Motivated by the Nuremberg trials and the trial of the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichman, Stanley Milgram conducted a set of experiments to understand just how millions of individuals could have contributed in the holocaust. How could ‘just following orders’ rationalize such heinous acts? In his experiments, he recruited random individuals to administer a ‘learning task’ on a confederate, pretending to be another volunteer. With each successive mistake by the confederate, participants were instructed by the experimenter to give a progressively worse shock. The shock would continue to until a lethal 450 volts.
Thankfully, the shocks were fake and the confederate was simply an actor, because 65% of the participants gave this final lethal shock. While all participants showed some hesitation as the voltage climbed, they were easily persuaded by the experimenter to continue. The experiment has been conducted in numerous countries, with consistent and similar results in every society.
Jonathan Haidt, one of today’s leading experts on the psychology of human morality, has noted and demonstrated that there are two ways in which individuals and societies curb selfishness and promote cooperation. One way is by focusing directly on the individual. We all do this by caring about others, trying to minimize harm and by promoting justice. The other way is by focusing on loyalty to the group; following laws and listening to authority. This latter form of morality is vital for establishing structure and maintaining order but can also come with the dark-side that we saw in Milgram’s experiment.
This is why the argument against Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk, has left me somewhat uneasy. Don’t get me wrong; I think that Kim Davis should have be providing marriage licences to LGBT individuals and should lose her job for not doing so*. But I also think she and all other clerks should have been providing those licences 20 years ago. The change in the law does not change the morality of the action and it worries me that people are quick to condemn her for violating a rule but that we didn’t criticize her or any other individuals for the same action before the Supreme Court decision. Note how strange it is that every other clerk is either currently violating or now violating their own sense of what is right and that we expect people to simply fall in line and do what the law says. It is because of people challenging the law for last 40 years that we’ve seen movement for gay rights in the western world. The Stonewall Inn and other meeting places for gay individuals are now lauded as vital to the promotion of the LGBT rights and yet at the time, what they were doing was illegal.
I do recognize that the “you should do your job” defense is in part, a rationalization of being morally outraged by the action. If a clerk had somehow done the opposite; managed to legally marry two same-sex partners, before it was legal – we’d likely hear the same “do your job” arguments by those who are now supporting her; while those that are now outraged, would be applauding her as a hero.
But we should all realise that the same psychological processes that made Davis not do her job are, ironically, the same psychological processes that make us want her to do her job’ Just as we are appealing to the Supreme Court’s decision to determine what she ought to do, Davis, and those that support her are appealing to an even higher authority (to them) to determine what’s right and wrong. This last point should make it abundantly clear that an appeal to authority for morality is never, in itself, a rational reason to do something.
The next decade will likely see some pretty vast changes to our justice system. Whether it be the legalization of marijuana or of euthanasia , what’s now considered law will not be and things that are not considered illegal might be. Actions can and must be judged as being more right or wrong based on the amount of harm it does to individuals (and animals). Those judgments are not always easy to make but they should not rely on a dogmatic following of the law. While it is undeniable that laws and rules help to maintain order, they should only be the consequence of ethical deliberation, not the antecedent for it.
*I think this problem/solution is more difficult than it appears on first glance. Consider the case of euthanasia, which will be legal in Canada within the year and is already legal in some states. What should we do about doctors, who don’t have it within them to assist in someone’s suicide? I am 100% in favour of euthanasia, and yet I recognize the gut-level aversion to performing these actions – just as someone who eats beef might be fine with it but be averse with slaying the cow themselves. Ideally, laws will be written so that not all doctors will not have to perform these actions, after-all, other doctors can surely step in. But what-if the law states that all doctors must do it? Should we expect doctors, who trained extensively and did not expect this, to simply accept this as part of the new job description? The parallel with this thought-experiment and Kim Davis case can be seen and anyone who feels uneasy about providing a doctor with the ultimatum ‘euthanasia or quit’ must also recognize the uneasiness in the Davis case. (although it is unclear from the reports I’ve read, for how long Davis restricted her staff and how much of her job is about providing marriage licences – which may make Davis’ actions a bit more troublesome)