There’s a little John Yoo in all of us

A modern replication of the Milgram experiment has identical findings.  No surprise there.  This is why I scoff at people who express shock at human atrocities.  Their righteous indignation is based on a core delusion.  The scientific results of the Milgram and the Stanford Prison experiments speak to this. Most people who consider themselves moral and good are clearly capable of committing evil, albeit under social conditions disturbingly easy to satisfy.  

Socially pervasive, routine evil is often banal because the moral perversion is cloaked in the guise of normalcy. Non-pathological evil is never committed for its own sake, but under a convincing pretext, which usually and ironically appeals to some concept of moral goodness.  This is how people can convince themselves that the “ends justify the means”.

As long as the “end” is ranked the highest in value, the moral content of method is disregarded, with or without trepidation, so otherwise evil acts instantly become justifiable when in the service of the “greater good”.

Most people are not critical thinkers when it comes to morality or anything else. When individuals who have never given serious thought to moral dilemmas are faced with one, they’re more susceptible to rationalization.   Acknowledging the immorality of something while doing it anyway out of self-interest or some other reason is not rationalization—it’s just immorality. True rationalization occurs when otherwise immoral acts are magically transformed into moral acts when they are committed for a reason perceived by the actor as good.  We see this view represented daily by cultural influences, most notably incarnated in neo-conservatism and American exceptionalism, celebrating torture and war for “the greater good”.  There is no longer any such thing as “necessary evil”, if anything deemed necessary is automatically good.  Morality becomes an Orwellian label, applied arbitrarily to anything self-appointed moral arbiters want to accomplish.  The concepts of good and evil are drained of any meaning whatsoever.

Very few of us interpret ethics to be a matter of objective, axiomatic principles that are universally, always, true.  There is a tendency for absolutist morality to be supplanted with situational ethics as adults realize how difficult and painful it can be to strictly adhere to moral principles in the real world. However, there is a big difference between deemphasizing morality to suit one’s own purposes and corrupting its meaning for the same reasons.  One position still recognizes the validity of moral principles, even as it discounts them.   The other seeks to twist the reference of morality into a cassis belli for objectives that would be considered abhorrent under the traditional understanding.

Even very religious people, who are inclined to be absolutist in their thinking, are vulnerable to the worst kind of moral relativism.   In fact, the absolutist mind is easiest to manipulate when the source of the mind’s convictions are external rather than internal.  A moral worldview assembled through indoctrination is far less sturdy than one derived from reason and introspection. 

Many people have never reflected on exactly what lines they will not cross in various situations, in accordance with their individual conscience.   Oftentimes there is negligible conscience to refer to.  Ideologies passively absorbed through cultural programming diminish the importance of conscience.   Instead, “social proof” is the mechanism by which “good” and “bad” behavior is learned.  Notice, this does not require the employment of reason; it is the opposite of “thinking for yourself”.

When previously respected authority figures make assertions, and previously trusted social peers begin behaving a certain way, this is adequate proof of “rightness” for the conformist. Rationalizations begin at the top, promulgated by individuals and institutions with perceived moral authority, and spread like a fad through society until it is considered uncontroversial to all except a few remaining non-conformists with independently derived moral principles.  This is the “Good German” phenomenon.  The sane are labeled insane, while insanity becomes ordinary.

Occurrences of mass lunacy, and the banal acceptance of institutionalized immorality leading to atrocities are an unfortunate side-consequence of socialization, as laid bare by the two psychological experiments mentioned in the beginning.  A consistent feature of human history, injustice of enormous scale is inevitable unless the subject of morality itself is subjected to the same scrutiny as the points of view derived from it.  Without an honest broaching of why people believe what they believe, and public challenges to the most core assumptions, fallacies and double-standards underlying popularly accepted belief, the human condition cannot sustainably improve.  Bad ideas and flawed premises must be stripped naked and laid bare in full view.  Political Correctness is a ruse to avoid the blunt, honest debate which would shred obfuscation and reveal true intentions.

The Enlightenment was predicated on exactly such a challenge to antiquated and fallacious modes of thought, and humanity moved forward as a consequence of its aggressive vision for a more reasonable world.  Enlightenment principles are forever under attack from our own internal frailties and contradictions.  Nevertheless we always have a choice as to how we will interpret reality, and determine truth.  We can use logic, reason and good sense to solve our problems, or we can succumb to more indulgent methods.  But there is always a choice.


1 Response to “There’s a little John Yoo in all of us”

  1. 1 pochp December 21, 2008 at 6:29 am

    This is a very lucid and excellent essay. Bravo.

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December 2008



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