Freiman's work has appeared in venues such as the Australasian
Journal of Philosophy, Philosophical Studies, Philosophy and
Phenomenological Research, The Journal of Ethics and Social
Philosophy, Politics, Philosophy, and Economics, and The
Oxford Handbook of Political Philosophy. His website is www.cfreiman.com
and he blogs at www.bleedingheartlibertarians.com
His forthcoming book is entitled Unequivocal Justice.
that one morning you discover a ring that grants you magic powers.
With this ring on your finger, you can seize the presidency,
rob Fort Knox and instantly become the most famous person on
the planet. So, would you do it?
of Plato’s Republic will find this thought experiment
familiar. For Plato, one of the central problems of ethics is
explaining why we should prioritise moral virtue over power
or money. If the price of exploiting the mythical ‘Ring
of Gyges’ – acting wrongly – isn’t worth
the material rewards, then morality is vindicated.
that Plato assumes that we stray from the moral path through
being tempted by personal gain – that’s why he tries
to show that virtue is more valuable than the gold we can get
through vice. He isn’t alone in making this assumption.
In Leviathan (1651), Thomas Hobbes worries about justifying
morality to the ‘fool’ who says that “there
is no such thing as justice” and breaks his word when
it works to his advantage. And when thinking about our reasons
to prefer virtue to vice, in his Enquiry Concerning the
Principles of Morals (1751) David Hume confronts the ‘sensible
knave,’ a person tempted to do wrong when he imagines
“that an act of iniquity or infidelity will make a considerable
addition to his fortune.”
of history’s greatest philosophers, then, agree that wrongdoing
tends to be motivated by self-interest. Alas, I’m not
one of history’s greatest philosophers. Although most
assume that an immoral person is one who is ready to defy law
and convention to get what they want, I think the inverse is
often true. Immorality is frequently motivated by a readiness
to conform to law and convention in opposition to our own values.
In these cases, it’s not that we care too little about
others; it’s that we care too much. More specifically,
we care too much about how we stack up in the eyes of others.
the wrong thing is, for most of us, pretty mundane. It’s
not usurping political power or stealing millions of dollars.
It’s nervously joining in the chorus of laughs for your
co-worker’s bigoted joke or lying about your politics
to appease your family at Thanksgiving dinner. We ‘go
along to get along’ in defiance of what we really value
or believe because we don’t want any trouble. Immanuel
Kant calls this sort of excessively deferential attitude servility.
Rather than downgrading the values and commitments of others,
servility involves downgrading your own values and commitments
relative to those of others. The servile person is thus the
mirror image of the conventional, self-interested immoralist
found in Plato, Hobbes and Hume. Instead of stepping on whomever
is in his way to get what he wants, the servile person is, in
Kant’s words, someone who “makes himself a worm”
and thus “cannot complain afterwards if people step on
thinks that your basic moral obligation is to not treat humanity
as a mere means. When you make a lying promise that you’ll
pay back a loan or threaten someone unless he hands over his
wallet, you’re treating your victim as a mere means. You’re
using him like a tool that exists only to serve your purposes,
not respecting him as a person who has value in himself.
Kant also says that you shouldn’t treat yourself as a
mere means. This part of his categorical imperative gets less
publicity than his injunction against mistreating others, but
it is no less important. Thomas Hill, a philosopher at the University
of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, notes in Autonomy and Self-Respect
(1991) that servility involves a mistaken assessment of
your moral status. Crucially, the servile person is guilty of
the same root error as the person who deceives or threatens
others – namely, denying the basic moral equality of all
persons. It’s just that the person you’re degrading
is you. But servile behaviour neglects the fact that you’re
entitled to the same respect as anyone else.
maybe you’re thinking that lying about your opinion of
Donald Trump to placate your parents so you can eat your cranberry
sauce in peace is no big deal. Fair enough. But servility can
cause much graver moral transgressions.
the most famous psychological study of the 20th century: Stanley
Milgram’s obedience experiments. Milgram discovered that
most of his subjects would deliver excruciating – and
sometimes apparently debilitating or lethal – electric
shocks to innocent victims when an experimenter told them to
do so. In The Perils of Obedience (1973), Milgram explained
that one reason why the typical subject goes along with malevolent
authority is because he “fears that he will appear arrogant,
untoward, and rude if he breaks off.”. The subjects’
commitment to politeness overwhelmed their commitment to basic
moral decency. And a lot of us are more like Milgram’s
subjects than we’d care to admit: we don’t want
to appear arrogant, untoward or rude at the dinner table, the
classroom, the business meeting. So we swallow our objections
and allow ourselves – and others – to be stepped
pernicious consequences of servility aren’t confined to
the lab, either. Indeed, Milgram’s experiment was motivated
partly by his desire to understand how so many ordinary-seeming
people could have participated in the moral horrors of the Holocaust.
More recently, the military violence at Abu Ghraib has been
explained in part by the soldiers’ socialization into
conformity. These examples and reflections on our own lives
reveal an underappreciated moral lesson. It’s not always,
or even usually, the case that we do wrong because we lack respect
for others. Often it’s because we lack respect for ourselves.