Know Yourself: Why Do You Do What's Wrong?
All men are liable to error, and most men are, in many points, by passion or interest, under temptation to it.— John Locke
In the previous article we determined that to possess moral conviction but choose not to live by it, is to exhibit a lack of character. Read previous
However, who isn't guilty of violating their own moral convictions on occasion.
The question, then, is not, who does it? But, why we do it?
For the sake of this article we are going to put aside arguments of relative-versus-absolute morality, and instead limit our definition of moral error to those violations we (as individuals) commit in acting contrary to our own moral compass.
That line between good and evil is permeable. Any of us can move across it ...I argue that we all have the capacity for love and evil—to be Mother Theresa, to be Hitler or Saddam Hussein. It's the situation that brings that out.— Philip G. Zimbardo
Confess thy faults
Which of these moral failings most bothers you about yourself?
The real key is to live in an environment where the mind feels free to choose the right thing instead of being compelled by habit and inertia to choose the wrong thing.— Deepak Chopra
All guilty say 'Aye'
So, we all do wrong. Whether dishonesty on our time sheets or marital unfaithfulness, immoral (wrong) choices are a failing common to all humanity.
Let's now look at some of the reasons why.
But first, some comic relief...
Reasons for Wrong Doing
Following are some well researched reasons for why humans decide to go against their conscience; to do what they would otherwise consider wrong. It should be noted that these are not "excuses" for wrong-doing, but influences that pressure us (tempt us) toward unethical behaviour.
It might be said that the stronger the foundation of our moral convictions, the less likely it is to be shaken when tested; but the greater our fall when it is.
What other people may think of the rightness or wrongness is nothing in comparison to my own deep knowledge, my innate conviction that it was wrong.— Elizabeth Gaskell
Reason 1. Conformity
One of the strongest influences in society is that of social conformity.
Sometimes we act opposite to our better judgement (including morally), because others are.
Almost unconsciously we run our options through the filter of social acceptance. What we choose to say and do is often dramatically influenced by our perception of how others will respond. People generally conform to the tolerances and intolerances of their society. Which s a mixed bag of good and bad, at best.
At it's worst, basing one's decisions upon the mercurial scale of social opinion, is to risk gravitating to the lowest or most faulty moral decision making paradigm.
We are half ruined by conformity, but we should be wholly ruined without it.— Charles Dudley Warner
The Asch Conformity Experiments
The Asch conformity experiments were a series of studies conducted in the 1950s that demonstrated the power of conformity in groups. They are also known as the Asch paradigm.
In the experiment, students were asked to participate in a group "vision test." In reality, all but one of the participants were working for Asch (i.e. confederates), and the study was really about how the remaining student would react to their behavior.
Source: Simply PSychology: The Asch Experiments
Reason 2. Hierarchical Authority
“They told me to do it.”
Most of us have been guilty of blaming others for our actions, especially when those blamed were perceived to have authority over us.
Relegating blame over matters of moral significance is common. From the child who says, "Dad says I could" (when they know mum said they couldn't), through to Nazi death camp staff who laid the responsibility for their actions at the feet of their commanding officer. Humans have a tendency to let authority override better judgement; even common sense morals.
Under what conditions would a person obey an authority, who commanded actions that went against conscience?
Dr Stanley Milgram
The Milgram Authority Experiment
In 1963 research was conducted to determine how far people would go in obeying an instruction if it involved harming another person.
The lead researcher, Stanley Milgram, was interested in how easily ordinary people could be influenced into committing atrocities for example, Germans in WWII.
Source: Simply Psychology, The Milgram experiment
Reason 3. Institutionalisation
“That's just the way things get done around here”
Institutionalisation refers to the process of embedding something (for example a concept, a social role, a particular value or mode of behaviour) within an organization, social system, or society as a whole.
But what if immoral practices creep into the institutional culture we live in and abide by?
Incrementally, and oft rapidly, the institutionalised accept the immoral practice as normal and incorporate it into their own behaviour. Hence we've had such practices as the slave trade, gladiatorial arenas, honour suicides etc.
When confronted by the wrongness of such, we blame the system everyone has to comply with.
Wrong does not cease to be wrong because the majority share in it.— Leo Tolstoy, A Confession
The Stanford Prison Institutionalism Experiment
In 1971 the Stanford Prison Experiment was conducted in which college students played the roles of prisoners or guards.
After only six days the guards became brutal and abusive toward prisoners, leading to the premature end of the experiment.
It was revealed that institutional forces and peer pressure can lead normal everyday people to disregard the potential harm of their actions on the others.
Source: Stanford Prison Experiment
These days the temptation to use steroids in sports has become too great for many young athletes.— Jim Sensenbrenner
Reason 4. Instant Gratification
This 'reason' operates most powerfully in concert with anger, greed and lust. When our passion for something is aroused, then we are more susceptible to making immoral choices.
Some of the most extreme crimes have been committed in order to fulfil a desire as quickly as possible; to strike out when angry so as to satisfy a desire for revenge. To violate our sexual mores, to gain immediate sexual release. To dishonestly acquire money so as to get what we want. To gamble our families money in the hope of winning big.
The Marshmallow Experiment
More than 40 years ago, Walter Mischel, PhD, a psychologist now at Columbia University, explored self-control in children with a simple but effective test.
His experiments using the “marshmallow test,” as it came to be known, laid the groundwork for the modern study of self-control.
Though this experiment focused on children, the instant gratification mindset influences adults also.
I am always wary of decisions made hastily. I am always wary of the first decision, that is, the first thing that comes to my mind if I have to make a decision. This is usually the wrong thing. I have to wait and assess, looking deep into myself, taking the necessary time.— Pope Francis
Reason 5. Anonymity and Deindividuation
“No one knows who I am”
Research shows that anonymity encourages immoral behaviour. Whether alone or as a face in a crowd, untraceability of action can become a catalyst for wrong-doing.
When an individual loses their sense of self-awareness within a groups activities, it is referred to as a state of deindividuation.
Many immoral acts are committed that would otherwise not be if the perpetrators could be singled out and identified; for example, Internet bullying, vandalism & arson, mob violence and genocide.
In 1974, Harvard anthropologist John Watson evaluated 23 cultures to determine whether warriors who changed their appearance—such as with war paint or masks—treated their victims differently. As it turned out, 80 percent of warriors in these cultures were found to be more destructive—for example, killing, torturing or mutilating their victims—than unpainted or unmasked warriors.
The Deindividuation Experiment
Although the video below is lengthy, it is extremely entertaining and well worth the watch.
Studies have shown that there is a degradation in a group’s collective intellect. It seems that when groups are formed, they always regress to a particular mental or psychological state where the capacity to analyse issues critically dwindle and the faculty to be rational disappears
...Because there is a lack of adult thinking, the psychological state of a group degrades even more if there is anonymity. This state is characterized by a decrease of self-evaluation causing anti-normative behaviour.
Source: Anonymity in Group Psychology
Reason 6. Conflict of Priorities
When our conscience tells us one thing, but our desires tell us another, we have a choice to make.
Great internal struggles can occur as a result of moral conviction becoming an inconvenience to personal ambition. Ultimately our actions will indicate which was victorious, but not necessarily an end to the battle.
Understandably, the stronger the moral conviction, the greater must be the conflicting "want" that hopes to challenge it. Such internal dialogue might include:
Is the exam so important to me that I would cheat to pass? Is my attraction to that person so strong as to justify being unfaithful to my spouse? Though my sister is in desperate need of financial help, the only money I have is for the new car I've got my eye on.
Setting and achieving goals is important, but single-minded focus on them can blind people to ethical concerns ... That which is striking and beautiful is not always good; but that which is good is always beautiful.— Muel Kaptein
Nitin Nohria is the Dean of Faculty at Harvard Business School.
Business is frequently the place where matters of morality meet matters of aspiration, where a competitive spirit can undermine moral integrity. Therefore much material is available through HBS that addresses the ever present struggle between the two, as well as means of addressing the conflict.
Reason 7. Conflicting Convictions
We'll end this article on the 'ethical dilemma' reason for wrong. This occurs when our moral certainty becomes divided within us, such that whatever we chose, we risk choosing wrong.
Often such dilemmas hinge on determining the better of two choices, knowing that undesired consequences can result from each. Again, such dilemma are often made more difficult by an underlying and questionable bias that the individual is aware of and struggling to square with.
Examples of scenarios that can cause conflicting convictions include: Capital & corporal punishment, abortion, medical research (e.g. vivisection), union strikes, activism, social revolutions, jury duty, etc
An ethical person ought to do more than he's required to do and less than he's allowed to do— Bertrand Russell
There are many things that impact the moral imperatives of our lives; upbringing, culture, faith, education. Check out the video and links provided below to be confronted by dilemmas that may challenge your moral foundations.
- Top 10 Moral Dilemmas
Thankfully most of us do not come across dire situations that present a moral dilemma, but it is always a very interesting exercise to consider a dilemma a
Where does your moral foundation find its greatest support?
Right is right even if no one is doing it; wrong is wrong even if everyone is doing it.— Augustine of Hippo
© 2014 Richard Parr