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While obligations to a group can often override one’s own self-interest, particularly one’s immediate self-interest, they do not override the obligation to be a good person. Whenever there is a serious conflict between being a good person and being a loyal member of a group, one should always choose to be the good person.
(There are times that conflicts will arise because one is a member of two groups, some of whose precepts or principles on occasion may conflict. This paper is not about those situations. It is only about situations where a group requirement seriously conflicts with being a good person simply as a human being, and not because one is also a member of some other group with different practices or principles.)
It may seem both obvious and unnecessary to say that one should always be a good person or that one should always choose to be a good person when there is a serious conflict between being a good human being and being a good family member or member of some group – that is, being a loyal member of the group who follows its rules, precepts, and traditions, obeys its authorities, etc. But it is necessary to say it because members of a group will exert tremendous social, and sometimes legal, pressure for individual members to conform, and because even outsiders often hold group loyalty to be more important than “being a loose cannon”, an “unrealistic visionary” (who is an obstacle to real progress), an “opportunist”, a traitor, deserter or apostate, an ingrate who “bites the hand that feeds him”, or a loner who holds views not held by anyone else or not associated with any group. “Blood” is supposed to be “thicker than water” and one is supposed to “stand by your man”, woman, and children. American law does not make a person testify against his/her spouse. And one of the ten commandments is to honor one’s parents, which is often taken to mean, at least in part, being loyal to them.
While it should seem obvious that, when there is a serious conflict between the two, being a good person should take precedence over obligations to a group or family of which one is a member, it is almost never obvious in particular cases, because the issue is seldom described that way, and because the overwhelming amount of pressure tends to push toward following the principle of the group. An individual’s reasoning and reasons alone seldom mean as much, if anything, to the rest of society as does the supposed “authority” of the views of a group to which they belong.
And this is an important problem because one is often born into or essentially forced into joining one or many groups in modern society, and thus, many people are forced to choose in some cases between loyalty to the group or doing what is morally right. It is often not a psychologically easy choice because though general admonitions and lip service are given for one to obey one’s conscience and do what is right, the overwhelming pressure in any specific situation, from both outside and inside groups, is to conform to institutional principles and practices for reasons of the sort that will be given below, and to avoid being characterized by the names given above.
While we are all human beings, we normally tend not to recognize humanity as a group for which principles apply outside of the rules or precepts of particular (sub)groups within that group. Once in a while, usually when someone commits a particularly heinous crime in the name of some cause, people will refer to their acting outside the bounds of all human decency, but for the most part, we seem to countenance the behavior of those who are part of an organization that requires it, just because they are part of an organization, particularly an organization that generally tends to, or seems to tend to, benefit society.
And we discount the views or behaviors of those who do not reflect the principles of some group, no matter what their reasons are. (The news media will often, for example, interview and publicize the remarks of a spokesperson for a group, no matter how irrational their views might be, while not reporting the ideas of an individual who makes more sense but who may not represent an organization or large following. For another example, we often confuse morality with religion, and journalists will often seek out clergy to express what they consider to be moral expertise. The somewhat beginning exception to that is the recognition of “bioethicists” as supposed experts in certain medical issues, but even then, a given bioethicist’s view will often be contrasted with the viewpoint of a religious leader as if the two were somehow the same sort of thing, even though one is arguing on the basis of moral reasoning and the other is typically stating the tradition’s belief about the issue, regardless of how that tradition arose or what its moral justification might be. Moreover, if one is neither a certified bioethicist or a religious leader, one's views will not matter to the media, no matter how cogent they might be.)
But, to restate the central position perhaps more clearly or more significantly, and in a way, that might be considered actually objectionable because it is more specific, it is better, when the two seriously conflict, to be a good person than to be a good Democrat or Republican. It is better, when the two seriously conflict, to be a good person than to be a good Jew, a good Muslim, a good Catholic, a good Lutheran, a good Episcopalian, a good Methodist, or a good Baptist. It is better, when the two seriously conflict, to be a good person than to be a good American, a good Russian, a good citizen of any country. It is better, when the two seriously conflict, to be a good person than to be a good teammate, a good colleague, a good soldier, a good “team player” (for a team or a company), a good businessman, a good student, or a good Rotarian. It is better when the two seriously conflict to be a good person than to be even a good neighbor, a good friend, a good spouse, a good parent, or a good child, where “good” means something like being loyal or traditional. I will explain, because the explanation is important.
Arguments for being a good member of a group are:
Of course, often being a good group member and a good person will not conflict. Many groups have good ideals and practices. Many groups do not require that one give up one’s conscience or follow every precept in order to be a member in good standing. Many members of many groups do not require that other members follow all the precepts, to be considered members in good standing, even if the group leadership requires it and would not recognize miscreants as members in good standing. Many people do understand when others don’t keep all the rules, usually as long as the rules not kept are not considered by them to be central to the group’s philosophy or beliefs. Sometimes people will say that the rules have different interpretations which are all justified, so that one is not really breaking a rule.
In short, people often find ways to show their breach of a principle of a group to which they belong is either not really a breach or that it is an unimportant breach. Rarely will anyone bluntly say, and be respected for saying, a breach of some tradition or time-honored policy is both serious and yet still the right thing to do, and that the group ought to reconsider and renounce the principle. People will instead often resign membership from the group or institution, or say that those not prepared to follow the rules should leave or be thrown out. As John F. Kennedy said in a speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association before he was elected President:
But if the time should ever come--and I do not concede any conflict to be even remotely possible--when my office would require me to either violate my conscience or violate the national interest, then I would resign the office; and I hope any conscientious public servant would do the same.
I am arguing here that if one’s conscience is well-informed and reasonable, then one should not be made to have to choose between following it and doing one’s duty. It is always one’s duty to do the right thing, and that when there is a serious conflict between doing what is right and doing what group or institutional membership requires, one should do what is right and one should not be thrown out of the group, or one’s position, for doing so.
A problem, of course, arises when one’s conscience is misguided, irrational, or insensitive, but the argument then should not be that one should be punished because one is being disloyal, but because one is doing the wrong thing, and that the rule or tradition one is breaking is right for reasons other than that it is a rule or a tradition.
JFK also said in that speech:
But let me stress again that these are my views--for contrary to common newspaper usage, I am not the Catholic candidate for President. I am the Democratic Party's candidate for President who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters--and the church does not speak for me.
Whatever issue may come before me as President--on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject--I will make my decision in accordance with these views, in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates. And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise.
Notice first that he has not really framed either of these issues as choosing between Catholicism and the national interest, but as choosing between either one of these and his conscience. And notice second that when he is here implying that he may disagree with the Church’s position on issues of divorce, etc., he did not say he would renounce being a Catholic. I am saying that one should also not be forced to renounce one’s office for doing the right thing just because there might be some rule or tradition against it. When what is morally right conflicts with what is officially required, right should triumph, not formal duty. And one should make that case rather than just resign one's office.
Now the above arguments for being a good member of a group will sometimes justifiably take precedence over minor conflicts with being a good person. For example, even though there is generally a presumptive obligation to do the greatest good for the greatest number of people, we have special obligations to our family, friends, and neighbors that may, or that often, override obligations to strangers even if there are more strangers who might benefit in the same way. For example, you shouldn't automatically abandon your spouse or children at every opportunity in order to have a better time with a group of friends just because that might make more people happier. And even though we generally have a presumptive obligation to hire the most qualified people or reward the most deserving individual, if a group membership helps us achieve personal success because others in the group helped us because of their sense of group loyalty, we should normally pass that kindness on to other members of the group rather than denying them a favor in order to reward someone outside the group who is somewhat more qualified or deserving in general -- as long as the outsider is not significantly more qualified or significantly more deserving in regard to the position, and as long as no more important moral principle is being violated.
But we do not have the obligation to be loyal to seriously flawed policies and practices or to defend at all costs those who have committed seriously wrong acts, or who continue to commit them. Theft or murder is not justified or legitimately defensible because one’s parent or child did it, one’s business colleague did it, one’s fellow countrymen did it, or one’s co-religionist did it. A war is not necessarily morally justified, nor a law obligatory just because it was declared or passed in a procedurally legal way, or even because it is acceptable to a majority of one’s fellow citizens or government representatives.
By “being a good member of a group or an organization” I mean being someone who follows the (important) rules or principles of the group no matter what the circumstances, as long as those rules are in effect. There may be differences of opinion within a group about which rules are the important ones, and that may even cause formal schisms with separate groups forming, both of whom claim they are the true members of the original group. But I want to discuss instead the cases where it is pretty much understood by everyone that one cannot ignore or disobey a particular rule or principle without having to give up membership in the group or without being punished by the group (as in breaking a law and being imprisoned for it, even though one does not perhaps give up all the rights or obligations of citizenship while in prison).
By being a good person, I mean someone who honestly, sincerely, and reasonably tries to do the right thing, and who is not negligent or derelict in his or her duty to know facts that s/he ought to know, or could reasonably be expected to know, in making a decision about what is right.
And the kinds of conflicts I am talking about are those in which a person believes that what is right is contradictory to what his group says is right. There are, of course, people outside of any group who may disagree with a principle or practice of the group. There may even be people seeking converts away from another group. But that is not the kind of conflict I care about here. What I am arguing against is the view that membership in, and loyalty to, a group somehow morally demands conformity to its principles and practices. I say there is no good reason to believe that is the right moral path to take, even if it is the safe, or at least the temporarily comfortable, path to take.
The conventional view is that group loyalty is important, and that makes people often choose the group’s view over their own independent belief, or it makes what should be an easy choice a very agonizing one instead. I am arguing that conformity to a group’s believed wrong principles out of loyalty to the group and/or obedience to tradition is merely a sophisticated or complex form of peer pressure that has far more power and influence than it deserves.
I would like to examine the above reasons (for going along with the group) individually to show their flaws or limitations.
• loyalty – or obligations assumed with membership
While it is true that one takes on obligations when joining a group,
those obligations are to do only those things which are right but which
may not be obligatory for those outside the group. While, for example,
it may not be obligatory for non-PTA members to attend PTA functions, it
might be a reasonable obligation for PTA members to attend some percentage
of the meetings or to take part in bake sales or other PTA events. Obviously
the PTA can certainly not require members to rob convenience stores in
order to swell the coffers of the organization, but it should also not
require members to support school activities or fund raisers they think
are bad for students, even though profitable. E.g., a PTA member should
not be considered a bad member because she is not supportive of a principal
or a teacher in some particular case, or is opposed to allowing soft drink
machines in the school buildings on the grounds that they are unhealthful
for students, even though profitable for the PTA and even though most students
or parents might want them.
• contract -- you agreed to the rules of the group (or took an oath to
uphold or obey them) when you joined, and you knew full well to what
you were agreeing
There are two problems with this. 1) Promises,
contracts, agreements are prima facie binding, but only if they do not
cause significant or incommensurately greater harm or prevent significant
or incommensurately greater good by being kept, and that harm would be
avoided or the good achieved by breaking them. 2) One can fully
understand the meaning of a promise or agreement without realizing all
the possible ramifications of it, some of which one would never have
agreed to and that probably most people would not have agreed to, had
they been realized. Exceptions would probably have been spelled
out in the rules or the agreement in the first place. Bad,
overgeneral rules can be used for evil purposes by those who do realize
their implications, and then be held over the heads of those who would
break the rules in order to report, thwart, or undo the evil attempted
or perpetrated. Promises or oaths should not be contrued to
permit that or make it right.
• one’s own self-interest
It is often easier, of course, to go along with the group, particularly if the group has a great power in general and the ability to advance your career or provide other things you want. But if you know the group wants the wrong thing, you have to decide what “selling out” to them really gets you or costs you.
• the group has more power to accomplish goals than the individual
This one is sometimes a difficult problem because one has to weigh the wrong one is doing in a particular case with the overall good one might be able to do if one acquiesces. Part of what this essay is about, however, is that groups themselves should not make their members have to make these choices. Groups ought to allow choices of conscience in many cases, especially if members can make contributions to other aspects of the organization or group. They ought to certainly allow expressions of disagreement with policies or practices.
And the power of groups to accomplish things individuals cannot is a really difficult problem for an individual when it is a situation where one has to decide whether to row with a boat believed going in the somewhat, though not totally, wrong direction but is the only boat available. In these cases, individuals ought, I think, to be able to make the case, repeatedly if necessary, for changing direction or for allowing those who might wish to, to be set ashore somewhere to build a new boat. Or at least just to be set ashore. There should be no shame for not wanting to row in a direction one thinks is wrong. But this is often, wrongly, I believe, considered to be disloyal, unpatriotic, ungrateful, and a display of unwillingness to be a team player. It also brands one as being lazy or an unrealistic dreamer. That is not a fair assessment when the individual is truly acting out of good conscience.
• the group has the right principles, ideals, and ideas (and thus there is never any serious conflict between being a good member of the group and a good person)
That would be great if it were true and clearly true. The problem is that it is not always true, and in some cases even when it is true, it is not clearly true, and seems instead to be false or unreasonable. So the individual has to decide whether to have (blind) faith in the group or to trust his/her own judgment. Part of this problem could be overcome if groups gave the evidence and reasons for their views, instead of just restating their rules, conclusions, or traditions. That way a member could weigh his own evidence and reasons against it. And a member could see, and argue, whether the principle might need and deserve exceptions, or might see, and show, whether the principle was simply originally meant to apply to specific or different circumstances from the one at issue.
• in some cases, repaying debts based on having received benefits from others in the group -- either to reward those who helped you or to pass on to others in the group the favors one has incurred because one was a member of the group
Again, this does bestow a prima facie or generally presumptive obligation on members, but does not justify requiring the member to do something that is actually wrong. It only requires members to give first consideration to other group members when having to decide between helping them or helping outsiders who are somewhat, but not significantly, more deserving because of some other special circumstance.
• individuals cannot always see “the big picture”, and decisions about what should be done are best left to those in charge, or with the responsibility and knowledge to decide policy or the best course of action.
This might be called the “Job” principle because it is the point that God makes at the end of the “Book of Job” in the Bible that makes Job quit challenging the obvious injustice that God caused or allowed to happen to him.
This is a common argument given by leaders and authorities of all sorts and at all levels of government and business organizations, often accompanied by the comment that the issue is too complex to be able to make comprehensible, but with the assurance that “if you knew all the factors I do, you would make the same decision.”
I tend to be very skeptical about people who claim to be wise enough to make good decisions that they cannot explain to others, particularly to reasonably intelligent people, in a way that is convincing. And I tend to be particularly skeptical about such people when they do not or cannot at least answer the reasons given by someone who disagrees with their rules or who disagrees with the rightness of an act their rules require. Surely one could point out reasoning flaws against one’s views even if one is not willing or able to present and explain one’s own position fully in a way that could be understood. Just pointing to traditional practices is not sufficient because tradition is not justification and history is not destiny.
I understand there are sometimes, as in security matters, secrets that need to be kept private, but the bulk of cases are not matters of security. God, in the “Book of Job” doesn’t claim to require secrecy for His plan, but He is also apparently neither willing nor able to give Job any insight into it. And the reader has privy to why that might be so in Job’s case, since God did (or allowed) all these dastardly things to Job in order to win a bet, which hardly seems to be one of God’s more noble or divine moments.
•if members of a group could decide their own actions and rules of conduct, it would undermine trust and make almost impossible cohesive, concerted actions of the group. No one in the group could know what to expect from other members, and any activities based, or dependent, on trust and faith in what others are going to do would be almost impossible to achieve.
The requirement to do what is right when it conflicts with the principles of a group does not mean one has no obligations to a group. And because someone disagrees with one particular rule that one cannot in good conscience follow, it does not mean s/he is untrustworthy in regard to other principles of the group. Honesty and intelligent, rational judgment ought to count for more than blind loyalty in cases where there is good reason not to adhere blindly to a bad rule or practice. Unless all or many activities of the group are somehow immoral, there is no reason to distrust those members of the group concerned with a higher morality. One might, in fact, have greater reason to distrust those who act without ever thinking.
Furthermore, generally those who conscientiously object to a particular action can announce their intentions not to participate before their lack of participation becomes unfairly costly to the group. They can let the group know ahead of time they will be unavailable to help, thus either letting the group find someone who will, or letting the other members know not to begin the project in the first place because they will not have the necessary participation to complete it.
Unfortunately, sometimes, of course, one will receive morally negating information one did not have before a project began with one’s participation. In cases where the new information merely challenges one’s personal scruples, one might morally still have to meet obligations to see the project through, but if the new information shows the enterprise in which the group is embarked is actually morally wrong, and not just personally objectionable, every effort should be made to get the group to see that none of them ought to be continuing the enterprise, no matter how much time or money they have invested so far. If that effort fails, it is not wrong for the person to bail out or even to be a whistleblower. You should not continue to help, or sometimes even allow, people to (continue to) do something wrong just because you began helping them do it when you didn’t know or have reason to believe it was wrong.
In short, one should not have to do the wrong thing just because one is a member of a group, and wants to stay a member of a group that is doing the wrong thing in some particular case or in obedience to one particular flawed policy. There should be leeway for those who want to stay a member in good standing even while in good conscience needing to abstain from or challenge some particular group practice. Disagreement and non-compliance should not, in themselves, be grounds for dismissal, ostracism, or any other punishment, including being branded as disloyal or treasonous.
There are many institutions in modern life; many groups to which one belongs. And they all generally have many principles, policies, practices, rules, and traditions. It is not reasonable to expect everyone to agree with all of them just because s/he is a member of the group or has come to work for, or joined, the institution. In important situations, loyalty should not automatically take precedence over honesty or morality.