Human Morality versus Conformity Through movies, TV shows, and the news, the media portrays the human race as compassionate, altruistic, and always good. Even the heroes who are considered “bad boys” end up making the right decisions when it comes down to a final decision of selfish needs versus heroism. Disney is especially pivotal in the spreading of the belief that people are inherently good among children, who grow up with this seemingly harmless belief. One such film is Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.
In one memorable scene, Captain Jack Sparrow appears to have betrayed his fellow protagonists to the cursed pirates in order to gain wealth and power. However, he uses this as an act to surprise the villains with another double cross to give his friends a chance to gain the advantage. While it would seem that pirates like Jack Sparrow and his crew would be selfish, Disney instead shows them to forego wealth and risk danger for their friends, such as when his crew returns to rescue Sparrow from the British at the end of the film.
Despite pirates being selfish and criminal by nature, Sparrow and his pirates are actually on a noble quest to stop a great evil in the form of a cursed crew of pirates and rescue the maiden who is their captive. In the sequel, Sparrow has a chance to escape the kraken that is coming after him by sacrificing his friends and crew to secure his getaway. In this instance too, Sparrow chooses the selfless sacrifice of himself to allow the others to escape by remaining to be eaten by the monster. In the final movie of the series, Sparrow is seeking immortality by stabbing the heart of Davy Jones.
However, his friend is mortally wounded in the battle to take the heart. Rather than take the immortality he sought, Sparrow helps his friend stab the heart, giving his friend eternal life. The selfishness is all an act, and as in many films, the “bad boy” Sparrow chooses to be a hero. So films depict even pirates as good underneath their criminal, selfish exteriors. Media, especially Disney films, show human beings to be good and brave, with the bad and selfish being the minority. In real life, however, truly good and unselfish people are much more uncommon.
It is dangerous to believe otherwise, as one must understand that even people who see themselves and their cause as “good” can cause great harm to others. As many social experiments have proven, human beings would choose their own survival by being self-centered and conforming, easily forgetting morality in the process and following the group decisions rather than their own moral compasses. Following the atrocities committed in Nazi Germany, Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram designed an experiment to test a volunteer subject’s willingness to obey orders regardless of the orders’ morality.
In the experiment, a subject met an actor, who would be the “student” and victim of shocks for each incorrect answer. The subject was informed of the 450-volt maximum for the experiment. The subject was then assigned the role of “teacher”, to apply a shock that increased with each increment. As the shock strength increased, so would the “pain” and pre-recorded “screams” of the actor student. Whenever the subject questioned his orders, an authority figure would prod him with verbal commands demanding obedience of his orders to continue. The experiment was terminated if the subject refused the order four times.
None of the forty subjects questioned the experiment before the 300-volt shock and screams. Twenty-six of the forty subjects (65%) continued to shock the “victim” to the maximum setting of 450-volt. The subjects were aware of the extreme pain caused but proceeded regardless, and the experiment ended on the third consecutive 450-volt shock. Human nature is thus shown as conformist in the presence of authority and duty, and morality becomes an afterthought if it is even considered. The majority of people were shocked at this, especially the subjects.
The subjects realized the scope of their actions after being explained the experiments purpose in testing authority against morality. As the experiment shows, following orders can overrule morals, such as not hurting others, effectively showing how Nazi Germany gained so much influence over the German people and the failings of human morals. In another social experiment, Professor Solomon Asch tested the nature of human conformity in a group. The subject was told the experiment was a vision test and placed with other “subjects”, who were, in fact, actors.
The actors answered every question correctly as one, until a certain point, where they all began choosing wrongly as one. People do not envision themselves as unquestioning followers, and most do not understand why the Nazis and Communists were able to gain so much power unopposed by the people. The subject would follow the group and give at least one wrong answer to conform to the group in 75% of the cases despite the clearly incorrect response to the questions given by the group. In a control group, only 3% of people ever gave a wrong answer to the question when apart from group influences.
Therefore, this experiment proves how the individual’s desire to conform to the group outweighs common sense and the desire for independence. While the desire to conform in this case appears harmless, it can lead individuals to make decisions that go against common sense and their moral beliefs. This experiment thus shows how people do not point out things that are obviously wrong if it means going against the status quo, an important factor that allows totalitarian regimes to gain so much power, as nobody would wish to stand up to the society if it threatened their personal well-being.
To study the psychological effect of subjects becoming prisoners and guards, Stanford Professor Philip Zimbardo conducted the Stanford Prison Experiment. In this experiment, Professor Zimbardo and his subordinates chose the twenty-four of the most psychologically stable and healthy candidates from over seventy-five undergraduates. The randomly assigned prisoners were then arrested at their homes and processed with the help of local police, getting their mug shots taken, fingerprinted, and issued prison uniforms before being confined to a cell in a Stanford University basement.
Those who were assigned prison guard duty were issued guard uniforms and instructed in how to treat the “prisoners”. The “guards” were also issued the wooden police batons as authority symbols and visible threats of physical injury to prisoners, and also wore mirrored sunglasses to prevent prisoner eye contact and add to the depersonalization of the mock prison. The second day of the experiment, the “prisoners” rioted, prompting the prison “guards” to break up the riot by attacking the prisoners with fire extinguishers without the supervision of the research staff.
After thirty-six hours, “Prisoner 8612” went into a hysterical rage, and was only released after his suffering was apparent to the researchers. His release started a false rumor of a “prison break”, and the guards dismantled the prison to build in a more “secure” location. People would believe the experiment would be ended at that point, especially since the subjects involved were Stanford undergraduates under the supervision of a respectable university professor.
They do not understand that when human beings become too involved in their roles or their society, they become what they and everyone else are acting as, creating a new identity to fit in, rather than fight the system to make it right. From that point forward, things only got more out of hand. When there was no prison break, the guards punished the prisoners for the extra work of rebuilding the prison by engaging them in mandatory physical activity and counting off their prisoner numbers.
Guards also denied the prisoners their mattresses, leaving them to lie on the concrete floors, and denied the right to use or empty the sanitation bucket, causing poor sanitary conditions for the “prisoners”. As some prisoners were forced to go nude, they began planning a prison breakout. Professor Zimbardo, acting as the “Prison Superintendent” requested prisoner transfer to the local police prison, but the police officials stated they could no longer participate. The experiment was only terminated when Zimbardo’s wife objected to the appalling conditions of the “prison”.
The experiment only ran six out of the planned fourteen days, and in that time the “prisoners” had gone from rebellious to submissive as the experiment progressed with the “guards” becoming more cruel and sadistic in their punishments over time. Five of the prisoners became upset enough to quit the experiment early, and many of the participants showed signs of severe emotional disturbances. Even Professor Zimbardo became caught up in the experiment and allowed the situation to worsen.
The remaining prisoners internalized their roles as did the guards, resulting in prisoners remaining in the experiment and prison guards abusing their authority. Most people cannot comprehend how this could happen, seeing themselves as rational and fair human beings. This experiment provides a disturbing view of how much people are willing to conform to their situations and the result of such conformity in the treatment of others. Human beings do not always choose rightly, often acting in a conforming and selfish manner, rather than follow the standard conventions of social morals.
People believe that most human beings are good people who fight group conformity and self-centered behavior. The media depicts human beings in general as good and selfless, which is comforting but inaccurate. While there are many selfless good people in the world, they are the minority and there are just as many people looking out for themselves. It is important for this misconception of universal human kindness to be questioned in order for individuals to better understand their natures and become better people.
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