The Question Of Morality: How Would You Act If The Circumstances Were Different?

I have recently binge watched Amazon’s new alternate reality sci-fi series called “The Man in the High Castle”. It’s an awesome show based on an old Philip K. Dick novel of the same name.

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It is set in an alternative version of 1962, one where the Axis powers won the war and North America (and the rest of the world) is divided between Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany. The territory of the old USA is split between the Greater Nazi Reich, which controls the East Coast, and the Japanese Pacific States on the West Coast. Separating them is a small sliver of territory called the Neutral Zone.

Season 2 will be released soon and the excited fan boy that I am, I have been trying to Google any news concerning this momentous occasion.

Recently a new trailer came out for the upcoming season. It showed some snippets of action from Season 2 and ended with a quote:

Most people are different, depending if they’re hungry, safe, or scared.

This got me thinking again. It’s something I have reflected on before. It often happens that people get criticized for certain courses of action that they had undertaken under specific circumstances. However who is the other person to judge if they haven’t been in the same situation and in the same circumstances? Would another person react in the same way or differently?

This is a question that goes at the heart of morality. Is a good man based on character or is a good man based on circumstances?

Many of us would like to think that we would always uphold the moral high ground under any circumstances. But would we?

In 1971, Philip Zimbardo, a psychology professor at Stanford University, conducted an experiment that tried to get an answer to this question.

Zimbardo took a group of 24 male students all coming from very similar backgrounds and arbitrarily divided them into two groups: guards and prisoners.

The students who played the prisoners were locked up in a jail, while the students who played the guards watched over them. The guards had the power to enforce discipline and had wooden batons to show their status over the prisoners.

Very quickly into the experiment, some of the prisoners barricaded themselves in their cell in order to protest their status. The guards tried various ways to subdue them. Over time the treatment that the guards gave out to the prisoners became harsher and harsher.

The two groups seemed to internalize their roles, with the prisoners even talking about “parole” instead of “ending” the experiment. They became guards and prisoners, instead of students playing guards and prisoners for an experiment.

Things were getting out of control and Zimbardo had to end the experiment early. Even he, in his role as the superintendent of the “prison” got a little carried away.

There is a big discussion in psychology on whether a certain situation will cause a person to act in a certain way or if it depends on the internal character of the person. For Zimbardo, the behavior of the people in this experiment was based on the situation and not on the internal characteristics of the participants.

Actually the year 1962 that the show takes place in is very interesting, because in our own universe, a year before that in 1961, another very disturbing experiment was conducted by Stanley Milgram.

After WW2, many people started asking themselves questions on how something so horrendous as the Nazi regime and the extermination of entire peoples could take place. What about the ordinary people in Germany? Stanley Milgram designed an experiment to show how this could happen.

The basic set-up was simple. There were always three people involved: the person running the experiment and giving the commands, the volunteer administering the shocks, and the person on the other side supposedly receiving the shocks.

The volunteer would play the role of the teacher and the guy on the other side that of the learner. The teacher would ask the learner questions over the phone. If the learner got the answer wrong, then the teacher would administer an electric shock to them. The intensity of the shocks would increase after each wrong answer.

The learner would of course start getting the answers wrong and the teacher would send them a stronger and stronger shocks (in reality, the guy on the other side would just be chilling and pretending).

At various points in time, most of the teachers started feeling remorse and wanted to stop the experiments. That’s when the person running the experiment would come in and give them a series of commands like “please continue” or “it is absolutely essential that you continue“.

If they refused to continue after 4 commands, the experiment would end (this the participants did not know).

The final result was that 65% of the people continued until the very last shock of 450 volts was administered. Almost all of them paused at certain points and wanted to quit, but the commands made them continue.

These people were all normal people off the street, but the circumstances and authority made them do things they otherwise wouldn’t have done.

There are some quite disturbing scenes from “The Man in the High Castle”. They are disturbing that they seem like normal scenes, even banal scenes.

There is one particular scene which has etched into my memory. It is a day of celebration. Deep in the midst of American suburbia, a daughter is preparing with her father for the celebration. They are putting up decorations and playing around, seemingly a normal, happy family preparing for a special day.

The only thing that gives away the scene is the little Nazi swastikas painted on one of the decorations that the daughter is playing with. Then John Smith (the American Nazi commander) comes out of his door, dressed in normal clothing and gives a seemingly normal congratulatory speech.

He ends it with: “Sieg Heil!

This is a powerful statement. The scene makes you look inside and wonder how you would behave if you lived in such a society.

The lesson of the show is that circumstances often force the way you act. The characters in the show react differently based on circumstances. For example Frank Frink, at the beginning of the show is just a simple factory worker who goes about his job.

Circumstances force him to go deeper and deeper into the rebellion. Had these circumstances not happened, he would have continued on living his normal life under the Japanese regime, going to work and playing along.

During the course of the series, we discover that the step-father of Juliana Crain actually works as an agent in the phone-tapping section of the Japanese Intelligence Services. It is insinuated that he had no other choice, but to take the job. He had a family and mouths to feed, including a daughter that wasn’t even his. He needed to put his integrity to the backside, because the survival of his family was much more important.

The trailer that I alluded to in the beginning also has a part where it shows the main characters on a split screen. On one side of the screen, they are shown as they are in the Axis reality, and on the other side of the screen, they are shown as they are in our reality (since the show works with the premise of a multiverse and different dimensions).

A person like John Smith, who is a high-ranking military commander in the Nazi reality, might be a low-paid worker in our reality.

Another show I am a big fan of, is “The Walking Dead”. It follows a group of survivors as they try to survive from one day to the next in this new, zombie-infested world.

The main characters were all normal people, living normal, boring lives in the real world. However as the world around them changed, they needed to change as well. Oftentimes, this was a matter of life and death.

At the beginning Rick, the former policeman and main character of the show, tries to keep the moral high-ground. However, as the show continues, Rick starts doing some pretty despicable things in order to save his family and friends.

Circumstances warrant it. Everyone has their point of no return. It is probably highly correlated with the Maslow hierarchy of needs. You might keep your integrity at the top of the pyramid, however if your very survival or that of your loved ones is at stake, you will behave differently.

It’s no different in the real world. Another great show (another benefit is that I am practicing my Spanish) I have been watching is “Pablo Escobar: el Patron del Mal”, a Colombian show about Pablo Escobar, the drug-lord.

It’s a very powerful series and a statement on society. In a society plagued with corruption and the threat of death, many people tried to keep their integrity intact.

If Pablo Escobar threatened them with death (in his policy of “plata o plomo” – “silver or lead“), they would resist him. Then he would threaten their families. Under such pressure, many would succumb.

How would you react? Oftentimes you don’t know, unless you are faced with that situation.

However, the different experiments also contained an important caveat. Some people in the experiments behaved worse than others.

In the prison experiment, a third of the guards displayed genuinely sadistic tendencies. This means that the other two-thirds were not as bad.

What wasn’t done before the experiment, was to test them on their traits. Later testing showed that the people who responded to the advertising to take part in the experiment showed higher tendencies for traits such as social dominance or authoritarianism. It is also known that a minor percentage of the people in any society show tendencies for sociopathy or even psychopathy.

So personality does matter to an extent. People with more altruistic tendencies and higher moral integrity will hold out the longest and end up doing less harmful things. However even they have a limit and can be faced with situations where they will be forced to step over the threshold.

So the final conclusion is: personality can sway how far you will go in most circumstances (those with more authoritarian personalities will probably go further), but even those with milder personalities can be swayed to do things if their primary needs are not being met.

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