Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Is Obedience to Authority a Proper Measure of Morality?

"Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth."--Albert Einstein
I think Einstein's words sum up an essential problem with the religious mindset:  Excessive respect for authority.  Such excessive respect for authority undermines all respect for truth and therefore for justice.  I think his words can be re-phrased to make another point:  Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of morality.  Or, to re-use a quotation from an earlier post:
"Morality is doing what is right, no matter what you  are told.  Religion is doing what you are told, no matter what is right."
Recently I published a post that referred to an article by Stephen Pinker in the New Yorker a couple of years ago.  The article dealt with insights learned in recent studies of the parameters of inherent human morality.  The studies showed not only the presence of an inherent moral sense but consistent themes in that moral sense that transcended culture and training.

One of the themes that appear to run through man's natural moral sense and upon which many people measure morality, at least in part, is obedience to authority.  Researchers also found four other themes:  harm, fairness, community, and purity.  Pinker's article, and presumably the underlying research, laid out these themes without ordering them into any hierarchy, logical or otherwise.  I think it clear, however, that most people do arrange these themes in some order, though I suspect this is usually unconsciously done because the order often seems capricious or illogical.

One ordering principle that can be commonly observed is that of religion.  Religion usually makes the notion of obedience to authority preeminent.  The religious see it as more important that the other themes and even claim that all the others spring from it.

I think it is clear that this view is a perversion of our natural sense of morality and a perversion clearly meant to serve those in positions of authority.   (I think this is part of the reason for their pathological anal retentiveness--their fixation on obedience to authority combined with an obsession with controlling their private parts that I mentioned before--and explains why religious leaders try to keep the religious in this infantile state.)

The thought occurred to me after posting my thoughts on Pinker's article that this sort of morality is nothing but the Nuremberg defense:  "I was only following orders".  In fact, it is even worse.  Elevating obedience to authority over other natural moral considerations is to embrace the notion that the Nuremberg defense is not only a sufficient defense to any charge of immoral conduct but actually describes morally commendable behavior.  In other words, by this thinking--religious moral thinking--the Nuremberg defendants should have been given medals (religious ones, of course) and sent on their way.  Obviously such thinking turns all true morality on its head.

The situation presented at the Nuremberg trials is one of many that show that obedience to authority is not always a valid measure of morality--and certainly not the preeminent measure.  In fact, that situation shows that, sometimes, obedience to authority is precisely the opposite of what is moral in the particular situation.

All authority figures are only human and therefore fallible, including those who claim they are infallible or to speak for the morally infallible.  Relying on an authority in any circumstance can be a very risky proposition.  It was precisely such authoritarian thinking that led doctors to bleed their patients, killing many of them in the process, for more than a thousand years rather than seek to investigate the human body for themselves.

It is particularly dangerous to rely on authority in regard to moral matters because not all people possess the same moral sensibilities.  It has been clearly demonstrated that some people have little or no morality.  Such people usually happen to be the ones who seek positions of authority.  Thus making reliance on authority in moral matters even more troubling.

Furthermore, a person's moral sense of duty has been shown to vary with his or her distance from the moral quandary being presented.  The Nazis had trouble carrying out their genocidal plans because the men tasked with carrying it out found themselves unable to deal with the task morally and emotionally--in spite of a life time of being exposed to religious propaganda urging them to do such things.  Their proximity to the victims and the crimes overwhelmed their sense that obedience to authority was always moral.

One wonders how long the genocide would have continued if the Nazi leaders themselves had to carry out the executions.  Proximity to the horror and the responsibility for it would surely have gotten through to some of them on some level eventually--at least, that is what one would like to think.  Their distance from the crimes, however, allowed them to continue to give monstrous orders without personal qualms and made their moral judgments even more unreliable.

This is another of those little lessons that religious people seem to miss.  They hear the stories but can't seem to generalize the lesson contained therein.  The majority of history's great crimes and tragedies were perpetrated upon the orders of some authority figure.  Are those crimes therefore actually good things, even commendable?  Are the people who committed them moral because they obeyed authority?  Of course not. 

Of the five themes running through our natural morality that Pinker listed it is clear that in any hierarchical ordering harm must be considered paramount.  It is the need to avoid harm that motivates and underlies all the other themes.  The example of the Nuremburg trials again illustrates this:  It is the incredible harm that came from allegedly following authority that makes it clear that following authority was not the proper and thus not the preeminent measure of morality.  Harm clearly trumped it.

We value community because we are not sufficiently physically strong to be solitary animals.  We can survive only by living in groups.  In our evolution, fear of harm was probably one of the very first things we felt.  The comfort felt in the safety of a related community probably followed very soon thereafter.

We value fairness because of the fact that we need to maintain a peaceful and cohesive group in order for it to protect us and our loved ones and help us procure the necessities of life.

Likewise, we value authority because it allows our groups to act in a cohesive manner--without which ability they would not be groups but conglomerations of individuals.  In times of severe danger, cohesive unified action can make all the difference in preserving the lives of those in the group.

We value purity because of the potential for infection and disease in impure things.

Harm is, in effect, the superfactor that all the others exist to serve.  Placing one of the other factors higher than harm in that hierarchy effectively undermines the entire system.  It may have been sufficiently important at times in our history for the survival of the group to take precedence over the survival of the individual so that authority outweighed the harm to that one individual.  Times have changed, however.  Now, we represent a threat to ourselves--a threat to our very continued existence as a species.  This threat exists entirely because we insist on forming separate, hostile groups.

The desire to avoid harm, otherwise known as fear, therefore can be said to actually be the basis of all morality.  This is the source of much of the moral confusion of believers.  They can sense on some level that fear is the wellspring of moral thought but can't quite figure out what it is that they should be afraid of. 

What they should fear is the direct harm that can come form violating these instinctual moral feelings--not some imaginary agent of punishment.  The trouble is that the direct harm is often so distant and uncertain that people can't see it for what it is.  The goal then, in any moral training, should be to teach individuals to see the actual harm caused by immoral actions and to reinforce this insight with community pressure .  To the extent fear is necessary for learning this (or needs to be driven home to an individual), then fear of reciprocity and community disapproval are the appropriate forms it should take.

Substituting fear of an authority figure, especially a fantastical one who presents no real threat, stunts the moral growth of the individual and twists his morality into something that is not morality at all.  This is precisely the goal of religious moral instruction--to instill fear of an authority figure in place of any deeper understanding of the sources of morality.

There clearly exist those individuals who have little or no internal sense of morality and who must therefore be controlled by the use of fear.  Religion does not control such people; it unleashes them.  As often as not, it actually puts them in positions of authority.

To what end does religion insist on this infantile moral system?  Once again we must ask:  Cui bono?  Who benefits?  The obvious answer is that religion itself benefits by keeping people in an infantile state--under control and capable of anything:  A mob to be unleashed at the whim of religious leaders and their secular allies.

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