Torture & Virtue

Torture, Virtue & Virtue Ethics:

We've talked about the famous Zimbardo study before, where people were divided into prisoners and prisonkeepers, and immediately became bestial. If you remember the discussion, you will still find this article to be interesting -- just skip down to "the shocking events of the SPE..." and following.

The author concludes:

People, moreover, are not all alike. The research described by Zimbardo shows a surprising level of bad behaviour in the experimental situations, but nothing like uniformly bad behaviour. First, there are active perpetrators and fearful but humane collaborators. Both of these are morally defective, but in different ways. Finally, there are whistle-blowers who do have the strength to challenge the system, and Zimbardo devotes his final chapter to the characteristics of such people. So he himself knows that the individual does matter, and he is actually very interested in asking not only how situations can be better designed but also how people can be brought up to be good actors in bad situations.
This is the whole point of virtue ethics: to create the kind of man who rises above his situation, who does what is right because it is right. Yet, as Aristotle noted, it takes "the proper upbringing" to create such a man. You must put him in the right kind of situation in order to train him to object to, and reform, the wrong kind.

This piece seems to agree, and suggests that the study is flawed in that it can't address the question ("the sort of self-report questionnaire used by psychologists before such experiments can tell us little about subtle differences in upbringing and education that contribute to [some people being virtuous]"). The study is still valuable, however, in that it shows that "normal" people are strongly predisposed to turning to viciousness in bad situations. That is not the mark of a flawed character. It is the mark of a normal character.

That creates an interesting problem. In order to be virtuous, you have to have as your goal to be a better person than is normal: you have, in other words, to have a personal commitment to being special, better, different. But the belief that you are any of those things is just the kind of belief that can give rise to the most serious sorts of abuses:
One particularly chilling example involves schoolchildren whose teacher informs them that children with blue eyes are superior to children with dark eyes. Hierarchical and vindictive behaviour ensues. The teacher then informs the children that a mistake has been made: it is actually the brown-eyed children who are superior, the blue-eyed inferior. The behavior simply reverses.
All ethical systems have to either struggle with that problem, or ignore it; they have to endorse the idea that the great are good, as Maoism did, or else try to remind the great that they are also sinners, as Catholicism does. That is one sense in which Catholicism is categorically better than Maoism.

Even when the system is better, however, there is plenty of evidence of failure. It can happen because the system becomes broken, so that priests become pardoners. It can also happen because the great refuse to accept that they are not good:
"For my vow," said the Templar, "our Grand Master hath granted me a dispensation. And for my conscience, a man that has slain three hundred Saracens, need not reckon up every little failing, like a village girl at her first confession upon Good Friday eve."
Then, of course, there is the problem of bad men: for just as the worst situation does not produce universal viciousness, so there are some men who will not turn to virtue even in the best of times and places. The world is what it is, and humanity is, and at last we can only do the best that we can.

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