Building the case against Ibrahim’s position: moral sheep
Here’s another reason why encouraging children to think critically and independently even about moral issues might be a good idea. Again, it’s from my book The War For Children’s minds.
I’ll summarize my case against the Ibrahim’s view that in any good Islamic school “Islam is a given and never challenged” shortly.
Here’s another reason why raising Enlightened citizens might be a good idea.
Humans appear to have a disastrously strong in-built tendency to defer to authority. This was demonstrated particularly vividly by the psychologist Stanley Milgram back in the Fifties. Struck by the way in which concentration camp guards in Nazi Germany attempted to excuse themselves by insisting they were “only obeying orders”, Milgram set out to show that the same could never happen in the U.S. He designed an experiment to establish what strength of electric shock an ordinary American citizen would administer to a stranger if asked to do so by a white-coated authority figure.
Subjects were recruited through a newspaper advertisement to take part in a “study of memory” for which they would receive a small payment. Each participant was paired with a stooge who pretended to be another member of the public. The participant was told that one of them would be arbitrarily selected as the “learner” and the other as the “teacher”. In fact the actor always became the “learner”. After seeing their pupil strapped into an electric chair, the “teacher” was then taken to a neighbouring room where they could speak to their pupil via an intercom. They were then asked to teach and test their partner. When the “learner” made a mistake, the participant was asked to administer an electric shock. The shocks were administered from a board of 30 lever switches that ranged from 15 volts up to 400 volts. The board was also labeled descriptively, from “slight shock” up to “Danger: severe shock”. When a shock was administered, a buzzer sounded, a needle on a voltage meter deflected and lights flashed. The shocks the subject was asked to administer were mild at first, but gradually escalated in intensity. As the voltage increased, the actor next door feigned increasing levels of discomfort and alarm. He would beg to be released. At 300 volts he would kick the wall. At the next level, marked “extreme intensity shock”, he became silent (as if dead or unconscious).
Milgram wanted to see how far up the scale Joe Public would be prepared to go if ordered to so by an “authority figure” dressed in a white coat. Just what level of shock would an average U.S. citizen be prepared to administer before they refused to continue with the experiment?
The results were extraordinary. Milgram found that sixty-five percent of his subjects went right to the end of the scale, beyond the point where the participants believed they had killed their “learner”. It appears that around sixty-five percent of ordinary American citizens will electrocute another human being to death if told to do so by a white-coated authority-figure!
True, many participants became agitated and concerned about the fate of their subject. When they expressed their concerns, the authority figure would respond by saying “Please continue”, “The experiment requires that you continue”, “It is absolutely essential that you continue” and “You have no other choice – you must go on”. But no threats were made. And yet astonishingly, despite feeling that what they were doing was very wrong, the participants found the pressure to defer to the authority-figure overwhelming. In fact, not only did the majority proceed to murder the “learner”, not one of them stopped before reaching 300 volts – the point at which when the “learner” began to kick the wall.
It turns out that the soldiers who ran Auschwitz and who said they were “only obeying orders” weren’t weird, inhuman monsters. They were just like the rest of us. And remember that the soldiers at Auschwitz had the excuse that, had they disobeyed orders, they might themselves have been punished or killed. No such threats were made to Milgram’s subjects.
Of course, most of us don’t believe we would electrocute another human being to death if instructed to do so by an authority figure. We believe that in such circumstances we would act differently. We believe we would stand up and denounce the whole procedure as monstrous. Unfortunately, there’s good evidence that we flatter ourselves. It seems that, in similar circumstances, most of us will follow the instructions of authority to the bitter end.
Glover’s and the Oliner’s research
What Milgram demonstrated, in effect, is the extent to which we’re all moral sheep. We tend naturally to lack the inner resources to identify and stand up for what is right when pitted against a malign authority. We tend to go with the flow, follow the flock, do, and even believe, what we’re told to by those we perceive to be in positions of “authority” over us.
So how do we avoid raising moral sheep? Professor Jonathan Glover, Director of the Centre for Medical Law and Ethics at King’s College, London, has conducted research into the backgrounds of both those who were most eager to join in killing in places like Nazi Germany, Rwanda and Bosnia, and also those who worked to save lives, often at great risk to themselves. As Glover explained in an interview in The Guardian,
If you look at the people who shelter Jews under the Nazis, you find a number of things about them. One is that they tended to have a different kind of upbringing from the average person, they tended to be brought up in a non-authoritarian way, bought up to have sympathy with other people and to discuss things rather than just do what they were told.
Glover adds, “I think that teaching people to think rationally and critically actually can make a difference to people’s susceptibility to false ideologies”.
Samuel and Pearl Oliner conducted an extensive and detailed study into the backgrounds of both those who went along with the Final Solution and those who rescued victims. In The Altruistic Personality: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe, they report that the most dramatic deference between the parents of those who rescued and those who did not lay in the extent to which parents placed greater emphasis on explaining, rather than on punishment and discipline.
[P]arents of rescuers depended significantly less on physical punishment and significantly more on reasoning.
[I]t is in their reliance on reasoning, explanations, suggestions of ways to remedy harm done, persuasion, and advice that the parents of rescuers differed from non-rescuers.
The Oliners add that “reasoning communicates a message of respect for and trust in children that allows them to feel a sense of personal efficacy and warmth toward others.” By contrast, the non-rescuers tended to feel “mere pawns, subject to the power of external authorities”. Incidentally, the Oliners found that while religious belief was also a factor, “religiosity was only weakly related to rescue”.
If Glover’s and the Oliners’ findings and conclusions are correct, then they mesh with Milgram’s. Given that human beings have a disastrous tendency to defer to Authority anyway, surely the last thing we should do is reinforce this tendency. If we seek to produce truly moral individuals, and not just a moral sheep, we should not, as those at the Authoritarian end of the Liberal/Authoritarian scale want, seek to strip away from individuals the responsibility to establish what is right and what is wrong. Rather, we should confront them with that responsibility. We should also equip them with the skills they will need to discharge that responsibility properly.
Of course, there can be advantages to a society within which a powerful moral Authority is at work. If a strict moral code is drilled into all individuals from a very young age, perhaps backed up with threats of divine retribution should they err, and if the questioning of moral Authority is not tolerated, then perhaps a society will emerge in which crime hardly exists and the streets are litter free. You may ask what is wrong with that.
Well, let’s hope that this Authority remains fairly benign. What is terrifying about such societies is what their members might do if so commanded. Once their confidence in their own ability to distinguish right from wrong has been eroded, individuals can be led into committing all sorts of horrors. The 20th Century has shown this to be no idle worry. Just as Milgram initially thought that what happened in Germany could never happen in the U.S., so we all have a rather complacent tendency to suppose “it could never happen here”. As I say, the evidence suggests otherwise.
Of course, even someone raised in the Liberal way recommended here may end up committing some unspeakable atrocity. Perhaps some have. The preceding argument is not that those raised within a Liberal regime – the kind of regime you find at a school like Liberalia High – will never commit such atrocities. It’s that human beings have a demonstrable and clearly dangerous tendency to behave like moral sheep, and that a Liberal approach would seem to be our best defence against this tendency. This gives us a powerful reason for favouring the Liberal approach, a reason not easily outweighed by other factors.
There’s a further, related reason for favouring a Liberal approach. No doubt the risk of atrocities will always exist, but at least those raised in a Liberal way can be reasoned with. They will feel themselves obliged to consider alternative points of view and to take seriously our criticisms. We can still reach them. The more they have been raised to defer to Authority, on the other hand, the harder it will be to get through to them. Those raised to defer blindly to an Authority might as well have cotton wool in their ears so far as our arguments and objections are concerned.