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Moral Dunning-Kruger

I suppose you are familiar with the news stories such as "92% of Americans belive they have above-average IQ". The phenomenon stems from a cognitive bias known as Dunning-Kruger effect which leads people to not recognize their ineptitude and perceive themselves as superior to their peers.

Also, you may have wondered how would you act if you lived in Germany under Hitler, in USSR under Stalin or in North Korea under Kim Jong-un. In a private corner of your mind you've probably imagined yourself standing bravely against the oppression, even in the face of personal harm, or, at least, you haven't imagined yourself actively collaborating with the regime.

Well, if the history has anything to teach us it's that 90% of us would keep our heads down. We would try to fly under the radar. We would attempt to look as inconspicuous and harmless as possible so as not to put ourselves and our children in danger. The remaining 10% would simply collaborate with the oppresors. And that's it. Other options are so rare that they are not worth mentioning.

Of course, I am pulling the numbers out of a hat here. It would be nice to have actual statistics but there are obvious methodological obstacles to doing politological field research in oppresve countries. Still, the archives from Nazi or Communist era may have been preserved at some places and one could, in theory, make a rough estimate. That being said, I fear that I am erring on the generous side here. The percentage of collaborating individuals was probably much higher than 10%.

"Yes," you say to yourself "People are shit. As exemplified by the recent US elections. Luckily though, I am not a coal miner from West Virginia. I am a programmer. None of my friends has voted for Trump." (Replace Trump by Brexit, Nazis in the parliament or whatever your local shit is.)

Well, yes, we are likely to console ourselves in the belief that we belong to some rare minority group that's morally superior to the unwashed masses. I am an academician. Or maybe I am an artist, a programmer or whatnot.

And once again, the idea of fearless, progresive minorities is hard to test empirically. Data from democratic countries are mostly irrelevant because expressing a dissenting opinion typically isn't heavily penalized. The data from oppresive countries, on the other hand, are hard to come by.

What I resorted to was Yad Vashem's database of "Righteous among Nations", people who helped Jews during World War II. The nice thing about it is that helping Jews was as morally pure action as it gets. There was basically nothing to gain from it. In the beginning some people may have sheltered Jews for money but with the Jewish property being confiscated the money had soon run out. Another nice thing is that many cases in the database come with short testimonies describing what exactly happened. From those testimonies, it is possible to get additional data about the Righteous. Unfortunately, the testimonies are not aggregated in any way except by country. Also, the load times on the website are very slow. Therefore, what follows is my impression from clicking around in the database rather than real statistics.

In any case, it looks like there doesn't seem to be much correlation between the profession or social class and whether the subjects were willing to help Jews. My sample included a forester, a court clerk, a teacher, a lawyer, a postman, a student, a housekeeper, a cook, a baker, an owner of a distillery, a farmer, a shopkeeper, an electrician, a miner, a pastor, a doctor, a winemaker…

Well, that's it. Every time I hear someone speaking from the high moral ground I try to imagine how would they behave if they lived in Nazi Germany or Communist Russia. It helps me not to take them too seriously.

***

To end on the brighter note, it seems that the Righteous fall essentially into two categories: On one hand there were people who had Jewish friends and tried to help them. On the other hand, there were numerous cases where desperate Jews on the run knocked at random doors and managed to find a kind person who helped them even though they were complete strangers. I haven't found a single case where the Rightous person had strong moral convictions and, bacause of that, they proactively went out of their way to help the Jews.

That makes me think that maybe behaving morally is as much a matter of chance as it is of personal moral power. Maybe when we behave morally in extreme situations it's not because we are some kind of moral supermen. Maybe it is because we are only slightly better than our neighbours who have sent the knocking Jews away. But also, maybe we have, unlike many others, got the privilege of life forcing upon us the moral dilemma that we would never dare to face voluntarily.

October 7th, 2017