© Glendon Mellow, The Flying Trilobite

Not just because I said so


We often talk about moral development as if it’s a mysterious process by which a child, born either tabula rasa or seething with apple-infused evil, somehow becomes good. Or not.

In our rush to replace amorphous mystery with rock-solid fable, any discussion of morality will eventually run straight to the most obvious off-the-rails moment in modern history: Nazi Germany. And even though the technique is so overused that it has its own fallacy and even a Law to describe our tendency to overuse it, I think it would be even dafter to not look to Nazi Germany for moral lessons.

But why stop with the guy on top? And why do we waste time debating whether Hitler was a Christian or an atheist, as if both worldviews were not already rife enough with examples on both extremes?1 Nazi Germany consisted of millions of people, some of whom participated in the horrors, others of whom heroically opposed it. Why not look deeper than Hitler for our moral lessons?

Fortunately someone has. Everyday Germans of the Nazi period are the focus of a fascinating study discussed in the PBB seminars and in the Ethics chapter of Raising Freethinkers. For their book The Altruistic Personality, researchers Samuel and Pearl Oliner conducted over 700 interviews with survivors of Nazi-occupied Europe. Included were both “rescuers” (those who actively rescued victims of persecution) and “non-rescuers” (those who were either passive in the face of the persecution or actively involved in it). The study revealed interesting differences in the upbringing of the two groups — specifically the language and practices that parents used to teach their values.

Non-rescuers were 21 times more likely than rescuers to have been raised in families that emphasized obedience—being given rules that were to be followed without question—while rescuers were over three times more likely than non-rescuers to identify “reasoning” as an element of their moral education. “Explained,” the authors said, is the single most common word used by rescuers in describing their parents’ ways of talking about rules and ethical ideas.

Ethicist Jonathan Glover applied the same questions cross-culturally, looking at the genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda in addition to Germany, and came to similar conclusions. Dictating a set of authority-based rules turns out to be the worst thing we can do for ethical development — yet we are continuously urged to do exactly this because it feels ever-so-decisive and bold.

The alternative is not a home in which kids are free to ignore rules. All that’s required to get kids actively engaged in their own moral development is a willingness to explain the reasons behind the rules. My kids know they have the right to hear our reasoning, and yes, it’s sometimes a pain. But it’s a path that leads more reliably to ethical adults who will question both commands and commandments rather than boldly do whatever Zod says.

In short, instead of doing what feels right, I humbly suggest we try the approach that appears to, uh…work.

1Not that it isn’t a fascinating sidebar to the topic. If you’re interested, start with this excellent and thorough Wikipedia piece on the complex subject of Hitler’s beliefs. Good news: both atheists and Christians can reasonably disown him, and neither should throw him into the other’s camp.



This was written on Sunday, 25. May 2008 at 11:06 and was filed under belief and believers, morality, nonbelief and nonbelievers, Parenting, values. You can keep up with the comments to this article by using the RSS-Feed.

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  1. Another good case study is South Africa, where the “Apartheid” system of “racial” segregation and discrimination was condoned for decades by collective group-think (or rather “non-think”) amongst the majority of the white population, most of whom were brought up in conservative, overly religious households and state schools, taught to place their trust in God and country, and above all, not to question authority.

    I wonder if mass indoctrination like Apartheid and Nazism would have happened if the Internet, blogging &c. (or just a more critical / free press?) had been around?

    Comment: Theo – 25. May 2008 @ 4:51 pm

  2. A very good question indeed. Anything that relies on secrecy and/or the silencing of dissent certainly became harder once the Internet came of age. But thoughtocratic regimes always seem to stay one step ahead of whatever undercuts their advantage. (Did I just coin me a term?)

    Comment: Dale – 25. May 2008 @ 6:26 pm

  3. But sometimes don’t you REALLY wish they’d listen to you just because you said so! The problem with raising independent freethinkers is that they always want a reason! It can be very exhausting.


    Comment: Jim Lemire – 26. May 2008 @ 4:47 pm

  4. But sometimes don’t you REALLY wish they’d listen to you just because you said so!


    Comment: Dale – 26. May 2008 @ 8:24 pm

  5. “as if both worldviews were not already rife enough with examples on both extremes?”

    Point of order, evil is and has been done in the name of and by the order of theist doctrines. No evil is called upon by atheism.

    ” Christians can reasonably disown him, and neither should throw him into the other’s camp.”

    I find very little more detestable than red herrings. He IS in the christian camp weather they like him or not.

    “Non-rescuers were 21 times more likely than rescuers to have been raised in families that emphasized obedience”

    I still think that fear for one’s life (the urge to live being our single strongest drive) would be the primary reason for not helping jews. You’re treating this fear like it is some kind of disease.

    Comment: mclargehuge – 15. May 2010 @ 2:34 pm

  6. @mclarge:
    (1) I made no reference to atheism “calling upon” evil. I said both worldviews include examples of people who have acted at both moral extremes, something I assume you would not dispute.

    (2) Jump off your horse a minute. Hitler was a Catholic for most of his life, yes. By the late 30s, he had adopted in its place a kind of home-grown Teutonic/Nationalistic religious ideology that was theistic but not Christian. So it is indeed reasonable for Christians to disown him, just as it is reasonable for you to disagree with them.

    (3) Did those brought up with active moral reasoning not fear for their lives? You haven’t accounted for the strong correlation.

    Comment: Dale – 15. May 2010 @ 4:54 pm

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  9. Thanks for a great post! Thanks to you, I checked out Jonathan Glover’s book Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century. I highly recommend it; he analyzes loss of human values for each of the moral catastrophes of the twentieth century.

    In the interests of accuracy, though, I don’t think Glover duplicates the Oliners’ conclusions when looking at Bosnia and Rwanda. When talking about Germany, he mentions Theodor Adorno as well as the Oliners themselves, and unsurprisingly draws similar conclusions. The closest he gets to those conclusions elsewhere, though, is when he talks of Brian Keenan’s abduction in Lebanon.

    There Glover states, “Those who practise cruelty are often in one way or another emotionally stunted. Those who abducted and ill-treated Bran Keenan were in tehir twenties but had the immaturity of thirteen-year-olds…They were obsessed with sex. They were humourless and felt threatened by the humour of their captives. They were afraid of being by themselves, needing the distraction of endless radio and television.”
    (pp 34-35, 2001 ed.)

    I think this backs up your overall point, and I’ll read the Oliners’ work, but as I noted Glover doesn’t exactly duplicate their point about child-raising in the context of other catastrophes. Small point to a great post.

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