Morality is about conformity versus disobedience.

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.


6 thoughts on “Morality is about conformity versus disobedience.

  1. Independent Radical October 21, 2016 at 02:28 Reply

    I study psychology and the OCEAN personality test (in which E stands for extroversion and A stands for Agreeableness) is all the rage nowadays. I’ve never liked it because it seems to imply that I’m a horrible person, lacking in conscientiousness (being organised, self-disciplined and neat), extroversion and agreeableness, while being high on neuroticism (negative emotions). The only thing I have going for me is a high degree of Openness to Experience, but overall I’m just a horrible wreck according to the test.

    However if being low on extroversion (which I assume is what you mean by anti-social) and agreeableness makes me less likely to electrocute people to death, maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Perhaps if Conscientious were renamed Uptightness and Agreeableness was renamed Servility I’d have less of a problem with it. Still I don’t feel it fully captures my personality. For example it doesn’t capture my ability and tendency to employ rational (and admittedly depersonalised, though I don’t see that as a bad thing) thinking, unless you count that under “intelligence”, which is part of Openness to Experience, but my rationality leads to me dismissing a lot of ideas as bullshit which leads to me being accused of being “closed-minded” (i.e. unable to tolerate bullshit, which I definitely am). So the test just doesn’t work for me at all to an extent.

    Still thanks for bringing to my attention the research on the relationship between personality and obedience. I’m curious about whether being into violent sexualities (I’m sure I don’t need to tell you what they are) has anything to do with obedience as well.

    • Francois Tremblay October 21, 2016 at 03:47 Reply

      “However if being low on extroversion (which I assume is what you mean by anti-social) and agreeableness makes me less likely to electrocute people to death, maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Perhaps if Conscientious were renamed Uptightness and Agreeableness was renamed Servility I’d have less of a problem with it.”

      Precisely! It’s a false premise underlying the way we see people. We believe that agreableness is admirable, because it makes us feel good. We like to be around agreeable people. We like to be around popular people.

      “Still thanks for bringing to my attention the research on the relationship between personality and obedience. I’m curious about whether being into violent sexualities (I’m sure I don’t need to tell you what they are) has anything to do with obedience as well.”

      You mean, if BDSM advocates are agreeable people? I think there’s a different mechanism at play there. In the Milgram Experiment, one is asked to obey a recognized authority. In BDSM, there’s no authority at first. The authority only factors in during sex, generally.

    • Leo December 8, 2016 at 13:52 Reply

      Yeah, the way OCEAN measures conscientiousness sounds off by that description, as well as being too open to interpretation (what counts as ‘neat’ is influenced by social conformity). By other tests, as an OCD (literally, diagnosed, and it’s not the popular misperception of it – neatness is nothing to do with it) person I indeed have the high level of conscientiousness which is typical of sufferers’ personalities, which I view as affecting why my political views are radical when most people won’t go that far – being conscientious required going further. The same thing that’ll make me worry totally needlessly whether I could possibly have caused harm to someone, drives my politics towards wanting to avoid that, even when my politics lead to the kind of conflict with other people I find extremely anxiety-provoking and stressful (ie. I feel I have to challenge their harmful views and to be careful that mine aren’t), and to go and read up on things that I find extremely upsetting. For instance the article on rape in the DRC I read yesterday wasn’t really good for my mental health, but I felt as a feminist it’s my job to be aware of stuff like that. I find Liberal Feminists aren’t always well-informed and that maybe affects their politics, and trying to talk politics generally often results in people sticking their fingers in their ears and going lalala don’t want to know about such things (which is admittedly maybe preferable at times). Let alone when it comes to actually acting on beliefs – I’ll generally try to walk the walk (enough that it is seemingly further than the average person, at least, but I’m not at all perfect) and will feel very guilty if I don’t. Some of the clearest descriptions I’ve seen of OCD is we somewhat lack the ability to filter thoughts out (including upsetting ones, hence why we get hung up on them), or that it’s like other people have an automatic gear shift while we get manual. There are other paths to the same result, but in my case the OCD conscientiousness is definitely wrapped round it, it’s not separable from my personality. It’s only ‘uptightness’ in the sense it encourages me to require certain standards of behaviour, but I get by far the worst of it compared to what I expect of other people, and I think it’s stuff that ought to be minimum decency really. Even if other people -especially dudes- think it’s crazy extreme to want unreasonable things like for men not to hurt women. >_<

      This post is very interesting, I’ve spent a lot of time metaphorically wondering (angsting, tbqh) why some people would push the button (as well as if I would, of course), and how exactly we should encourage them not too, or not push them to in the first place. I concluded likewise that conformity (to the current unjust status quo – I can imagine a better one where conformity wasn’t so destructive) is the biggest threat we and the planet face.

      I’ve wondered also if maybe you’re a bit different in the first place, or ‘Othered’, you have less incentive to play nicey nice conformist, especially if the offered crumbs for doing so aren’t sufficiently tempting. I’m worried that might in a way mean the right wingers have a point, though.

  2. John Doe October 21, 2016 at 06:59 Reply

    Speaking of religion, yesterday at therapy there was this Christian girl with ADD who suggested that everyone worships the same God, just in different forms. My mother doesn’t agree with that.

  3. unabashedcalabash October 21, 2016 at 13:04 Reply

    I have to quibble with your conclusions about human nature based on the behavior of babies.

    There have been several studies performed regarding the behavior of babies w/r/t fairness and altruism, with varying results. In one study, 92 percent of infants showed surprise at an unequal distribution of graham crackers and milk; these same infants were likely to share with other infants their “more-preferred toy” rather than their “less-preferred toy,” something experimenters gauged through observation beforehand (which toy was the more preferred). The group that was more likely to share their “less-preferred toy” showed more surprise when the distributions of food and drink were equal than unequal.

    However, in another study, many infants’ altruism went out the window when offered much larger amounts of graham crackers. When offered twice the amount of graham crackers, more than a quarter of the infants accepted it without sharing (when offered to share); when offered eight times the amount, the number of infants willing to accept the much greater portion without sharing rose to half.

    This still shows an unbelievable willingness, on the other hand, to sacrifice self-interest in the name of fairness on the part of at least half the infants, in the case of the huge graham crackers disparity.

    In yet another study, most infants would help an unknown adult retrieve an object that had fallen out of reach without expectation of reward; when rewarded with a toy afterward (when they were shown the toy and expected to be rewarded with it), if the experiment was repeated without the expectation of the toy in reward that helping behavior dropped by forty percent. (All of these experiments–which seem rather sinister, experimenting with babies!!–are about the evils of greed and its effect on human altruism from an early age).

    So, it seems babies are capable of being both altruistic and self-interested, depending on the conditions (i.e., although naturally good, they are also naturally selfish, unless you can argue that these experiments socialized them into selfishness somehow).

    I am not surprised, however, by the outcomes of the Milgram study when looking at agreeableness. Agreeable people never get anything done (I have maintained before that niceness is completely different than kindness, and that niceness can actually be rather sinister, and related to the banality of evil). “Nice,” to me, is not a compliment, as it does not imply anything genuine or any degree of critical thinking (it is no wonder women are socialized to be “nice”). And yes, a lot of it is semantics: if we rename some of these “good” traits that we use to categorize people–for example men and women–we will see what they really mean: men’s “honor” is really “pride,” “loyalty” is really “bigotry” (racism, xenophobia, religious intolerance), women’s “niceness” is really “servility” and “passivity,” etc.

    Although I am glad someone finally did this study, the results seem obvious. This phenomenon of following authority is also behind groupthink and leads to the aforementioned banality of evil in situations like the Third Reich, in which seemingly normal people go along with the unthinkable.

    Great post, as usual, Francois. :)

    • Francois Tremblay October 21, 2016 at 13:17 Reply

      Have you ever read The Case Against Competition? He talks a lot about competition with monetary compensation being the worse way to incentivize people. When people are monetarily rewarded for accomplishing something, the reward takes the place of actual interest. Don’t you think there’s a relation there?

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