You are probably familiar with the Milgram Experiment. To give a short explanation, during the sixties, this guy called Milgram made an experiment by which people were taken off the street and were told by a person in a lab coat that they were part of the testing of another person who could be heard but was not visible (and who was actually a confederate). Every time that person gave a wrong answer, they were to be given electric shocks of increasing intensity which elicited screams of pain from the person tested and, eventually, would lead to death. The experiment was made in order to determine whether ordinary people would follow orders to kill others, and under what circumstances (partially motivated by the horrors of World War 2 and the Holocaust).
What was not studied, however, is the personality of the people who disobeyed and those who obeyed. A recent experiment was made to try to figure this out. And the results were rather interesting: agreeable, social people were more likely to obey orders to kill the subject, while anti-social, disagreeable people were more likely to disobey.
Do I like these results? Of course I do. As a lifelong anti-social, disagreeable person, I like to be told I’m more likely to be moral than other people, especially people (social, agreeable people) who tend to think I’m terrible. And people who are more social or agreeable may be reluctant in accepting the results, or may feel like they’re being attacked.
But I think there’s something deeper to talk about here beyond people’s personalities (which I think are fairly set in stone anyway). The dominant opinion about morality is that a person can only be moral if they follow the laws and mores of their society at that point in time. This position seems to be particularly prevalent in the United States, perhaps because of the higher level of fundamentalist religion. Christianity is, after all, very legalistic (and so are Judaism and Islam): its main concern is establishing rules of conduct for the individual, using God as the justification for the enforcement of those laws on everyone, believers and unbelievers alike. Christianity is not about showing us a new human potential or an ideal, but about repressing what is human in us (Christians say Jesus is the ideal, but it’s an ideal that is by definition unattainable).
There are logical problems with following our society’s laws and mores, and not the least of those is the whole relativism of the thing. Laws and mores change from century to century, and from place to place. It seems therefore entirely arbitrary to follow the laws and mores of our society at this precise time: why are those laws and those mores more desirable?
Anyhow, my greater point is that there are two basic views about morality: that humans are innately good (as many anti-authoritarians, such as myself, would propose) and that humans are innately evil (as pushed forward by most religious and authoritarian views). Now clearly I know there are more possibilities: one can believe in blank slate theory (although that has been largely discredited by science), or one can believe that humans are born with the possibilities for good and for evil.
The basic scientific information on this subject is that humans, like all primates, evolved as animals with a highly developed sociality. We also have scientific studies showing that even babies (way before they can understand or formulate moral principles) have a desire to help. Finally, we know that other primates also have moral traits which we usually attribute to humans (like fairness). Based on these, and other, lines of evidence, my conclusion is that some form of intuitionism must be true. We are born as fundamentally moral beings, with an internal moral compass.
What happens to us is that hierarchical social institutions constantly try to bend our moral compass to accommodate their values and principles. Most of us start our lives in a family institution, or some similar institution where adults control children’s lives. As a child, you learn pretty quickly that your values, your moral evaluations, are unwanted most of the time. You learn to follow what your parents think your values should be. This provides an opening for other hierarchies with even more devastating values to get into your brain, a lot of which are concerned with you hating or killing people who play for “another team,” like religion, sexism/racism, the military, and nationalism, or with exploiting one another, like sexism/racism, schools, capitalism and neo-liberalism. And the laws and mores of our society exist, in a large part, to support these institutions and their aims.
In our modern Western societies, there are two kinds of people who see themselves as non-conformists: fundamentalist Christians (who see themselves as rebelling against a sinful secular world) and radicals in some form or another (who see themselves as rebelling against the evil in our social institutions). Fundamentalist Christians, however, only “rebel” against institutions to the extent that they can conform to their own celestial dictatorship (to borrow Hitchens’ turn of phrase). As such, they are no more “non-conformists” than people who quit alcohol so they can take up smoking are “healthy.” They are non-conformists only to the average person who will not consider or even tolerate differing viewpoints.
When viewed from the perspective of conformity versus disobedience, the findings of that study are therefore not that surprising. What kind of people are most likely to go along with the mainstream view (which pursues the aims of our social institutions)? Agreeable and social people, of course. In order to be agreeable and social, you have to share a basic agreement with other people. You will get along better with other people if you are a liberal or a conservative, if you support your country, if you hate the kind of people your kind of people is supposed to hate, and like the kind of people your kind of people is supposed to like.
The anti-social attitude, at least from my personal experience, is not exactly opposed to getting along, but it is a rejection of compromise. I refuse to get along with anyone or any group if it means I have to compromise what I believe in. To many people, this makes me an asshole or a loser or a person who is otherwise aberrant, and I accept that. It’s difficult to be a social animal and to be anti-social at the same time. But the benefit is that I am more able to be myself, and to accept myself, than most people. There is comedy in the fact that people tell you to be yourself, but they never actually mean it. Anti-social people actually mean it.
It is no coincidence that radicals level their criticism against institutions, not against individuals. By and large, it is not individuals that are the problem, except insofar as they are led by institutions to believe in, and support, evil principles. People are moved by incentives. If you engineer a society so that the only way to be successful and happy is to exploit each other, and that people are indoctrinated to believe exploiting each other is the right thing to do, then people will exploit each other, not out of malice but out of the belief that they’re doing the right thing. And most people generally have no reason to reconsider their basic beliefs, because they are agreeable and agreeable people go with the flow.
Now, I am not saying that you can’t be a radical and be a social person at the same time, or an anti-social conformist, but I wouldn’t wish either of these personality types on anyone. They just seem like the worse of both worlds (although the former wouldn’t be too bad if you worked for some leftist non-profit or something).
Of course there are many rationalizations made to try to justify conformity. The one most often used is that what is ethical is not practical, for the individual or for society. But the question then arises: practical TO WHO? Surely an egalitarian society would be practical for 90% of the population, but it would definitely not be practical with the 10% composed of the power elite and those with the biggest fortunes. When they say something is “not practical,” what they mean is: it’s not practical for those in power, economic and political. It’s not practical for those who want to keep doing what we’ve been doing for the last sixty years. And their conformity is going to have us all killed. The Earth has become one gigantic Milgram Experiment. And we’re the subjects.