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To what extent is moral behavior situational? 
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Post To what extent is moral behavior situational?
Here's the most striking and disturbing issue that arose when I was reading the book.

Most people believe that they have a definite internal sense of right and wrong. Different people may reach different moral conclusions. There are argument about where those moral judgments come from: biology, childhood upbringing, societal beliefs, religious dogma, etc. However, there's a general consensus that most adults possess intrinsic beliefs about what actions are morally acceptable.

However, The Lucifer Effect challenges that consensus. If you put someone in an unusual situation, and they may, after a short time, do things that previously would have viewed as inconceivable. The Stanford Prison Experiment, Milgram experiment, and Abu Ghraib all demonstrate the depressing extent to which ethical practice is situational. And you're deluding yourself if you assert that you would never succumb to such situational pressures.

Any thoughts?



Tue Nov 06, 2007 11:11 pm
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A reasonable first step to assessing those issues would be to examine what you mean by "moral behavior". Is behavior situational? Yeah, of course. If we weren't able to adapt our behavior to changes in situation, we'd be very short lived creatures.

Is morality situational? Yes and no, it would seem. I think that most people would agree that whether or not a particular action is moral depends in part on how it fits into the context of the time in which it takes place. To take an example from Arendt (more on this in another post), for a country like Denmark to decline Germany's request that it deport former German citizens living in Denmark may have, of itself, little or no moral consequence. But put it in the context of the Final Solution, and we're all likely to recognize that Denmark's firm refusal to provide more fodder for the concentration camp has a decidedly moral connotation. In that sense, situation is one of the major factors in our judgment of any particular moral question.

That said, the fact of a change in context doesn't necessarily change the imperatives that drive moral judgment. By refusing to kowtow to German demands for deportation, the Danish were implicitly affirming the value of moral considerations that had not changed. In some sense, they may be said to have affirmed the permanance of a kind of morality. Most of us tend to applaud that.

In an example like that of Abu Ghraib, most people aren't willing to accept the rationale that the situation somehow changed moral standards. We may still recognize that the situation influenced behavior, and it may have contributed to the personal occlusion of a sense of morality in the broader context, but it does not, thereby, obliterate that broader context.

A good reference point for understanding the matter might be Robert Jay Lifton's work on totalism. The Stanford Experiment, Abu Ghraib, Nazi Germany and, to some extent, 1930 Europe had each resulted from the creation of a kind of vacuum that militated against perspective. That is, they made total situations out of what were actually very narrow situations. The same is done, on a much more systematic and deliberate level, in torture scenarios -- close a prisoner in a small room, deprive him of sleep everything outside that room seems abstract and surreal, focus whatever concentration his has left on stimuli you control. Obliterate, in other words, all perspective, and you can compel a person to abandon their determination in regards to just about any moral conviction. But as soon as you restore their capacity to envision the broader context their former morality begins to take root again -- often accompanied by a great deal of personal trauma and guilt.


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Tue Nov 06, 2007 11:36 pm
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You've read the entire book so I'm just not ready to comment on these experiments, but I am looking forward to learning more about them. As soon as I have studied them enough I'm going to be sharing my thoughts.

This is the first I've heard of the "Milgram experiment," but I'm wondering if it is the experiment involving a person being coerced into shocking another person by a figure of authority. I actually thought that the Stanford Prison Experiment was that one.

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And you're deluding yourself if you assert that you would never succumb to such situational pressures.
I'm not yet sold on this idea. Do you really think that you and I would behave like the guards in Abu Ghraib?


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Wed Nov 07, 2007 1:04 am
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Wikipedia has a page devoted to theMilgram experiment.

I don't think I would obey the authority figure. But it is early in the book...

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milgram_experiment


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Wed Nov 07, 2007 1:10 am
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JTA: If you put someone in an unusual situation, and they may, after a short time, do things that previously would have viewed as inconceivable. The Stanford Prison Experiment, Milgram experiment, and Abu Ghraib all demonstrate the depressing extent to which ethical practice is situational. And you're deluding yourself if you assert that you would never succumb to such situational pressures.


I don't know if this proves situationalism, but instead the necessity for courage in maintaining moral values. In other words, cowardice abandons moral imperatives...not shifting situations. Now, that doesn't mean that I am the one to provide the measure of heroic moral character: my cowardice is as pronounced as most people. But I know when the deed is wrong: when I commit it or when I witness another doing it. If choose not to act accordingly, with courage, and instead submit, with cowardice, it is not the situation that defines my moral character: but my choice.

Something happens in addiction where the addict is well aware that stealing from his parents, workplace, or neighbors is wrong...offends all of his moral values and codes of honor...is disgraceful and pitiful and outright repugnant...but continues to behave as a lout and moral monster. The addict knows it is wrong, feels terrible guilt in doing so, and continues to act thusly. I don't know if Zimbardo will address this fascinating moral issue in this book: but it points out how the addict is not abandoning moral values, but knows his deeds are immoral, and is simply powerless to stop.



Wed Nov 07, 2007 11:48 am
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Post Re: To what extent is moral behavior situational?
JulianTheApostate wrote:

Most people believe that they have a definite internal sense of right and wrong....However, The Lucifer Effect challenges that consensus. If you put someone in an unusual situation, and they may, after a short time, do things that previously would have viewed as inconceivable. The Stanford Prison Experiment, Milgram experiment, and Abu Ghraib all demonstrate the depressing extent to which ethical practice is situational. And you're deluding yourself if you assert that you would never succumb to such situational pressures.

Any thoughts?


Now I never say that moral conduct is inherent and that there is an ultimate morality. Morality is what humans make of it. It is our ideas of how to function as a society that inform our moral codes. So to me, it is no surprise that a given situation would make us act differently. I just do not think that a "system", as in a coreectional facility, or any given situation magically transforms how we are inside. These systems and situations may make us more apt to act out in a certain way, but I believe that these potential actions are within the individual already and also shows how thin the veil of our morality is.

We act morally in a social situation because that is how we have built our society. There are things we ALL do in private that we would not do in public. This is why we have people who commit some crime and then we hear the neighbors say: "He was such a good boy" and all that. We all WORK toward being moral. The easy and dangerous part is slipping back into our base natures.

So, the "boot camps, prisons, hospitals and low level jobs", as Zimbardo mentions on pg 41 are far from the CAUSE of our evil actions. As a catalyst for our evil, they are ripe with possibility though. So I think we agree here Julian, if I read you correctly.

As for whether I would 'succumb to such situational pressures'...what does that mean really? The people in the Stanford experiment, so far in my reading, have all acted differently from each other and I suspect that a closer look at these people would have shown such tendencies in their behavior. I wish Zimbardo would have gone into just what screening, testing and judging they did on these people. I do not think I would 'succumb' to being a total asshole and an abusive person without cause. I base this on the fact that in EVERY system I function in, I do not kowtow to what is expected of me all the time and I am always ready to challenge an accepted norm within said systems. But who knows. Stress and pressure do count for something I suppose.


Mr. P.


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Wed Nov 07, 2007 7:04 pm
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Chris: I'm not yet sold on this idea. Do you really think that you and I would behave like the guards in Abu Ghraib?

That question, along with the issues it raises, is the heart of this book. Later on, Zimbardo describes Chip Frederick, one of guards who played a central role in the Abu Ghraib scandal, and who called on Zimbardo as an expert witness. According to Zimbardo, Frederick was a well-balanced and respected before he went to Iraq. The situation drove Frederick to take actions we all regard as immoral.
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Mr. P: I wish Zimbardo would have gone into just what screening, testing and judging they did on these people.

You wish the book were longer? :lol:



Wed Nov 07, 2007 11:22 pm
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JulianTheApostate wrote:
Quote:
Chris: I'm not yet sold on this idea. Do you really think that you and I would behave like the guards in Abu Ghraib?

That question, along with the issues it raises, is the heart of this book. Later on, Zimbardo describes Chip Frederick, one of guards who played a central role in the Abu Ghraib scandal, and who called on Zimbardo as an expert witness. According to Zimbardo, Frederick was a well-balanced and respected before he went to Iraq. The situation drove Frederick to take actions we all regard as immoral.
Quote:
Mr. P: I wish Zimbardo would have gone into just what screening, testing and judging they did on these people.

You wish the book were longer? :lol:


I see your point. Mayhaps the website covers this? I will check it out.

Mr. P.


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Thu Nov 08, 2007 9:46 am
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Julian said:

Quote:
That question, along with the issues it raises, is the heart of this book. Later on, Zimbardo describes Chip Frederick, one of guards who played a central role in the Abu Ghraib scandal, and who called on Zimbardo as an expert witness. According to Zimbardo, Frederick was a well-balanced and respected before he went to Iraq. The situation drove Frederick to take actions we all regard as immoral.


I just finished Chapter 1 and have now watched several videos about the Stanford Prison Experiment. I really would like to believe I'm not such a follower and would be one of the few that stands up and puts an end to the evil. Obviously, from these experiments, and from the atrocities committed throughout the world and throughout history, we're learning that good people can become bad people if placed in such situations.


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Thu Nov 08, 2007 12:07 pm
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Quote:
Chris: Obviously, from these experiments, and from the atrocities committed throughout the world and throughout history, we're learning that good people can become bad people if placed in such situations.


One question that arises from this (and I agree with your point here Chris) is: are these good people still responsible for their bad behavior? Are we able to judge their deeds immoral, and then take another step and somehow hold them accountable?

This links directly to the challenge that Hannah Arendt raises in the chapter, Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship from Responsibility and Judgement:
Quote:
....For behind the unwillingness to judge lurks the suspicion that no one is a free agent, and hence the doubt that anyone is responsible or could be expected to answer for what he has done.
Arendt raises this point in discussing the many responses to her book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil of which many arguments were made dismissing any moral culpability on the part of individuals unleashing their evil during the NAZI reich. The forces of history, societal structures, dialectical movements, whatever...blame anything else, but do not hold individual free agents accountable for specific, concrete, actual deeds they commit. Perhaps blame isn't the right term. Maybe all we are left with is accountability.

But how do we hold people accountable if we deny them free agency?



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Quote:
But how do we hold people accountable if we deny them free agency?


Exactly. This is scary stuff we're discussing. If we aren't accountable for our actions and we're all simply products of our situations, environments and genes, what is then the purpose of punishment, prisons, fines, fees, etc...


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Thu Nov 08, 2007 1:30 pm
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Chris OConnor wrote:
I really would like to believe I'm not such a follower and would be one of the few that stands up and puts an end to the evil.


I think that's part of the problem with Julian's question. Most everyone would like to believe that they'd voice their moral objections, or at least refuse to participate, but the experiment shows that a disproportionate number of people likely would not. So how do you know which side of the line you fall on? I don't know that you can know in advance of the situation. We could probably conjecture as to some rough criteria for making a guess, but without some form of experiential or experimental confirmation, that criteria would be little more than a guess.


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Thu Nov 08, 2007 3:18 pm
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DH: One question that arises from this (and I agree with your point here Chris) is: are these good people still responsible for their bad behavior? Are we able to judge their deeds immoral, and then take another step and somehow hold them accountable?

Here are two perspectives for considering these issues:

1) Scientific / psychological: How much do situations determines people's beliefs and actions?

2) Moral: How can we judge people's actions? How much are they responsible for their actions.

Your answer to the first question will influence, but not determine, your answer to the second one. Personally, I'd rather focus on the first question, especially since Zimbardo's challenged my prior beliefs so much.



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I believe morality IS situational. Using murder, or the taking of another human beings life as an example:

The majority of people would agree that taking the life of another human being is wrong.

Yet we permit and accept it in war. Many people permit and accept it in the case of capital punishment and abortion.

Also okay in self-defense.

In the not-to-distant past, it was okay to take the life of slaves.

If we accept certain ways to justify murder in these cases, it doesn't seem that it would take a giant leap to be convinced of yet another reason for why it would be acceptable. (As happened in Rwanda).

One of my favorite quotes (I don't know the source) is: "There are no conditions to which a man cannot get accustomed, especially if he sees that everyone around him lives the same way."

If everyone around us is doing it, and it is an accepted practice in our society, or in our prisons, or among our ranks in war, perhaps we can convince ourselves or be convinced by others, that what we are doing IS moral.



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qwaszxter wrote:
If everyone around us is doing it, and it is an accepted practice in our society, or in our prisons, or among our ranks in war, perhaps we can convince ourselves or be convinced by others, that what we are doing IS moral.


But does the fact that we can convince ourselves that doing X is moral actually make it moral?

For instance, would you give the Abu Ghraib defendants a pass if, instead of arguing that their context convinced them that it wouldn't be immoral to torture and humiliate inmates, the argued that in that particular context it simply was moral, and no change in context could invalidate that it was, in that particular time and place, okay to do what they did?

Or would you say that there is no such thing as morality apart from the circumstances that prevail in a given time and place? And if so, then are we justified in judging other people's behavior from the assumptions of our own time and place?


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