On Being A Good Boy


Remember that glowing feeling of security and inner warmth that came when you pleased our parents, teachers or guardians? When you had done what they wanted; when you had “been a good boy?”

Well, for some reason that didn’t do it for me, even as a very young child of 6 or 7 it was not enough to simply do what I was told and be praised for it, I needed to make sense of things for myself. I clearly must have experienced that feeling of parental validation because I can remember what it feels like, but for me the memory is accompanied by a nagging sensation of distaste, as if to simply satisfy the wants of another, especially someone who exercises power over me, is somehow craven.

A few years ago I got a dog for the first time and I was amazed and vaguely disgusted by the hierarchical behaviour the dog exhibited, exposing it’s belly to those it perceived to be above it in the pecking order and conversely trying to dominate those below. I couldn’t help but compare the dog’s behaviour with that I have witnessed while working in various private & public corporations.

The problem for me is that somewhere along the line I have naively bought into this idea that I was a rational free man, living in a free country and that as a human being and a democratic citizen I was entitled to a basic level of respect from those in authority and a reasonable degree of autonomy – not because of my place in the hierarchy, or my education, personality, family connections or even my specific talents – but simply because I was born a free man in a free country.

As an adult in a free country I am not interested in being “a good boy”, in the sense of “doing what I am told”, on the contrary I believe that we all have a personal sense of morality, a conscience if you will, and that our conscience, our convictions and moral principles supersede any administrative hierarchies, bureaucratic regulations or even civil laws.

If we see ourselves as free, rational, human beings with volition how can it be any other way? Acting morally is clearly not the same as “doing what you are told”, as surely demonstrated by our revulsion at the, “only obeying orders, ” defence of the rank & file soldiers involved in acts of genocide and torture from the Holocaust through to Bosnia and Abu Graib.

But our revulsion at the moral cowardice of this defence can only be rationally justified if we expect rational human beings to make their own moral judgements based on their own conscience. If we believe the primary duty of an individual inside an organisation is “to obey orders”, then the guards at Auschwitz or Srebrenitsa, and indeed everyone in the hierarchy involved in the events who took orders from above, are in fact innocent men and only those, or even the individual, in the highest authority can be held morally responsible.

But most of us intuitively recognise this as wrong, we understand that for a free, rational, human adult “doing as we are told” is not fundamentally morally good; on the contrary it is an abdication of our personal moral responsibility.

Indeed, it is arguable that in large measure to be free means to have moral volition; to have the right to make personal judgements about what is good and what is bad and then act on those judgements.

I am not using moral here to mean the type of authoritative moral codes laid down by religions or authoritative secular groups, I am using “moral” in the widest philosophical sense to describe those criteria we use to make judgements about whether a given proposition is good or bad. Over-arching questions of what constitutes good & bad are of course part of those criteria.

I am also not arguing here for a rampant moral relativism whereby we can make no distinction between competing sets of moral values. There need not be any contradiction between the reality of a widely shared set of moral and ethical values based on liberty, equality and justice, (indeed without these concepts how could a value-set be called moral in the first place), and then asking individuals within organisations to take responsibility for living according to those values.

If a parent tells a child to steal from a shop we can all recognise that the theft is morally wrong but that the reluctant child may not be morally responsible for the theft. If however an adult tells another adult to steal, (unless coercion is involved), we generally accept that both parties are guilty of the crime; that the adult being instructed has a duty to make their own moral decision about whether to undertake the theft.

This raises the issue of what level of coercion would be required to morally absolve someone of a crime. Clearly if someone holds a loaded gun to your head, and you have a reasonable expectation that they would be willing to shoot you, then few of us would hold you morally responsible for any actions you were instructed to undertake by the gun man.

Indeed, concentration camp guards and others have claimed that implicitly this was the threat they were under; that if they had not carried out orders they would have been shot. However, it is also possible, even probable, that they would not have been shot but been charged with insubordination and tried under the military courts, possibly resulting in imprisonment. If so then they chose to partake in the industrial slaughter of fellow human beings rather than suffering the disapproval of the administrative hierarchy and the possibility of serving time in prison. This is obviously a significant over-simplification of the moral dilemmas facing men & women who find themselves in these circumstances but it does illustrate that ultimately they were making a moral choice; that to say “I had no choice” is simply not true.

Gratefully, for most of us the moral dilemmas we face at work and elsewhere are trivial compared with the previous examples but the same principles apply; that all of us have a personal moral responsibility to examine the orders we are given by administrative hierarchies and decide if the orders can be carried without compromising our own moral values and the publicly affirmed moral values of the society we live in.

If they cannot then each of us has a moral duty to at the very least point out the moral implications of the order to the person giving it. In most cases, and in the pragmatic interests of allowing the organisation to function, that is all that can be expected. But more often than most of us would like to acknowledge orders from above can seriously contradict our moral values. What to do then? Well, depending on the circumstances there is a range of well understood options including going to someone else in the hierarchy, writing private and public letters, involving trade unions and right up to covert whistle blowing and/or public resignation. All these options, including simply pointing out the moral consequences of an action, will inevitably lead to the disapproval of at least some in the administrative hierarchy which may in turn lead to a diminution of the employees career prospects and earning power; In most corporate organisations knowing your own mind is not a very highly valued character trait.

But I think I have shown that to act against our own moral values and principles simply to boost our promotion prospects or maximise our earning potential is a profound abdication of our moral responsibilities as a free citizen in a free country. To act morally we have to think for ourselves, make our own moral judgements and then act upon those judgements. To do otherwise, to simply “be a god boy”, is to deny our own freedom, to roll on to our backs and open our legs in submission to those dominant in the hierarchy.

I Am Not A Number

Political and Philosophical Dispatches From An Individual Living In A Society

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