Know Yourself: Why Do We Do What's Wrong?
Who isn't guilty of violating their own moral convictions on occasion? Actually the real question 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.
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.
What Are the Reasons for Our Wrongdoing?
Listed below are some well-researched explanations for why humans decide to go against their own conscience to do what they would otherwise consider wrong. Also featured are supplemental research experiments to support some of the reasons. It should be noted that these are not "excuses" for wrongdoing, but influences that pressure (or 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 also the greater our fall when it is.
- Hierarchical Authority
- Instant Gratification
- Anonymity and Deindividuation
- Conflict of Priorities
- Conflicting Convictions
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.
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.
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), 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?
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.
“That's just the way things get done around here”
Institutionalisation refers to the process of embedding something within an organization, social system or society as a whole. An example would be a concept, a social role or a particular value or mode of behaviour. 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.
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.
All men are liable to error, and most men are, in many points, by passion or interest, under temptation to it.— John Locke
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 fulfill a desire as quickly as possible. There have been cases where people strike out when angry so as to satisfy a desire for revenge. Someone may violate their sexual mores to gain immediate sexual release. Others have dishonestly acquired money so as to get what we want.
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.
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 becomes a catalyst for wrongdoing.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. Internet bullying, vandalism and arson, mob violence and genocide are all examples of such actions.
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% 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.
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 they won't necessarily put an end to the battle.
Understandably, the stronger the moral conviction, the greater the conflicting "want" that hopes to challenge it must be. 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.
7. Conflicting Convictions
We'll end this article on the 'ethical dilemma' reason for wrongdoing. 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 and corporal punishment, abortion, medical research (e.g. vivisection), union strikes, activism, social revolutions, jury duty, etc.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2014 Richard Parr