ETHICAL THINKING.......Real People Discuss Real Issues Message Board › What makes us cruel?
|A former member||
I'm guessing one of the studies discussed in Smith's book is the famous one in which experimental subjects were told by men in white coats carrying clipboards to deliver increasingly severe electrical shocks to a person they could see through a window, who mimed feeling severe pain. Practically everyone obeyed the men in the white coats, right to the bitter end. It seems that, for most people, authority trumps compassion. I've always wondered what I would have done if I had been one of the experimental subjects. I like to think I would have refused to shock anyone, but how can I know? Most people would probably like to think the same thing. A perfect example of this kind of thinking is Ayn Rand's contention that the ambitious and bright members of society who are destined to rise to the top of the power pyramid will instinctively do what's best for everyone.
I wonder, now, how the subjects in that experiment felt about their behavior after they read about the experiment's real purpose and the results. Surely at least some of them felt ashamed. Did what they learned about themselves affect their lives? Was it moral or ethical of the experimenters to put their subjects through the experiment?
We are all flawed human beings. As we strive (and sometimes fail) to treat others with compassion, I think we also need to treat ourselves with compassion. I hope that's part of the message of Smith's book. Perhaps by avoiding the situations in which we're most likely to dehumanize others, we can be more consistently compassionate. Every time I fly, the flight attendant explains the importance, in an emergency, of putting on one's own oxygen mask before helping someone else. It's a good guide to life, I think. When I left my ex-husband, I knew my decision caused him a lot of pain. That was the only part of my decision that caused me pain. I was starving for oxygen, and I had to leave. I did that for myself, but I remain convinced it was the best thing I could have done for him, too. He still doesn't think so. But if I had stayed, the anger and resentment that was eating me up from the inside would have started chewing him up pretty soon, too, if it wasn't already (probably it was). I don't feel angry or resentful about him any more, and that's a good thing - for both of us, I hope.
Maybe if we humans could exercise enough compassion for ourselves, we would be less susceptible to the sheeplike following of authority against our better judgment? Maybe if we are too lacking in compassion for ourselves, we fall into a state in which we can't properly see how to extend it to others? I don't know. But compassion is something quite different from indulgence, and I do think we ought to treat ourselves at least as kindly and thoughtfully as we hope to treat others, if only for the practice.