discussed the crimes of a group of “ordinary men” in Reserve Police Battalion 101 in the murder of 1,500 innocent women and children in the Polish town of Józefów.

My students are repulsed by the story of these “ordinary men,” often reporting that it is their least favorite reading in the course. But their responses to the tragedy are not reassuring. The crass rationalizations of some of the policeman simply deepen their skepticism about the value of moral arguments. And in accord with the widespread “moral individualism” of our culture, they often claim that what this story shows is that people should never conform to any authority but their own 

The Importance of Moral Hierarchy

And yet, the reality is rather more complicated, as David Blumenthal shows in his superb book The Banality of Good and Evil: Moral Lessons from the Shoah and Jewish Tradition. The power and influence authority figures have over our moral choices is clear. It is illustrated by many sociological studies, such as those of the behavior of soldiers during the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam and of the participants in the famous Milgram experiments at Yale, in which subjects were asked to administer what they believed were painful and/or lethal electric shocks to innocent people simply on the basis of the authority of someone with a lab coat and a clipboard. When authorities have authorized an act—when “important men” and technical “experts” have agreed to it—it is widely taken to be morally acceptable.

More encouragingly, studies also show that authority can encourage ethically correct behavior that otherwise might not have been undertaken. Research subjects who were prohibited from leaving a room were more likely to leave when cries of distress were simulated from an adjacent room if another person in the room said, “We should go help.” Other studies showed that people were more likely to help if they were exposed to pro-social content on television than if they were watching violent shows. Even Milgram’s experiments showed that authority can support resistance to evil. One of the subjects who refused to continue administering shocks was a professor of Old Testament who told the attendant, pointing to the man supposedly receiving shocks: “If he doesn’t want to continue, I’m taking orders from him.”

In the post-experiment discussion, the professor said, “If one has as one’s ultimate authority God, then it trivializes human authority.” Indeed, many rescuers of Jews reported that they felt obligated to help because of their duty to God’s higher authority. Peer authority also plays an important role. It can corrupt, as with the “ordinary men” of Reserve Police Battalion 101, but it can also reinforce virtuous behavior, as it did among the villagers of Le Chambon, nearly all of whom conspired together to shelter and hide Jews under the leadership of the town’s Protestant pastor and his strong-willed Italian wife. 

Rule Observance and Role Identification

How about rule observance and role identification? Do these affect the doing of good and evil? The famous Zimbardo Prison Experiment at Stanford is instructive here. In this experiment, certain students were assigned the role of guards and others prisoners. The students’ behavior was so thoroughly corrupted by their respective roles that the experiment had to be canceled after only six days. Most astoundingly, writes Blumenthal, the faculty, who had taken on the role as prison administrators, also adapted so thoroughly to their roles that they treated prisoners who broke down as shirkers trying to talk their way out of prison and worked to prevent a rumored “breakout.”

Equally damning is a study of German professors of history during the Holocaust. “These scholars wanted to be part of the social hierarchy,” writes Blumenthal. They wanted to be somebody. In the introduction to a new historical journal, one professor wrote that

German historians are aware of their duty to provide the historical tools for the central problem of the present war and the forthcoming rearrangement of Europe and to envision and interpret the development of the past from the point of view of the present. By this publication they wish to profess the political character of their science.

In role identification, writes Blumenthal, “bonding, not truth or morality, becomes the cement of identity.” This too sounds a warning for us: When political partisanship and ideology undermine the search for truth, societies have put themselves on a dangerous path, blinding themselves when they most need to see clearly.

Rule observance and role identification are so effective, Blumenthal says, because “the role models and rule expectations usually neatly fit the personal needs and cultural expectations of the individual. Thus National Socialism was based on traditional values, traditional heroes, and a traditional scapegoat; the individual needed only to properly place himself or herself in this system.” By affiliating with the cause, one could shed his or her old identity and acquire a more meaningful new one.

These results should concern us. In our society, moral agents are allowed, even encouraged, to shed old identities and put on new ones. The fragmentation of identity has become common among emerging adults who, as Erving Goffman famously documented, will adopt one persona when working as wait-staff in a restaurant, another when they are in the kitchen with the cooks, another when talking to professors at school, and yet another with friends or family. We often value this flexibility, but forget how vulnerable this thin sense of self and the lack of a strong, integrated identity can make us to influences such as those of the Zimbardo Prison Experiment. In a fragmented, bureaucratic society, those with this sort of “flexible” identity and sense of self can more easily separate their “home” self from their “work” self. They do things in their role as an “effective employee” or “faithful party operative” that they would not do otherwise.

And yet, role identity and rules have an important function in fostering virtuous acts as well. In a study of those who rescued Jewish refugees during the Holocaust, Samuel and Pearl Oliner distinguished three motivations: the normocentric, when one is motivated by social norms; the empathetic, when one is motivated by feelings of empathy with the victims; and the principled, when one’s response is based on one’s own autonomous principles of behavior.  The results of the Oliners’ study showed that over half of the rescuers acted not out of sympathy or principle, but because they judged that some social authority expected it of them. Thus, contrary to what the contemporary therapeutic culture of sympathy and sentimentality would lead us to expect, most of the rescuers of Jews acted normocentrically—that is, because they had been inculcated with a set of clear moral norms by their community that they felt obliged to follow.

The norms alone merely set expectations. To become the drivers of action, they had to be internalized and identified with the ego or self. Rescuers did not set their personal interests in opposition to the moral norms, reports Blumenthal, nor did they set their personal interests against those of others. They began with the premise that their own interests were bound up with their moral goals. Instead of seeing their actions as a sacrifice of their personal success or a denial of the self, rescuers tended to define themselves precisely in terms of their moral goals: the fulfillment of the one implied the fulfillment of the other. Their moral goals were understood to be a means of attaining their personal ones, and vice versa. 

Moral Lessons

The lesson here is that clear moral norms about the proper respect due to others are crucial, but to be effective, those norms need to be embodied in moral communities and social practices, habituated in the virtues, and animated by a conviction that they are an essential part of human flourishing. As Blumenthal writes,

In seeking an answer to the question of what facilitates good and evil, social hierarchy occupies a very important place. All persons are brought up on social hierarchies of family, school, peer group, workplace, and state. These hierarchies inculcate obedience to authority as a behavioral norm and as a moral value. People, therefore, have a strong tendency to invoke authority to justify their acts—for good or for evil. Further, these social hierarchies, behavioral norms, and moral values become strongly embodied in rules of human behavior and in roles assigned within the various hierarchies. Adherence to role becomes constitutive of personal identity. People, therefore, have a strong tendency to identify the rules and roles set for them and to follow those rules and to fill those roles. In so doing, they become who they are—for better or worse.

Our current practices of relegating moral education to college survey courses or to seminars for “clarifying values” are not sufficient. They simply cannot provide the intellectual or moral substance needed to counteract the powerful, often unrecognized social and psychological forces that influence us to cooperate with evil.

If we are to help our young people to resist the forces enjoining them to abandon their moral convictions to carry out their “professional duty” or to avoid being “out of step” with their peers, we will need to create social structures and communities in which intellectual training and moral formation in the virtues can happen. We need a culture that respects all life and does not make some lives secondary; that inculcates sensible moral reasoning skills to enable people to recognize more readily specious arguments and rhetorical misdirection; that builds self-awareness to recognize when self-interest is masquerading as moral argument or taking refuge in specious post-facto rationalizations; that makes clear that “being a somebody” is not bound up with having, but with being; and that being is achieved by identifying oneself and acting in accord with certain moral norms and virtues.

And we must, at long last, reject the notion that we are fundamentally autonomous individuals—dispassionate, neutral thinking things that choose freely and choose best without influence from outside ourselves. This was always a foolish and dangerous illusion, and it is one we can no longer afford.

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