Ray Comfort’s Moral Dilemma
Some time ago the Youtube commentator Thunderfoot and Ray Comfort had a recorded discussion in which Ray proposed to Thunderfoot a moral dilemma that went something like (this is from my memory):
You are a a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp during WWII. You are forced to perform duties for the guards at the camp. You are ordered to use a bulldozer to bury the bodies of your fellow prisoners, some of whom, it is apparent, are still alive. The officer who commands you to do so has a gun pointed at you and he makes it clear that if you do not obey him he will kill you. Do you obey the officer or do you get killed?
Most people would say as Thunderfoot did, that they would tell Mr. Nazi officer to go fuck himself and — BLAM! I would like to believe the same of myself. That is the way most people would like to view themselves.
It’s easy to say you would do a particular thing when you don’t actually have a loaded pistol pressing against your skull. It is also easy to view things from the vantage of 20/20 hindsight. We have the advantage of examining Nazi Germany in terms of historical analysis, sociological phenomenon, and examination of collective morality. Had you been a citizen of Germany during the rise of the National Socialist Party, don’t you want to believe that you would be a voice of reason speaking out against the madness of mass conformity? You probably do. So do I.
This is another aspect in which argumentum ad Hitlerum is effective:
I am morally opposed to Nazism,
Therefor I am opposed to X.
If you are not opposed to X then you are equal to those who did not oppose the Nazi Party in Germany.
Would you really have stood up against the Nazis?
The question has come up again and again. Why?
Why did so many German people look the other way, go with the flow, or actively support the Nazi Party despite the hatred and violence that they obviously perpetrated?
The psychologist Stanley Milgram set up an experiment in 1961 that most of us are familiar with:
— The subject was offered payment for participating in an experiment about “memory and learning.”
— The subject was told to administer electric shocks to the “learner” every time he gave a wrong answer, increasing the voltage each time an incorrect response was given.
— The learner would complain and then scream begging to be let go each time an increased shock was given.
— The director of the experiment demanded that the subject continue to administer the shocks.
— The shocks were not real, the experiment was designed to test how much the subject would torture another person just in response to being told to do so.
Milgram’s investigation into obedience to authority demonstrated that people seem to have an innate predisposition to obey an authority figure. Milgram’s experiment on obedience demonstrated a very disturbing aspect of human nature. 65% of the subjects of the subjects administered as many shocks as they were told to. All of the subjects gave what would have been a harmful or lethal shock had the machine been real. Not one single participant refused to shock a person in response to merely being told to do so.
So, perhaps we don’t need to go all the way back to Germany during the second World war, but just to Boston in 1961.
If you were one of the subjects who participated in the Milgram experiment, do you think that you would have been the single one who said, “Go fuck yourself Mr. Experimenter, I will not torture a fellow human being for the sake of your research!”?
Hey, if you think that just maybe you would have been that lone maverick, the one who showed an extremely rare level of bravery and integrity, standing up for what you know to be right — you are not alone.
If truth be told I would certainly like to think of myself that way too. I bet most people feel the same way.
I think that may be an interesting experiment to do now — repeat the same experiment that Milgram did. Most adults have learned about the famous experiment in one way or another and would recognize the set-up. Find out how many people would say — “NO!” right from the get-go.
Hindsight is always 20-20.
Meanwhile, Back on the West Coast
Let’s jump over to Palo Alto, California, 1967. A high-school history teacher named Ben Ross was asked the question by his students — Why?
He was teaching them about the atrocities committed by the Nazis during WWII.
How did they let this happen? Why did they let this happen?
“I always wondered why somebody doesn’t do something about that. Then I realized I was somebody.”
— Lily Tomlin
Ben Ross decided to use the students in his history class as subjects for a sociological experiment. He created a mock organization based on a level of authoritarianism and mind control similar to that of the Nazis. It was called THE WAVE.
There was a movie made about this in 1981. Even though it is a made-for-TV movie, it is well-done. You can watch it on Youtube, the reproduction quality is not great, but I would say that it’s still worth a watch.
Almost immediately Ross started getting some answers to those tough questions. Some students joined up with his group the second they found out about it. He discovered that the social network that The Wave created gained an interest with students outside his classroom and soon started spreading throughout the entire school. The Wave became a social group and a sense of identity for some of the students. Animosity grew toward those who were openly critical of the new organization and sometimes toward students who merely didn’t have an interest in joining it and did not openly criticize it.
It became apparent that there were some students who functioned better under an authoritarian system. Some kids who performed poorly in class and had little interest in their peers changed a great deal after being part of The Wave . They became high-functioning academically and gregarious with other Wave members.
Despite the progress shown by some of the students, it became clear that Ross had to abort the experiment before it went too far. How far? Though I am a strong believer in gaining knowledge and finding out answers to questions by way of experimentation and observable reality — this is one case that I would rather remain a mystery.