Sadism in the Service of Humanity: Selective Moral Disengagement And Mass Communicators Who Lie Their Asses Off

The University 1.0: Teaching people to deal with Reality 1.0, insofar as the elements of same have been discarvard by Harvard.

Sherman had a colleague contact several people by telephone, ostensibly to “poll” them on their opinions. The “pollster” asked them what they would do if they were ever ordered to perform a certain act that was morally or socially undesirable, and spent some time discussing the issues with them. Several weeks after the contact was made, these same people were actually asked to carry out that act. Surprisingly, two thirds refused to obey the order, a sharp contrast to Milgram’s finding that two thirds of those ordered to act against their conscience would normally obey. –from the preface to Conscience and Authority (Santa Clara University)

Truthfulness is highly prized: three-quarters of the public think that it is extremely important that MPs and ministers should tell the truth. Only the requirement that they should not take bribes is more highly prized with 85% saying this is extremely important. —SECOND NATIONAL SURVEY PUBLISHED ON PUBLIC ATTITUDES TOWARDS STANDARDS OF CONDUCT IN PUBLIC LIFE, Committee on Standards in Public Life (U.K.), 15 September 2006

Are there circumstances that justify deception? Yes. –Daphne Taras and Piers Steel (2007), “We Provoked Business Students to Unionize: Using Deception to Prove an IR (Industrial Relations) Point.” British Journal of Industrial Relations 45:1, 179–198

Mass hysteria and stupidity can make a real difference to a business’ bottom line. … –Rhymer Rigby. “Craze Management.” Management Today. London: Jun 1998. p. 58

In Brazil: “The Sex Senator Bares All!” I was noticing how frequent it is these days to hear the following memes being propagated by the sames persons — often serially, switching from one to the other, depending on the topic, and even sometimes simultaneously:

  1. “We are all prostitutes; everyone has their price”
  2. “Only the morally (and intellectually) worthy can purge the nation of its sins!”

See also

I also recently, and pompously, declared the theory of “selective moral disengagement” as the NMM meme of the year.

Developed by Stanford researchers following up on the infamous Milgram “obedience” experiment, the Bandura theory maps out ways of in which persons can induce themselves — or be induced — to suspend internalized moral restraints in order to commit inhumane acts.

I feel a big think coming on in which I try to articulate why I think maybe (gabbling) Journalism 2.0 is, ethically speaking, a form of selective moral disengagement.

(For dummies. In words of one syllable that fit on a PowerPoint slide. Therein lies the challenge. Hint: Using the William Bonner method, try to think of Simpsons episodes that illustrate the point.)

It basically has to do with arguments that amount to saying that it is permissible (we can permit ourselves) to deceive other people if we believe we are doing so for their own good — even if those people sharply disagree that we have a right to lie to them (do not permit themselves to be treated this way).

Or would not permit themselves to be treated this way.

Given the choice.

Crticism of this failure of reciprocity based on the presumption of shared humanity is not an especially novel idea.

You can think of it, in general terms, as  an empirical approach to what rhetoricians call the fallacy of special pleading:

  1. Accepting an idea or criticism when applied to an opponent’s argument but rejecting it when applied to one’s own argument.
  2. rejecting an idea or criticism when applied to an opponent’s argument but accepting it when applied to one’s own.

Milgram, for example, deceived his experimental subjects into believing they were inflicting extreme pain on a person in the other room.

This use of deception generated decades of controversy over the use of deception in behavior research, and follow- up studies on the subjects of that experiment have debated whether subjects were harmed by it, rather than merely subject to transitory “stress.”

The Harvard Crimson polled the Harvard body in charge of experimental ethics on the matter in 1968 on the controversy:

The Milgram experiment was clearly deceptive, and the subjects were hardly competent to give their informed consent. Yet, the experiment was conducted. No proposal like this has ever come up before the Standing Committee. Six of the 12 committee members were asked whether Milgram could conduct his experiment today at Harvard. Of the five who felt they could answer, four indicated they would approve it, with firm qualifications about the selection of the subjects and their post-experimental handling.

The article was written by Richard Summers — yes, the brother of the recent past president of the Tom Lehrer Memorial meme factory and Game Theory incubation aquarium up there in the land of the (massively behind schedule and overbudget) Big Dig.

The Crimson reported at the time that the issue had never arisen at Harvard.

Although no comparable proposal has ever come up, the committee’s qualified acceptance of Milgram’s procedure tells much about its values. Professor Sheldon White acknowledged that Harvard’s committee was probably “more on the side of the researcher” than the equivalent committees at Berkeley and Stanford. One committee member who was concerned about the possible harm to Milgram’s subjects felt research could be sufficiently important to outweigh this damage–she felt the world’s pressing problems require knowledge, and consequently research.

“No comparable proposals had ever come up?”


And the Leary-Alpert LSD experiments?

The FDA banned Leary from conducting this research in 1962, and he was ejected from the Harvard faculty shortly thereafter for refusing to comply.

When was the Committee on the Use of Human Subjects in Research founded, anyway?

And why?

Apparently, the fallacy of selective attention was operating in Ivy League journalism well before some Yalie scion of a Senatorial southern tobacco farmer invented “the Internets,” or the matriculation of William Henry Gates III (IV?) (though not as a legacy admission.)

As a Leary hagiographer recounts:

In March of 1962, Leary’s colleagues at Harvard confronted him during a faculty meeting, expressing their concern about the liberal manner in which he distributed psychedelics. A published account of this meeting lead to an investigation by the FDA, which determined that Leary was no longer permitted to administer psychedelics unless a medical doctor was present. By the end of that year Leary’s research projects were officially terminated. Shortly after, Leary’s colleague, Richard Alpert, was fired for giving LSD to an undergraduate. Three days later, Leary was also dismissed from the University on the grounds that he had failed to attend an honors program committee meeting.

The ensuing media frenzy produced the Summer of Love — and the sort of sweeping up after Carnaval that the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic is still quitely dealing with, as a friend of mine who has worked there recounts (needle drugs as a vector for AIDS transmission, for example — or in more stark and dramatic terms, changing diapers on dying speed freaks covered with nasty abscesses).

The media frenzy that followed sparked the growth of the psychedelic underground. (Lee & Shalin, 88) Until his death in 1996, at age 75 Leary used various forms of media to educate the masses about the drug he thought of as the liberator of humankind. He used pamphlets, books, music, television, films, lecture circuits, and the Internet. All of Leary’s post-Harvard writings, whether philosophical, scientific, or sociological were carefully geared toward the intellect and interests of the average American, written in a language that anyone could understand.

History has shown Leary to have been an unforgiveably reckless, self-indulgent wanker who left a lot of human wreckage in the wake of his personal spirit-quest for a place — as the Brando character says in Last Tango in Paris — “where he can feel comfortable and secure enough so that he can worship in front of the altar of his own prick.”

I tend to think. Pardon my value judgment there.

Whether or not drug use can cause a chronic psychotic disorder that is clinically similar to schizophrenia and related disorders is an important question. In this review, the authors attempt to determine whether there is enough evidence in the literature to support the notion that illicit drug use can cause chronic psychotic disorders. They conclude the literature strongly suggests that a number of drugs of abuse in different classes (psychostimulants, hallucinogens, marijuana, and possibly industrial inhalants) can cause or increase the susceptibility for a state of chronic psychosis. It is also likely that the abuse of combinations of these drugs is capable of inducing similar syndromes.

“Chronic substance-induced psychotic disorders: state of the literature,” NN Boutros and MB Bowers Jr, Department of Psychiatry, Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, Connecticut, USA (J Neuropsychiatry Clin Neurosci 1996; 8:262-269).

And yet the case for lowering the bar on “warranted” deception is still pressed, apparently.

Waterboarding is not torture.

We seem to live in an age of Limbo: Every day, in every way, we must lower the bar in the name of “innovation”!

From articles citing DON MIXON (1972), “Instead of Deception,” Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 2 (2), 145–178, for example, there is

Daphne Taras and Piers Steel. (2007) We Provoked Business Students to Unionize: Using Deception to Prove an IR (Industrial Relations) Point. British Journal of Industrial Relations 45:1, 179–198

Taras and Steel write:

The intentional use of deception to inflict short-term pain in the hopes of achieving lasting lessons has fallen out of favour. In our role as faculty, we rarely use deception and distress in the classroom. We have become convinced that activating genuine negative emotional displays among our students is somehow inappropriate and illogical, and we fear it is hard to manage and may derail our courses. We also worry about the potential risk of upsetting students who are particularly fragile. In addition, research ethics review boards on most campuses have so strongly cautioned us to avoid intentionally causing distress to research subjects that we censor our impulse to exploit it as a teaching device.

We should stop censoring ourselves and be free!

Let your children run wild and free, because, as the old saying goes, let your children run wild and free. –Homer Simpson

Overcoming scruples.

Despite our disinclination to deceive, there may be a case to be made for it. Should industrial relations (IR) professors add deception to our already wide variety of experiential techniques (such as case studies, role playing, field trips and simulations)? To answer, we must discuss whether techniques requiring deception and distress are appropriate and ethical. Are there circumstances that justify deception? Yes, and this is the point of our article — that sometimes the shock of being victimized by a well-planned trick is an opportunity for implanting a valuable life lesson.

And what was this life lesson whose utility arguably outweighed scruples about the use of deception in the educational process?

Cut to the next experiment, which Lisa is about to explain for us. The food is connected to a mild electrical current. The hamster tries to eat the food, but is promptly zapped. He reels back in fear. LISA: The hamster has learned a valuable lesson: beware the hand of man. — Lisa Simpson, “Is My Brother Smarter Than a Hamster?” (“Duffless,” Episode 9F14, 1993)

Has the hamster really “learned a valuable lesson”?

Or has it been coerced?

In that way we human have of coercing our dumb animals (to keep them, for example, from sharpening their claws on our brand-new kilim, for example, he says, making an abrupt, angry gesture, with growling noises, at Iggy)?

But at which we tend to balk when the “dumb animal” treatment is applied to us?

Taras and Steel:

We deliberately perpetrated a deception on a large number of business students in order to make them more sensitive to IR. Since business schools encourage individualism, many business students do not think unions have relevance. This makes labour relations one of the hardest areas of the curriculum for students to take seriously. Students often argue that the underlying causes of unionization have outlived their usefulness. Laws are now more highly developed than in the past, they say, and individual rights are protected. Also, most business students come with an ideological anti-union bias. The notion that management actions trigger reactions on the part of groups of employees is difficult to transmit. The majority of undergraduate students have not yet been bosses. Most have been employees, particularly in low-wage jobs in the service sector, and many can recall specific instances in which they were mistreated. What they have almost no first-hand knowledge of is any form of collective action or collective retaliation. While they might envision themselves acting in a corporate context, they see themselves as either senior management or as quitting a poor job and looking elsewhere. They rarely empathize with or comprehend the concept of being trapped by circumstances, being unable to move to another job without absorbing unacceptable levels of risk to themselves and their families.

I would like to see some empirical studies of business students to confirm these generalizations.


  1. most B-school students have been undergraduates, and
  2. most undergraduates have held McJobs

it does not necessarily follow that

  • most B-school students have experienced McJobs.

But it also does not necessarily follow that

  • most B-school have not experienced McJobs.

In order to take the edge off the “Lula the brilliant self-taught negotiating brain” meme, the governor of São Paulo here, for example — an eggheaded economist, and a pretty capable one, by academic reputation — tries to make political capital of the fact (which happens to be substantially and almost unambiguously true, as most effective arguments are) that he comes from relatively humble origins himself, and received his education through scholarships earned through merit.

What is the basis for assuming that B-school students have no empathy for labor, or have never experienced the perspective of a hourly or salaried employee — as Barbara Ehrenreich set out to do while writing Nickeled and Dimed?

Why not just assign that book again?

I have worked in managerial positions, for example.

I worked my way through college and grad school.

(Like a dog, I might add, until I could not take it anymore.)

For 10 minutes, we had our students experience a mild taste of what it might feel like to be an Enron or WorldCom employee, both enterprises in which people worked for many years only to lose jobs, pensions and life savings.

How are we measuring intensity, that we characterize the “taste” as “mild”?

Business students, who often are cavalier in their appreciation of the employment relationship, learn about their own responses to being betrayed, discounted and patronized. We then allowed them to band together collectively to redress the wrong that was done to them. Through their reaction to our exercise, they also understand how and why many employees make the decision to retaliate against authority, perhaps even to support a union. After leaving our class, we hoped they would understand, at a more visceral level, that their future managerial decisions may well have profound consequences for the employees they manage.

Collective bargaining is a form of “retaliation against authority”?

Is that what they teach in Canadian B-schools these days?

Listen, I have nothing against the Factory.

If it weren’t for the Factory, I would have to find some other way of surviving.

I just want my cost of living + GDP growth, or as much of that as you can get with the leverage my vote of confidence in your negotiating skills gives you.

And why could this lesson not be taught through nondeceptive game-playing again?

And what guarantees are in place to ensure that such measures will not provoke the “blowback” risk inherent in insincere appeals to pathos?

An example of a failed appeal to pathos was the attempt by someone from a pro-life group to get candidate Clinton’s attention during his first run for the presidency. Once, in a large crowd, he reached out to shake hands, and someone put a dead fetus in his hands. The attempt was to shock him into the realization that a fetus is a human being, but the result was to create a repugnance, not toward the person who had performed the abortion, but toward the person who had put the fetus in his hands. –“An introduction to pathos”

I am still reading the study in question.

Maybe it answers those questions.

But I am getting hungry, so I will break off this meandering big think in mid-thunk and pick it up again later.

The logic of this justification kind of me reminds me of the logic of push-polling, actually — which pose as information-gathering devices but are actually attempts to actively condition the beliefs of the “informant.”

It is basically a form of, as Wayne Booth might classify as (I am trying to re-read the book now) “unstable, covert, local” irony.

Lou Reed song pops into head:

How do you think it feels
When you’re speeding and lonely?
How do you think it feels
When all you can say is if only?

If only I had a little
If only I had some change
If only, if only, if only

How do you think it feels?
And when do you think it stops?

How do you think it feels?
When you’ve been up for five days
Hunting around always
cause you’re afraid of sleeping

How do you think it feels
To feel like a wolf and foxy?
How do you think it feels
To always make love by proxy, huh?

How do you think it feels?
And when do you think it stops?
When do you think it stops?


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