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Why be good?

Stanley Milgram, a psychologist at Yale University, conducted a study focusing on the conflict between obedience to authority and personal conscience. In the experiment, so-called “teachers,” who were actually the unknowing subjects of the experiment, were recruited by Milgram. They were asked to administer an electric shock of increasing intensity to a “learner” for each mistake he made during the experiment. The fictitious story given to these “teachers” was that the experiment was exploring effects of punishment for incorrect responses on learning behavior. The “teacher” was not aware that the “learner” in the study was actually an actor -- merely indicating discomfort as the “teacher” increased the electric shocks.

When the “teacher” asked whether increased shocks should be given he/she was verbally encouraged to continue. Sixty percent of the “teachers” obeyed orders to punish the learner to the very end of the 450-volt scale. No subject stopped before reaching 300 volts.

At times, the worried “teachers” questioned the experimenter, asking who was responsible for any harmful effects resulting from shocking the learner at such a high level. Upon receiving the answer that the experimenter assumed full responsibility, teachers seemed to accept the response and continued shocking, even though some were obviously extremely uncomfortable in doing so.

The 1960 study raised many questions about how the subjects could bring themselves to administer such heavy shocks. It has become probably the most famous social psychology experiment in history. What is often ignored, though, are those 40 percent who resisted, who chose not to punish the “learners” even after being “absolved” of responsibility. Those unknown persons doggedly chose the good.

Why? Why be good?

Sidney Callahan outlines some connections between spirituality and ethics. Good hearts and wise minds are needed in the ethical life, she says. Teacher Janelle Lazzo conducts an informal survey of her students, asking them “Why be good, when so often it’s easier to choose the alternative?” Christopher de Vinck suggests that perhaps we choose goodness because joy and stillness are the rewards at the end of a long day or a long life.

We choose good perhaps because we want to be in their number, those 40 percent.

-- Rich Heffern

National Catholic Reporter, December 13, 2002