Closed Moral Worlds

morality, social psychology

Why did I come to be interested in what I call “Closed Moral Worlds”?

I.     My discomfort about the most famous social psychology experiment conducted during the last century: Stanley Milgram’s electric shock experiment.

— The Milgram experiment:

——claimed to study obedience-to-authority.

——Milgram had groups of individuals believing they were taking part in a learning experiment – where individuals who made mistakes were punished by receiving an electric shock.

——Actually, this was make-believe – there were no electric shocks. But the subjects of the research did not know this. They believed they were actually punishing innocent people by giving them electric shocks. They were told, by doing so, they were making a real contribution to science. And they believed it. And followed the instruction to inflict electric shocks to    learners who made mistakes.

II.     I admire the ingenuity of that experiment. But disagree with Milgram’s own interpretation of what he discovered:

— That it was only about obedience-to-authority.

—–What actually happened is that Milgram – unwittingly, but actually – created a distinct “morality” in the confines of the experiment where the participants found themselves.

——–The “morality” Milgram created in the experiment:

———–Had very real incentives and rewards for the behavior demanded of the participants.

———–Participants were led to believe they were making important  contributions to science, and doing so by temporarily being part of a famous university (Yale).

———-Deliberate exclusion of participants’ “outside” morality — which would be appalled by hurting innocent persons.

III.  I looked at other Closed Moral Worlds —   not merely the one in an artificially contrived laboratory experiment, as Milgram had done – but in real life situations. Here is one:

—-“Ordinary Men” (the  title of a study by the historian Christopher Browning ) of older men, who were not crazed Nazis or zealots of any sort, but who, during the Holocaust, became active exterminators of thousands of innocent people in Poland.

——–There, too, a Closed Moral World came into existence

——– with its own set of incentives and rewards that produced a “morality” of its own. (I describe this much more fully in the book “Our quest for effective living: How we cope in Social Space /A window to a new science”).


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