Why bother trying to be ethical?
It’s February 1969, the Bronx, New York City. A ten-year-old Oldsmobile has had its number plates removed and the bonnet/hood left slightly open to make it look ‘abandoned’. An identical car is similarly ‘abandoned’ in Palo Alto, California. In the course of forty-eight hours the Bronx Oldsmobile suffers no less than twenty-three separate destructive incidents. The Palo Alto car, by comparison, has its hood closed by an elderly gentleman and three neighbours report its theft to the police when it is driven away after two weeks.
Philip Zimbardo, a social psychologist, was responsible for the ‘abandoned’ cars. They were key to a social experiment was conducting. At the end of the experiment, Zimbardo concluded that Palo Alto was inhabited by people who have a good sense of community spirit, faith in the police, and a sense of fairness and trust. All positive social attributes from which he judged Palo Alto to be an environment where ethical behaviour should thrive.
Zimbardo then conducted another social experiment in Palo Alto that would resonate throughout the world and become synonymous with the word evil.
The Stanford Prison Experiment was conducted from 14th – 20th of August 1971. It was supposed to have a longer duration, but it had to be aborted due to the extreme level of behaviour taking place within it.
After a lengthy process of advertising, assessing and screening one hundred candidates, who all volunteered to take part in a paid study of prison life, were whittled down by Zimbardo to twenty-four suitable participants. Most were Stanford University students or students in the area attending summer schools at Stanford or Berkeley, or Palo Alto residents. Zimbardo and his team wanted young men who appeared normal, healthy and psychologically average. They didn’t want usual prison ‘types’ or anyone with obvious social or psychological problems: ‘bad seeds’ were screened out. Essentially, bright, healthy and normal young men studying in a decent area of the country were chosen.
Of the twenty-four participants, twelve were assigned to be ‘guards’ by the simple act of tossing a coin to see whether each person would be a ‘guard’ or a ‘prisoner’. The reasoning being that there could be no bias as to choosing who the ‘guards’ would be by Zimbardo and his graduate students assistants. Once the list of ‘guards’ was established, they were all brought in to receive an orientation session. There wasn’t time within the budget to give any training per se, so they were only given two specific instructions: practice no violence against any of the ‘prisoners’ and allow no escapes. Zimbardo also conveyed that he wanted the mock prison to create a sense of powerless in the ‘prisoners’.
The ‘guards’ were then instructed to carry out ‘arrests’ of the other twelve participants as they went about their daily lives in Palo Alto and to make it as authentic as possible, but on a pre-agreed date when the volunteers were told to make themselves available for the experiment they had signed up to. So, with the ‘guards’ complete in their uniforms, purchased at the local Army surplus store, the ‘arrests’ took place and each ‘prisoner’ was brought to the specially converted basement at Stanford’s Psychology department, which was to function as the jail. One of the key components of the ‘guards’ uniform was the then popular police custom of wearing mirrored sunglasses, which prevents anyone from seeing their eyes. Zimbardo saw these reflective glasses as part of the process of creating what he termed de-individuation: a social psychological concept whereby the individual losses self-awareness in group situations. In this instance, the ‘guard’ becomes the role they are assigned rather than being themselves, an autonomous human individual with their own personality and behavioural characteristics.
Once the ‘arrests’ were made the jail-time proper could commence. Each ‘prisoner’ was blindfolded and stripped naked in preparation for being sprayed with a delousing powder. From that moment, the ‘guards’ spontaneously started to ridicule the ‘prisoners’. The ‘prisoner’s’ uniforms were then handed out. A smock dress with numbers on the front and back with nylon stocking caps to cover and contain long hair, as a substitute for head shaving, but equally aimed at removing individuality just as the numbers on the uniform would prove to do. No underwear was allowed and chain shackles were permanently attached to the ‘prisoner’s’ legs. At this point, the blindfolds were removed and the ‘prisoners’ paraded in front of full length mirrors so that they could see themselves: the humiliation had begun.
Rules were then read out to the ‘prisoners’ and they were told to address the guards as ‘Mr Correctional Officer’. When laughing and giggling broke out amongst the ‘prisoners’ a new rule was immediately introduced and implemented: no laughing. The rules were worked out by a ‘guard’ participant assigned the more precise role of warden on the day of orientation. There were seventeen rules dealing with silence, number not name use, obeying orders, smoking and mail privileges etc. The final rule, “failure to obey any of the above rules may result in punishment,”1 it should be noted, created a potential contravention of a specific instruction from the orientation day – practice no violence against any of the ‘prisoners’.
During the first evening the ‘guards’ on duty got the ‘prisoners’ to perform a count of their newly assigned numbers going from left to right along the line of twelve. One of the ‘prisoners’ laughed and a ‘guard’ pushed him back against the wall with his ‘billy club’ (truncheon/baton) and angrily shouted “No laughing.”2 The scene then escalated as the ‘guards’ made the ‘prisoners’ perform jumping jacks and/or press-ups if they deemed a ‘prisoner’ to count off their number incorrectly.
In the middle of night, at 2.30am, the new shift of ‘guards’ woke the ‘prisoners’ with loud shrieking whistles to perform the count, in what swiftly became a control ritual to be implemented at any time. The next day, one of the ‘guards’ started pushing the shoulders back of those ‘prisoners’ he thought were not standing straight enough. When questioned at the end of the experiment, this ‘guard’ stated that the reflective glasses made him feel safely authoritative.
In the course of the first twenty-four hours the ‘prisoners’, in little conclaves, started expressing anger to each other at how they were being treated and began to hatch plans to frustrate the ‘guards’. Clearly, resentment was brewing and simmering on their side, just as some of the ‘guards’ were finding new ways to have ‘fun’.
A flash point quickly erupted, on the second day, when one ‘prisoner’ had his bedclothes thrown onto the floor by a ‘guard’ who said that his bed was a mess. The ‘prisoner,’ screaming, lunged at the ‘guard’. The ‘guard’ pushed the ‘prisoner’ off and whilst punching him in the chest called for reinforcements due to the ‘emergency’ in Cell 2. When the other ‘guards’ arrived they roughly caught the ‘prisoner’ and threw him into a smaller cell with another reprimanded ‘prisoner’. As the result of another perceived infraction, in different cell, the ‘guards’ took the sheets and blankets from the occupants and dragged them outside through dirt and hedges to cover them in thorns and other detritus.
Slightly later, during that second day, some of the ‘prisoners’ decided to barricade themselves into their cell by turning their beds up against the door, they also called out to the other cells to do the same. To overcome this tactic, one of the ‘guards’ armed with a carbon dioxide fire extinguisher aimed and released it at the offending ‘prisoners’ so that the ‘guards’ could force their way into the barricaded cell. One of the ‘prisoners’ who refused to come out was handcuffed round his ankles, after being thrown to the ground, and then dragged by feet out into the yard. Food is then withheld from the ‘prisoners’ at lunchtime and later that day the nightshift ‘guards’ are asked to come in early to help the dayshift storm one of the cells, remove the beds, strip the ‘prisoners’ naked and threaten to withhold the evening meal as well.
By the fourth day the ‘guards’ were well into their routine of punishment. As one of them dished out the now standard slow press-ups to one of the ‘prisoners’ he even went so far as to put his foot in-between the ‘prisoner’s’ shoulder blades and stepped hard on the down cycle of the press-up. In his write-up of the experiment, Zimbardo noted he had seen drawings of the guards at Auschwitz doing exactly the same thing.
The Stanford Prison Experiment continued for another two days in similar vein with humiliation, deprivation of food and sleep, and physical punishments becoming the norm, before Zimbardo and his colleagues drew everything to a close. The final image for us to dwell upon is four well behaved prisoners taken to their ‘parole hearing’. Shackled at their feet, in a line, they had bags placed over their heads, just to complete the dehumanising process.
Zimbardo debriefed each participant thoroughly and obviously analysed intently the findings of the experiment, just as Stanley Milgram did with his electric shock experiments. Drawing most of his conclusions from a social psychology point of view, Zimbardo did also allow himself a human perspective:
“In just a few days and nights the virtual paradise that is Palo Alto, California, Stanford University became a hellhole. Healthy young men developed pathological symptoms that reflected the extreme stress, frustration, and hopelessness they were experiencing as prisoners. Their counterparts, randomly assigned to the role of guards, repeatedly crossed the line from frivolously playing that role to seriously abusing ‘their prisoners’.”3
To some, it might be obvious, but let’s lay it out. The Stanford Prison Experiment marks a post-holocaust moment in time where unthinkable acts of dehumanisation were let loose, almost within a few short hours, by people one would think were perfectly decent human beings. Zimbardo, after a long period of reflection, described the ‘system’ that he and his assistants imposed, as the trigger or catalyst that enabled ‘good’ people to perform ‘evil’ acts. While this is a perfectly valid conclusion I would like to focus upon a different aspect to what he witnessed.
One of the crucial elements in the Stanford Prison Experiment was the way that the ‘prisoners’ had their individuality, and thereby humanity, removed piece by piece to cause a complete breach of ethical behaviour. Replacing their names with numbers is an obvious example of this process of dehumanisation. However, even the wearing of mirrored sunglasses by the ‘guards’, which prevented eye contact between two individuals, is also such a breach, because if we don’t look into the other’s eyes and allow them to look into ours then one or other of us starts to be objectified and treated in a manner normally reserved for engaging with things, not humans. Withholding food and physically causing the other person violence doesn’t need explaining in conjunction with the loss of ethics. If we take them at their easily identifiable prima facie value, they are just brutal behavioural traits and not within anyone’s scope of ethics. The question to ask, then, is how did those behavioural traits come into being in the first place, when Zimbardo especially tried to screen out individuals with unethical/anti-social tendencies?
Zimbardo described the ‘system’ as that which caused ‘evil’ to surface. However, it is in the elements that make up the ‘system’ where we can see signs of what is important to ethical behaviour.
- Genuine eye contact between individuals.
- Respect for the other as a human being.
- Allowing the other person to show their individuality and be different.
Giving genuine eye conduct, respect, and not casting others in our own image, however, is not easy. But understanding such requirements is a step forward, is it not? Or, do we want to find ourselves, possibly only metaphorically, with our foot between someone else’s shoulder blades because we have lost touch with what it means to be ethical? We’re decent ‘normal’ people, right? Just like those Zimbardo recruited and selected into his little prison experiment…
In the summer of 1692, an extraordinary sequence of events led to twenty people being executed for witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts. Another four to thirteen, the records are unclear, died in prison before their execution date for the same ‘crime’.
Arthur Miller, after considerable research, wrote The Crucible as a dramatic reconstruction of these appalling events. Debate still rages as to the strict historic accuracy, but that was never his goal. His intent was to capture and deliver what he described as the “essential nature of one of the strangest and most awful chapters in human history.”4 Courtesy of his playwright’s gift for giving authentic voices to these lost individuals and those that condemned them, The Crucible, since its outset in 1953, has been regarded as a modern classic of literature. The tale of accusations fuelled by mistrust and religious dogma, but most of all the system induced need for self-preservation, is one that still haunts and shocks more than sixty years on. Written as an allegory for McCarthyism, prevalent at the time in the United States, Miller hit upon the perfect vehicle to warn his society of Senator Joe’s dangerous practice of making unfair accusations which turn into prejudiced allegations. McCarthy combined these with improper investigative techniques that led, ultimately, to ‘Kangaroo Court’ styled hearings, which in turn ruined reputations, ostracized, made unemployable, or imprisoned thousands of innocent people. Homosexuals, Hollywood celebrities and state department officials were among those targeted by the ‘Un-American Activities Committee’, as were swathes of the armed forces such as the three thousand sailors who lost their jobs with the Coast Guard at the start of the Korean War after a ‘review’ was carried out.
Miller’s play, although a social comment on contemporary politics, preserved strict artistic integrity in its subject matter and never overtly poked its head out from behind the stage curtain with a knowing wink, except once in a strangely developed narrative interlude two-thirds of the way through Act One. Almost concealed, in the middle of Reverend Hale’s introduction, Miller shows his colours and states “in America any man who is not reactionary in his views is open to the charge of alliance with the Red hell.”5 It’s little wonder that in 1956 Miller himself started to be investigated by the Un-American Activities Committee.
The plot of The Crucible hinges upon a group of girls, aged eleven to seventeen, caught dancing in the woods with Reverend Parris’ slave-girl, Tituba, whom he brought back with him from Barbados. The problem being that Tituba was seen to be waving her arms over an open fire, possibly incanting and some of the girls were naked as they danced. From the moment of their discovery a spiral of accusation, suspicion, revenge, land-grabbing and a battle between principles and self-preservation emerges. The religious powers that be, instead of calming the situation, drove the whole community into the now infamous Catch-22 situation: confess to witchcraft or be executed. In their eyes, of course, this meant being damned to an eternity in hell after, presumably, being driven from their home as a witch, or instant death. Not a great choice and one that shows the pernicious power of an accusation.
Throughout the play, Miller presents the tragic drama though the voices and actions of different characters. In particular, we see John Proctor struggle at the beginning with his inner turmoil, the adultery he committed with his ex-servant Abigail Williams, one of the girls, whom Miller deftly presents as a viciously manipulative and self-interested ringleader. Proctor’s strife continues because, having confessed his sin to his wife, Elizabeth, and wanting to deal with the matter as a personal issue between the two of them, the twist of events forces him to make his adultery public in order to save his wife who was accused of witchcraft by the spurned and vengeful Abigail. Ignorant of her husband’s testament, Elizabeth Proctor is brought into Deputy Governor Danforth’s court to corroborate John’s claim as to what motive lies behind Abigail’s accusations. The proof being that she too must publicly announce her family’s shame and state that John committed adultery with Abigail, whom he now holds nothing but contempt for. Elizabeth is unwittingly reluctant to declare the real cause of Abigail’s dismissal as their servant and is consequently led from the court to prison. As the door closes behind her, John shouts “She only thought to save my name!”6 The spiral unravels further for John, who has just seen his wife effectively imprisoned for witchcraft, because Abigail now initiates a phase of events that seals his fate as well.
Affecting sighting of a ‘spirit’ bird sent from Mary Warren, the Proctor’s new servant and whom John convinced to tell the truth in court about the girls lying, Abigail starts to communicate with the ‘spirit’ and become entranced by it. The result being that the other girls in the court join in the affected entrancing and turn upon Mary Warren who then breaks down and performs an about-face on Proctor shouting and pointing “You’re the Devil’s man!”7 Danforth, caught up in whirlwind of events, crystallises Proctor’s fate, in the only way he knows how, by asking him to confess his association with the Devil or become imprisoned.
After three months in jail, Proctor is allowed to see his wife Elizabeth, and in saying that he wants to live is resigned to accept the consequences of this coerced admission. His forced confession, of knowing the Devil, is verbally obtained as a very terse and begrudging statement: “I did.”8 However, this is not enough for Danforth because he wants Proctor to sign a statement to the same effect. Proctor unwillingly does so but then rips it up when he finds out that Danforth wants to display this statement, the spoils, upon the church door for all to see. With this gesture Proctor seals his doom, so that rather than blackening his name and those of his family he is hanged.
Miller draws the atrocity further out when he considers Proctor’s friend, the eighty-two year old Giles Corey, whose fate is tied up with that of Thomas Putnam, the wealthiest man in the village. When Corey recounts an earlier day at court when Putnam’s daughter cried out that a friend of Corey’s was a wizard, who was then duly imprisoned, the issue of land-grabbing comes to the fore. As Corey explains, if someone were to be hanged as a wizard, then his property would be forfeited, his family made homeless, and his land sold to the highest bidder, which in this case would be Putnam. Consequently, Corey accuses Putnam of putting his daughter up to crying out witchery in the court in order to swoop in and buy the land. Corey’s problem, however, is that Danforth wants proof that Putnam has manufactured such a scheme with his daughter. Corey presents verbal testimony. He acquired it from “an honest man who heard Putnam say it!”9 Without the name of this honest man, Danforth refuses to accept its validity and Corey refuses to give up the name for fear that Danforth will imprison the man, especially after Corey’s own wife was imprisoned because he stated that she reads unknown books and hides them. As Corey saw it he had made the mistake of once naming names and he wasn’t about to commit the same error. Deputy Governor Danforth then holds Corey in contempt of court and has him imprisoned.
Later on, when asked to say “aye” or “nay” to his indictment, Corey protects his family’s property by saying nothing. (One is left to assume whether the murder accusation he levied at Putnam was primary or secondary to his being associated with Proctor and his ‘knowledge’ of the Devil). By remaining mute, Corey effectively chooses not to choose (to be hanged as a wizard or confess his knowledge of the Devil). Either way he sees the danger of his land becoming forfeited and his family robbed of their livelihood. Danforth, not to be frustrated or outwitted by such a loop-hole decides to invent a third option for those who remain mute when asked to confess their knowledge of the Devil, and has Corey pressed beneath heavy stones until he says “aye” or “nay”. Corey’s only words, however, are “more weight”10 and then he expires.
By crafting his play so tightly as to highlight the power of false accusations and the danger of suspicions, Miller shone a light on one of “the most awful chapters in human history” and also provided a warning flare as regards McCarthyism. However, his own critical analysis demonstrated that there is a broader brush to be applied when viewing events politically. Miller saw that in such climates, political opposition starts to take on an ‘inhumane overlay’ which for the dominant power justifies the rejection of all normal modes of civilized discourse:
“A political policy is equated with moral right, and opposition to it with diabolical malevolence. Once such an equation is effectively made, society becomes a congerie of plots and counterplots, and the main role of government changes from that of the arbiter to that of the scourge of God.”11
The analysis applied here fits so perfectly with the events in Salem in 1692, and in the United States in the early 1950s, but doesn’t it also resonate with George W. Bush’s foreign policy after 9/11, encapsulated in his 20th September 2001 TV address? “Our ‘war on terror’ begins with Al-Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated.”12 The scourge of God, it seems is waiting, lurking, and ready to be roused at a moment’s notice, whereby the actions of the few provide excuse for Governments to mobilise their battalions of enforcers.
The problem here, however, is that when a situation starts, panic and ethical blindness take hold and spread like wildfire amid what were robust and healthy communities. At best, anxious individuals became ultra-wary of each other and at worst start finger pointing at their neighbours before their greatest fear comes home to roost and they get pointed at themselves. The grip of suspicion infects and runs rampant like a plague, especially when fuelled by those in authority. Malicious behaviour towards the guy who lives three doors down becomes justified with ‘moral right’, as Miller understood, and is in fact the polar opposite of morality. Being buoyed up with ‘right on one’s side’ is rarely, if ever, an ethical place to be, especially when concentrated in a pressure cooker environment created by Governments which seek to quash any non-believers and flex their muscles to demonstrate their power. Suspicions lead to snide comments, allegations and accusations before anyone has realised that their autonomy has been hijacked by a pernicious political plot designed ostensibly to protect, when in reality it actually manufactures fear, anxiety and hatred. This is the great evil which comes from on high and which seeks to eviscerate our delicate ethical leanings when we are least prepared. The task for each of us, of course, is to do all in our power to prevent ourselves from becoming puppets and drones for someone else’s power play that really doesn’t care about the individual level.
Consequently, when the urge comes to be suspicious of our neighbour, or the person fleeing persecution in their own country, we should resist and stay true to more ethically minded principles that uphold our humanity through small but vital acts of respect and kindness. Hopefully, then human dignity will not be pushed face down in the mud and maybe, just maybe, we might suffer better fates than John Proctor and Giles Corey when holding onto such principles.
The outcome is far from certain, but by now the risk of dismissing ethics should be clear, in that there are many and varied potential adverse effects for the individual and humanity in general if one continues blindly not bothering to familiarise oneself with what ethical behaviour is. So, let us now get acquainted by beginning the task proper…
- Zimbardo, P. The Lucifer Effect: How Good People Turn Evil, London: Rider, 2009, 45.
- Ibid., 49.
- Ibid., 444.
- Miller, A. The Crucible, Penguin Modern Classics, 2000, 11.
- Ibid., 38.
- Ibid., 100.
- Ibid., 104.
- Ibid., 121.
- Ibid., 87.
- Ibid., 118.
- Ibid., 38.
- Address to a Joint Session of Congress and the American People, The White House Archives, 2001, [viewed 9th April 2017]. Available from: https://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2001/09/20010920-8.html