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Social Conformity and Morality

Updated on November 18, 2016
Sam Wickstrom profile image

Sam read Milgram's study and spends time wondering about why people do things they know are wrong, as if they were doing good.

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It is moral to follow orders.

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Personal Autonomy

We all recognize the fact that we are responsible for our actions. Or do we?

Studies have shown that people will differ responsibility to authority, to say that the order giver is responsible for the actions carried out by the order follower. Many people believe in this lack of personal responsibility. The majority actually believes that a hierarchy is responsible, not the individuals who participate. This has always caught my attention as a massive psychological problem among groups. While surprising and shocking, this is entirely true, and is, I believe, the main reason for the oblivious destruction and thoughtless consumption of human kind throughout history.

Crash Course Video on Milgram's Study

Rows of bodies.
Rows of bodies.

The Holocaust

Many would say that Hitler was responsible for the Holocaust, that he was the primary inciter of violence, and the guide of evil to the masses. Do you agree with this? Or, perhaps, would you say that each and every soldier and citizen who willingly participated in this mass genocide was responsible?

I believe that each soldier, each citizen, and every person who colluded in this mass genocide was personally responsible for their own actions. Hitler may have given orders, but it was the moral duty of the people under his influence, to decide for themselves whether or not they would follow his orders.

Lack of sweatshop safety standards.
Lack of sweatshop safety standards.

The Corporation

Corporations are considered legal individuals. However, they are made up of separate people consenting to a voluntary contract of business with the given corporation.

Out of the many possible examples I'll use Nike. They have been known to have sweatshops in various developing countries, in which safety standards are practically absent and employees are making 'starvation' wages. When one makes starvation wages, they have just enough money to eat and survive, they can't save, get ahead, pay for healthcare, recreation, vacations, or any of that. They are essentially slaves, but technically they can quit.

Are consumers of Nike products responsible for this? Is the CEO of the corporation responsible for this? Are the advertisers and marketers responsible? My personal opinion is that each person involved in the business, whether they be managers or customers, are all equally responsible for the conditions of the workers in developing countries. That may come as a shock, and for good reason, the young women making seven cents an hour to make your consumer goods are depersonalized and far away. As the saying goes, 'out of sight, out of mind'.


You are a citizen of a country and you are paying taxes. On behalf of its citizens, the military of the given country goes and commits illegal war crimes. Are you responsible? Are the soldiers responsible?

It's a hard question to answer.

I would say that it is the citizens duty to be informed of its governments activities, and relinquish consent of that government when they have stepped over the line of morality. But this is where the problem comes in, the citizen is unable to relinquish consent, they have entered into a social contract upon birth. They can't immediately leave their nation when it commits an act they perceive as immoral. They are coerced into paying in to the system whether or not they believe it is moral. Like I said in the introduction, this is a massive problem in society, and it tends to go unspoken of.

It is the soldiers moral duty to deny orders which are obviously immoral. Yet, they are not allowed. It is respectable for a soldier to be unquestioning of authority. But why? Should we not respect the soldier who denies to put Jews in a gas chamber? Should we not respect the soldier who denies to fire upon innocent civilians from a drone, controlling it from an office thousands of miles away? Where is the line of morality?

People will avoid topics like this because it brings up a very deep sense of anxiety. However, we must continue to pull back the veil, rather than turn a blind eye to evil and continue on with our lives.

A Vivid Illustration
A Vivid Illustration
Human Sacrifice
Human Sacrifice

Further Back Into History

To understand our generally unrelenting desire for social conformity regardless of the moral implications, we need to zoom way out and look at the big picture.

Humans were hunter gatherers for a couple hundred thousand years. In this time period it was essential to survival to have a tribe or a roving band. This would ensure one could sleep while others watch for predators or enemies. Our civilization, our brain's neocortex, and all of what we see today has evolved subsequent to the earliest years of our humanity. Our brains have been developing for far longer than we can comprehend, and we tend to forget that.

Imagine if you were a man in a tribe over a hundred thousand years ago. The chief gives an order to all the able men, to go and attack the neighboring tribe, leaving nothing alive. The chief is quite serious. You could potentially choose to be a morally autonomous individual, but this will inevitably end with you being torn apart by a wild animal, or murdered by the men of a neighboring tribe. The chances of your survival after being banished are incredibly slim, you're more likely to be struck by lightning than to survive on your own.

This history is deep in the base of our brains, 'hard wired' if you will. However, we're now in a global society, where individuals are held accountable for their moral decisions. The issue is that we have two conflicting beliefs stored in our minds. Firstly, that we must conform to social norms, or experience ostracism, rejection, and an intense discomfort. Secondly, that we are morally autonomous people, responsible for our actions. We must find a way to reconcile these two conflicting systems of thought, and nearly every day it is a battle between the two.

In ancient Aztec society people would gather to view the spectacle of a live heart being torn from a persons chest and offered to the gods. This was imperative for the survival of the tribe, without this ritual, the rains may not fall, the sun may not rise, and the harvest will be inadequate. If you decide that you find this immoral, and you don't want to participate, you are free to wander into the jungle and be ripped apart by a wild animal. Or, you can view your own species, rip apart a member of your species. Your choice, and not a very easy one, but the answer is obvious. You chose to collude with evil in order to survive and reproduce.

These systems of thought have kept us alive through enigmatic periods of history. Now the challenge comes to decide for ourselves. We are now in a global society, and our choices, no matter how seemingly trivial, have an immense effect on other living creatures and human beings. How can we reconcile this?

A Hope For The Future

I sometimes envision a society where morality is universal. A society where there's no special contradictions or exceptions to morality. While this may be a long way off, its more than worthy of exploring. The technology you are reading this with would have had you burned at the stake for witchcraft in our not so distant past. Even positive change is almost always strongly resisted.

The non aggression principle is the moral idea that the initiation of force is wrong. In other words, its bad to hurt other people. We all know this, and yet it seems to have many exceptions and contradictions in our modern society. A society in which we universalize morality would be one in which peace is truly possible and liberty is a birth right.


Non Aggression Principle Explained

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The non-aggression principle is a reasonable basis for morality.

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    • Anita Hasch profile image

      Anita Hasch 6 months ago from Port Elizabeth

      I find it most disturbing that some banks do not take responsibility for their corrupt employees actions. I read some time ago of an pensioner that had approximately R200.000 that he kept in a safe at home. One dear lady advisor working for a certain bank , went to visit him and convinced him to hand the money over for her to deposit in the bank. He also had a large amount that was already deposited in the same bank. Later when he went to the bank he discovered that she had not deposited the money in his account, but taken it for her own use. She had also withdrawn the other amount that was in his account. In a case like this the bank, who is ensured, should have reimbursed this old man for the theft. But no, he is advised to go to a lawyer and the lady was allowed to pay him by monthly installments. And of course eventually she could not pay any more. The banks should be held responsible if their employees steal the money, or if they work with others to defraud customers.

    • profile image

      Rakib 6 months ago

      Very impressive article. Really it's amazing.

    • Sam Wickstrom profile image

      Sam 14 months ago from Nelson, BC, Canada

      Thanks for reading, I'm glad you enjoyed.

    • Anita Hasch profile image

      Anita Hasch 14 months ago from Port Elizabeth

      Thank you for this interesting hub. I believe that everybody is held accountable for their actions and moral decisions. Even Hitler had to pay in the end.