In 1971, Phillip Zimbardo launched the now infamous Stanford Prison Experiment. 24 young men were randomly divided into prisoners and guards and put in a fake prison. The prisoners were arrested at their homes by real police officers, and given cell numbers, prison uniforms, all to see what the effects were of putting people in a dehumanising environment.
The experiment was cut abruptly short when it was discovered how devastating an effect certain circumstances can have on our morality. Though the “guards” were just random participants, and they knew the prisoners were too, they played out the roles they thought were expected of them frighteningly “well”. The experimenters began to fear for the emotional and physical well being of the prisoners, and an experiment that was to last 2 weeks, was ended after just 6 days.
The experiment was one that helped reveal what is called the “banality of evil” – the idea that, given the right circumstances, most everyday people can commit, or stand by and watch, unspeakable acts of horror against humanity.
Thirty years later, Philip Zimbardo is still studying the things that change everyday people, but now he is working on what he calls the “banality of heroism“, basically the same idea as above, but with a better outcome: given the right set of circumstances, ordinary everyday people can turn into heroes.
Philip defines a hero (a term he feels is getting watered down today), as an act or quest in the good of humanity, and that involves a risk or personal sacrifice. The second part is important, without the risk of physical or social harm, they may be acting kindly, or altruistically, but not heroically.
One thing that Philip and his team have discovered in their research of what are the right circumstances to forge a hero, is that they have a code. They have a set of moral principals that guide them in their lives. In an article about heroism, Philip tells the story of Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese consul official who was working in Lithuania during World War II. Sugihara signed more than 2,000 Visas for Jewish refugees that were fleeing persecution, even though he’s superiors gave direct orders not to.
Every day he risked his job and his families welfare to help thousands who’s lives were at risk.
Sugihara had a code that he weighed his decisions against – raised in a Samurai family, he was guided by the Samrai adage “Even a hunter cannot kill a bird which flies to him for refuge” in making his decision.
Philip Zimbardo and his colleagues have found that having a moral code helps prepare people to be heroes. It gives them a code by which to guide their own actions, and also in learning and understanding that code, it helps them to mentally prepare for situations where they may find that code challenged.
How much time do we spend today on building and maintaining our moral code? Particularly in a secular education, we spend a lot of time learning and practicing rules for solving maths problems, science problems, and many other technical problems. But how much time do we spend comparatively, on moral problems, and on building our own moral code?
Based on the work of Philip Zimbardo and the work of Heroic Imagination Project, its likely it will be time well spent. Why not take some time to examine what your moral code is? What are your absolutes?