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Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Theory #40: Integrity and Obedience

I've reluctantly come to the conclusion that the two are mutually exclusive. Oh, they can look a lot alike from the outside, but they work much differently.

I decided to write down my theory this morning after Carl was complaining about the military's new computerized system that allows individuals to submit their own travel orders and reimbursements. While it does eliminate the painful time-lag between spending the dough on a temporary duty assignment and receiving the check, it also cuts way down on oversight, and it was only by chance he discovered two NCOs' overinflated travel claims (basically treating themselves to vacations on the government's dime, and giving themselves a nice little bonus by claiming expenses they likely didn't incur but which are hard to prove). The rant concluded with a listing of all the claims he could have made on a recent trip to Kosovo, instead of just the cost of traveling to and from the airport.

And being in a contemplative mood this morning, I started wondering. Integrity is the difference, but what caused that difference? Why do some people have it and some not?

Of course, people being people, there are probably a zillion reasons, all overlapping and contradicting, but what I came up with was obedience.

Back in college, I took a developmental psych class, and something I remember quite clearly was learning about the development of the conscience. Somewhere around the age of 6 or so, a child internalizes those things that make his parents happy or that result in punishment and that becomes his conscience.

All too often, I think, that conscience isn't allowed to mature, when children are taught unquestioning obedience, whether to parents, teachers, or other authority figures. They're taught that their own senses of right and wrong aren't to be trusted, and that "right" ends up being whatever they can get away with at the time. Sometimes this ends up looking like a conscience, in someone who's fearful that they'll be caught in wrongdoing, but it's not quite the same thing. It's external rather than internal, and leads to problems when facing a situation that hasn't been covered by some authority figure's guidelines.

Then when they grow up, it's their boss, or religion, or the government, or police, or the media, or even their peers they look to for guidance. Somebody else must know better than they do, and if nobody tells them not to do something, then it must be okay. They're still in the toddler-mindset: if I do this, will I be punished? Punishment taking myriad forms, from arrest to disapproval.

Some time ago, I had a conversation with a devoutly religious person, and she expressed a concern that atheists had no checks on their behavior--that without the threat of hellfire, there was nothing to keep them from the most heinous crimes. She frightened me. That told me that if she ever lost her faith, we were all in trouble, since the threat of hell was the only thing keeping her from mass murder. Well, she'd probably still be concerned about secular laws, but still. Almost certainly, she hadn't thought it through very well, but it illustrates my point that she seemed genuinely baffled that someone would choose to do what's "right" without that threat hanging over them.

I don't know what precise steps to take to ensure the development of a conscience. I do know that it's part and parcel of teaching children to think for themselves. Children can't learn to make good decisions as adults if as children, the only decisions they're allowed are doing what they're told or being punished. That leads to skewed motivations and finding the thrill in getting away with something they'd be punished for if they were caught. Reinforce that often enough, and you end up with an adult that gets reimbursed $3800 for a $2000 trip, or one who gets the government to pay for her boyfriend's vacation.

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There's some added relevance with a couple of religious groups whipping up anti-Golden Compass fervor over here based on a perceived anti-Church tone. If you've read them, I believe the real point is in learning to take responsibility for your actions -- exactly the message we should be imparting.
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