I read a recent article in Time Business which summarizes several experiments on cheating and stealing, giving clues regarding the psychological distance between “no, I won’t” and “ahh, why not?” It’s a short article, and pretty interesting, but one thing in particular caught my attention.
The author, Dan Ariely, relays a story he heard from a student, who heard a perspective on morality from a locksmith. I will give you a very trustworthy fourth-hand account: doors have locks for protection against 98% of the population. 1% of the population would not steal from someone even if presented with the opportunity, and 1% would actively attempt to steal from you, but the remaining 98% would refrain from stealing only if they were not presented with a certain amount of temptation.
This is interesting to me, because I think most people tend to dichotomize. Folks are either judged as being “good” or “evil.” If you’re one of the “good people,” you don’t steal, you don’t make other people feel badly, you’re polite, you treat others with respect, etc. If you’re one of the “bad people,” you cut other people off in traffic, spit on the homeless, cheat on your spouse, and murder people on your spare time.
People like to think of themselves as being one of the “good people.” This is why people tend to forget about the third group: “most people.” All things being equal, you are most likely one of the “most people.”
“Most people” are good to their families, show respect to their friends, and would only take morally questionable actions if they felt forced into that situation through understandable necessity.
My rabbi often points to what I think of as the “Godfather” analogy. A mafia boss may ignore governmental law, encourage the demand and sale of contraband, and order those opposing his goals to be murdered. But he treats his own family well, goes to confession, says his penance, and gives to charity. He sees himself as “good” in his own eyes, and his own family sees him this way as well.
In other words, there is danger inherent in subjective morality.
But “most people” are guided by subjective morality, and always think of themselves as “the good guys.” Even when entire nations turn into imperialistic, genocidal war-machines, it has often been justified as being part of G-d’s plan for that nation which the populous must make manifest (or, you know… risk going against G-d’s will). Nazi Germany did it in relatively recent history (and in a horrific manner), but there are innumerable historical examples. England did it with Ireland in the 1500s. The United States did it with Mexico in the 1840s.
Determining objective morality is a tricky thing. It’s easy to say that one can follow a morality dictated by G-d or some religious scripture, rather than our own sense of right and wrong, but it’s also easy to see how flawed that can become. G-d’s will may be an objective source of morality, but people hear it with their own subjective interpretations.
To argue about how to determine the objective difference between “good people,” “evil people,” and “most people” is an extremely worthwhile endeavor, but it is not mine (at least, not right now). My point is more practical: whether or not one is morally righteous, one should never make that assumption. Even if you are a “good person,” it’s safer to think of yourself as “most people,” and that humility is essential to ever becoming a “good person” in the first place.
The concession of “I could be wrong about this” seems to be one of the hardest things for human beings to say, especially when it comes to our own decision-making. For a candidate for governmental office, such a statement would be political suicide. But by that same token, the argument “I’m right and you’re wrong” is not a convincing one–if anything, it most often serves to fortify the ridiculous partisan divide.
So what can we do, but strive for our own personal humility, and hope it becomes contagious?
There’s no way I’m wrong about this.