More and more, the things I care about seem to turn on a single question: can we human beings choose our actions, or are we in some very real sense controlled by other forces (whether our own brain chemicals or the commands of those in authority)?
The oft-cited behavorial studies of Stanley Milgram in the early 60s and Philip Zimbardo in 1971 demonstrated how ordinary, well-meaning people, placed in a tightly controlled situation in which figures of authority command their obedience, commit atrocious acts. When you and I imaginatively cast ourselves in their places, we feel sure we’d be the ones to stand up and say no. But these studies suggest that such certainty is self-deception, because almost everyone goes along. In the case of Zimbardo’s study, even the professors running the experiment were caught up; it took horrified outsiders, visiting the site, to call them back to awareness and shut down the experiment.
But what if we had read all about the experiments before being put to the test? What if we’d known the pitfalls of obedience? What if a trusted source had told us, “Watch out, under the right circumstances, any of us can do things worse than our nightmares. Stop before you get sucked in.” Would we still have behaved the same as Milgram’s and Zimbardo’s subjects?
Earlier this week, I heard an interview with filmmaker Rory Kennedy, whose HBO documentary, Ghosts of Abu Ghraib (airing February 22nd), once again raises these questions. The interviewer asked Kennedy if those charged with violations at Abu Ghraib were willing to be interviewed for the film.
“Yes,” she said, “we were able to interview well over a dozen people who were directly involved….” It was challenging to get access, she explained, but the interviewees offered honest insights. “One of the things that people come away from the film feeling, kind of awkwardly, and I have the same reaction, because I, like so many other people, had a lot of judgment about the people who were involved in the abuse and who could have done such things, is just how likable a lot of these soldiers are. There is a real sense of patriotism and fighting for our country, and then getting thrown into a situation that they were completely unprepared for and unfamiliar with, and doing things that they felt themselves unimaginable at the time, and felt that they had turned into something and somebody there they didn’t even recognize now.” She quotes one soldier as saying “That place turned me into a monster.”
My own position on the question of choice is at one extreme on the continuum: it is tremendously important to me to believe that we have the power of conscious decision-making, the power to choose how we will behave. I know that in part, my reasons are personal: others like myself, who grew up with people who unthinkingly enacted impulses that should have been considered and rejected, may put a similar premium on the power of conscious intention.
But that doesn’t mean I’m just whistling in the dark. The evidence also seems ample. I have a lifetime of my own choices to support my conviction, as well as countless examples of others choosing to pursue what they see as good and right, despite internal and external pressure to do otherwise.
I also feel supported by nearly every explicit moral and ethical code extant, both secular and religious. It’s hard to find things that the world’s great spiritual traditions hold entirely in common; notions of divinity and of the meaning of life differ greatly. But at bottom, all of them embrace a common purpose, which is to lift human life above mere existence, rendering conscious the possibility of choosing for the good, however that may be understood. By proposing a right way to live, all faiths underscore this truth: life offers options, and it is in our power to choose among them.
But pledging allegiance to an ethical code is meaningless noise unless our actions corroborate our words. Surely some of the soldiers who tortured prisoners at Abu Ghraib ordinarily think of themselves as good Christians or honest men and women or adherents of the golden rule. Doesn’t everyone? Indeed, we are everywhere treated to the spectacle of pious duplicity: a shout-out to a Supreme Being is part of almost every ritual of contrition enacted by public figures caught outraging under the influence or dipping into a pension fund to pay for gold-plated pleasures.
The scary truth is that while the possibility of exercising intentionality—whether by refusing illegitimate authority or by pursuing our own notion of the good—always exists, but it is only realized when an individual actually pauses, considers and chooses what to do next.
American Public Radio has a very interesting interview show, available in podcast or transcript, called “Speaking of Faith.” I recommend a fascinating program about business ethics with Prabhu Guptara, who makes the point that living up to ethical principles is more likely if you are known to those around you than if you are an anonymous person among many:
Well, in the little village in which I live, population 10,000, most people were born in that village, have lived in that village and will die in that village. Most people went to school with a group of people who are still their friends. Most people are still living in houses not very far away from their grandparents…. So it’s a very settled society, and this settled society means that traditional ethics are still extremely important. People know each other very well, and, as a result of knowing each other very well in a settled society, you can cheat somebody once but you won’t be able to cheat somebody twice or thrice, unlike the U.S., which is a highly mobile society where people can be individually religious, but they have no social bonds around them to keep them, you know, within moral limits. So if their individual ethics keeps them within moral limits, fine. But if the individual ethics does not keep them within moral limits, there’s nothing else to keep them within the moral limits.
This interview with Prabhu Guptara coincided with the Enron trials, which to him exemplified a troubling cultural trend:
I think the United States is very rapidly coming to a situation where you cannot naturally trust people any longer. Essentially — whatever you may say about Enron and Arthur Andersen and all the rest of it — essentially it was a result of the inability to police people at the top because people at the top were not policing themselves and there was nobody around to police them. Because traditionally, people have been policed from the inside by themselves and not by others in your society in the United States. And, as this business of people’s consciences begins to break down, people’s ability to understand and make ethical decisions breaks down…
But Enron also exemplified an important role for individual moral choice:
So individuals can make a difference, individuals do make a difference, and individuals can make a much bigger impact than they think of and they dream of if they’re willing to take their responsibility seriously.
I think of this dear lady, whom I’ve never met, whom I don’t know [he is speaking of Sherron Watkins], who exposed the whole of the Enron scandal. It was one woman. So individuals have enormous power. And we are fed consistently, somehow, by our culture the devil’s lie that we have no power and it’s only poor old me.
In the end, my question—whether humans may truly choose our actions or must be controlled by other forces—comes down to the double-edged idea of individualism, at once our cherished idea of freedom and our avatar of irresponsibility. Guptara says
The U.S. is the picture of the future, isn’t it? And if you look at Europe, Europe is being steadily Americanized. If we look at India, India is being steadily Americanized. If we look at China, China is being steadily Americanized. We are all going in the direction of greater individualism, greater fragmentation of society, greater mobility, greater individualism in a negative sense individualism, though, of course, individualism is also positive, as we discussed earlier. So throughout the world, we see this Americanization taking place. The elite throughout the world define themselves as being pro-American or anti-American, whether it’s in terms of business practice, politics, sport, Coca-Cola or whatever else. And this is why the culture clash that is taking place, the culture war that is taking place in the U.S. is so significant for the globe, not just for the U.S. It will determine the direction in which the elite throughout the world move.
I will never accept a view of the human subject that dismisses the power of intentionality as anything less than the uncanny essence of what it is to be alive and awake. Every moment offers an opportunity, and each opportunity that is exercised creates and inspires more of the same.
Whistle-blowing is at an all-time high. Times change, but the possibility of choice persists. Even if we don’t have a settled society, we may still land on the side of individual intention and responsibility by being networked enough to know the dangers before we encounter them face to face. At Abu Ghraib, the introduction of moral limits hinged on the existence of camera phones and email, and on the willingness of a few soldiers to use them in the service of truth.
The challenges to human intentionality we see everywhere are teaching us a lesson: remaining in control of our actions requires us to admit we are susceptible to internal and external counterforces, impulses and compulsions. So here’s a choice the whole world depends upon: deciding to retain that awareness, no matter what.
[…] years. If you are interested in more sources, I invite you to read this essay from 2007 entitled “Human Nature,” or this one from 2008 entitled “Not Me: From Google to Mugabe.” And to join me urging […]