Judgment, Integrity, and Moral Courage

Approximate Read Time: 11 minutes

On August 6, 2000, 15-year-old Nicholas Markowitz was walking along the side of a road in his affluent hometown, West Hills, Los Angeles, when a van stopped. Out popped three men in their early 20’s. Markowitz was kicked and punched before being thrown in the van and blindfolded.

Nicholas’s older brother, Ben, owed drug-dealer Jesse James Hollywood $1,200. Hollywood and his crew were on their way to confront Ben when they saw Nicholas walking along the road and hastily decided to hold him as ransom. After blind-folding Nicholas they sped off to Santa Barbara, about 70 miles up the coast. Despite initial terror, Nicholas soon settled in after the gang explained why they had taken him. He was brought along to various parties where he was encouraged to enjoy booze, drugs and “the good life.” Two days of debauchery culminated at a motel pool party where Nicholas cozied up to a 17-year-old girl. As many as 32 witnesses knew Nicholas had been kidnapped, but did nothing because it appeared he was having fun.

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Markowitz looked up to his captors and their fast, carefree lifestyle. He was assured that he’d be returned home soon and was confident that this would all be an exciting memory. The small time pawns he hung out with probably believed that too. They seemed to welcome Markowitz and celebrate the novelty of partying with their hostage. For a bunch of spoiled kids turned small time criminals, this reckless stunt substantiated their desire to be perceived as hardcore, edgy deviants. While they basked in delusional narcissism, Hollywood met with a lawyer where it became clear that this kidnapping could result in life prison sentences. Realizing the magnitude of his impromptu decision, he called Ryan Hoyt, another flunky who owed him money. He had a way for Hoyt to pay off his debt.

Hollywood demanded a certain level of reverence and compliance from all of his posse. This, in fact, was the source of the rift between Hollywood and Ben Markowitz. Ben was not one to be controlled or belittled. When disrespected, he broke a window in Hollywood’s house. Ben challenged Hollywood’s Alpha status and that threat probably led to the kidnapping. It was, after all, less dangerous to grab an unsuspecting 15-year-old than to confront an unhinged, rebel with a penchant for fighting back. Now, Hollywood went to his most eager “whipping boy,” Hoyt, to take care of the problem. He gave Hoyt a modified, fully automatic Tech 9 pistol.

After two days of partying and fun, Hollywood’s posse was now following the lead of the member they’d so frequently humiliated. Nicholas was bound and gagged as Hoyt and Jesse Rugge drove him up the scenic Santa Ynez Mountains overlooking Santa Barbara. They dug a shallow grave and shot Nicholas Markowitz 9 times. In a half-baked plan to ensure Markowitz never talked about the kidnapping, he was murdered.

The 2007 movie, Alpha Dog, is based on this true story. I remember seeing the film in theatres on opening night. You could feel the audience won over by these seemingly harmless young-adults and their wild lifestyle. Justin Timberlake plays Frankie Ballenbacher who is based on Hollywood’s confidant, Jesse Rugge. Timberlake’s charismatic fun-natured spirit makes him especially endearing. The whole thing feels like just another Hollywood party movie with the twist of a light-hearted kidnapping. Hollywood’s crew seems cool and the kidnapping is laughed off as a harmless stunt. As they party with him, Nicholas Markowitz’s character is affectionately dubbed “stolen boy.”

People seemed to cheer on the party scenes, the crude trash-talking, and the innocent fun of a few young-adults who just want to drink and do drugs. The movie brilliantly creates a subtle subtext of “What’s the big deal? This is what people in their early 20’s do.” If, like me, you didn’t know the story ahead of time, you’re still expecting everything to end up okay, until boom. Timberlake hits this kid over the head with a shovel and then he’s shot to death. You could hear a pin drop in that theater. It hardly seemed real. “Did that really just happen?”

The kidnapping and murder of Nicholas Markowitz is a tragedy. It shouldn’t have happened. As witnesses testified in trial, he could have escaped on many occasions. He was only 15 and was fooled by the illusion that this was all no big deal. Any of the many witnesses could have gone to the police. They weren’t hardened criminals. They did drugs, partied, and were seduced by the desire to be cool. They hid in self-denial so they wouldn’t have to make a hard decision.

 “Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.” –John Stuart Mill

Most of Hollywood’s flunkies are just overgrown children who have never been given consequences. They want to believe they can be cool and do whatever they want and that it is fine. They want to believe they can kidnap people and it is all okay because we’re treating this kid well, partying with him, and what is the big deal, really?

While exaggerated, this is the world most of our kids are pulled towards. Standing for anything is considered “extra.” People are empowered to voice their indignation behind a keyboard, but it is hard to act according to values. If you do not stand for something, you can avoid making anyone mad. If you live according to your convictions, you’ll upset those who’d prefer you “be cool.”

 Humanity’s History of Social Compliance

Following the Holocaust many questioned how such atrocities were possible. How could a vast network of people orchestrate such evil? Why weren’t there refusals all throughout the chain? The soldiers who did the dirty work weren’t the only people culpable. Entire countries watched as Jewish citizens were forced out of jobs, into ghettos, and then repeatedly subjected to vicious public attacks. Anyone not intentionally turning a blind eye would notice their former friends and colleagues were now shipped away. Many people, undoubtedly, witnessed the masses being treated like animals along their path to the concentration camps,  and the towns next to these death camps surely witnessed plenty of evidence. This was simply too large of a concerted mass mobilization not to require the conscious acquiescence of millions.

Typical of humanity’s infinite capacity for hypocrisy, most people simply concluded that there was something inherently wrong with Germans that they would let this happen. The defense offered over and over by Nazi officials at the Nuremburg War Trials was that they were just following orders. Obedience showed its dark side.

Photo Courtesy of simplepsychology.org

Photo Courtesy of simplepsychology.org

Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram set out to explore this concept in his famous, 1963 Obedience Experiments. Milgram took a random sample of people and told them he was conducting studies on learning. Each participant was led to believe that they were interacting with another willing applicant of the study just like them. In fact, they met this person and drew lots to see who would be the “teacher” and who would be the “learner.” This was fixed, however. The “learner” was always the same man, a Mr. Wallace. The teacher then watched as the learner was put in a back room where many electrodes were attached to his arms. The experimenter, a gentleman in a grey lab coat, then directed the teacher to a separate room.

Photo Courtesy of simplepsychology.org

Photo Courtesy of simplepsychology.org

The teacher was sat in front of long switchboard, like a piano. The far left switch was specified 15 volts (slight shock). A little past halfway came a switch indicating 375 volts (Danger: Severe Shock) and the final of 30 switches simply read 450 volts (XXX). The teacher was instructed to ask Mr. Wallace questions and administer a progressively higher shock for each incorrect answer. Unbeknownst to this teacher, Mr. Wallace was not actually receiving the shocks. His responses, most of which were incorrect, had been tape recorded to ensure consistency of inflection across all experiments.

As the teachers administered progressively higher level shocks, they heard Mr. Wallace begin to respond in pain. By 150 volts he yells, “Ouch! That’s all! Get me out of here! Get me out of here, please! I refuse to go on. Let me out!” At 180 volts, he interjects, “I can’t stand the pain! Get me out!” Teachers would begin to get uncomfortable and turn to the experimenter for direction. Each time the experimenter gave one of four consistent prods: 

  1. Please continue

  2. The experiment requires you to continue

  3. It is absolutely essential that you continue

  4. You have no other choice but to continue

Eventually, the terrified voice on the recording is begging the teacher to stop this torturous experiment. At 375 volts the shrilling cries cease altogether leaving one to assume Mr. Wallace is either dead or unconscious. Still, most continue administering shocks. In 65% of experiments the teacher shocked Mr. Wallace through all 30 switches. The study has since been repeated many times with nearly identical results.

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Most are horrified to see how easily a majority of people can defer responsibility and be capable of the most heinous acts. As we’ve seen on countless occasions, from the slave trade to McCarthyism, humanity is capable of terrible collective behavior when social proof and authority deem them acceptable. We should all confront this startling reality.  

It is easy to focus on the majority who deliver lethal shocks, but what about the other third or so? What gave them the moral courage to ignore the overwhelming discomfort of confronting authority and to say “No More!” As a teacher, I used to show all my students the Stanley Milgram obedience experiments early in the year. I wanted students to live consciously, driven by a higher standard. To do so, they first needed to know the risks of passive existence.

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” –Upton Sinclair

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Today, it is easier than ever to justify any action with social proof. We’re experts at rationalization constantly shirking personal responsibility behind the justification of mass norms. The common coke drinker reads my account of Coca-Cola’s consistent track record of insidious manipulation, but easily excuses themselves from any responsibility to cease patronage of such a cause. They are just one person after all. School districts might learn, but continue to put up Coke ads and sign large contracts ensuring their pervasive presence across all district activities. Pharmaceutical reps often discover the drastic lengths their companies will take to confuse doctors and create addiction among a growing number of people who should have never begun medication. Yet, few fight the system or begin to actively seek another career.

The majority of destructive forces have their work done by people like you and me. None of this is possible without a world of pawns who refuse to investigate moral principles and stand for them.

Integrity is one of those buzz words everyone loves to throw around. Managers, bosses, coaches, and every organization makes it common practice to vaguely allude to their high standard of integrity—as if simply recognizing the concept of principles proves they operate according to a great level of character. But for most, this passive claim is as far as they ever explore any sense of morality. Try engaging your co-workers in a philosophical discussion about what constitutes right and wrong action. Integrity, for something that many people claim guides all decision-making, is an oddly taboo topic.

While I don’t subscribe to a specific set of religious dogmas, it is interesting to note how even modern churches have fled from prompting people towards a higher level of moral conduct. When people my age talk about their church virtually all of them will express how it is great because the pastor doesn’t focus on moral judgments of any sort—only on self-help and the uplifting message of forgiveness. In short, they’ve eliminated the entire ethical doctrine in favor of the narrative that we all sin, all sin is equal, and the only thing to do is celebrate how God forgives it all.

Of course all sin is not equal—a fact readily apparent by the sentencing expectations of our legal system. We must be able to make distinctions between severity and degree and we must be able to explore which actions have greater social utility. Judgment is now one of the few vices it is publicly acceptable to critique. Yet, we must have the ability to discern. Meaningful living follows a trajectory geared towards growth and becoming wiser about how we invest the limited time we have. Wisdom is measured in a greater ability to make judgments about how to live best.

Judging actions and beliefs is essential. The more destructive forms of judgment that we should avoid are the assumptions and labels we often apply to our judgments. For example, those 65+% who would have administered deadly shocks in the Milgram experiment, are wrong to do so. Hopefully their life prompts them to self-reflection and growth that develops a greater degree of moral courage. Still, I’d never conclude that these are all evil people incapable of demonstrating great love. I’m sure many of them have wonderful virtues like patience and humility and that I could learn a great deal from them.

Likewise, we should be able to easily note the destructive misogynistic themes in a song without concluding that anyone who listens is a violent bigot. We shouldn’t conclude this person lacks any redeeming qualities or the capacity to grow. Most importantly our egos should not use ethical conduct as an avenue to pompous moral superiority. It is narcissism, contempt, and broad categorization that we must avoid. Not ethical judgment.

Stoic ethics are some of the most practical and constructive for living in our modern world. Stoicism teaches that you have no control over the situations that occur. Birds poop on your shoulder, students come to your class in a bad mood, and governments allow pharmaceutical companies to advertise straight to the citizens. All you can ever control is your response. Therefore, nothing that happens to you can ever be construed as good or bad. Situations are only opportunities to learn and grow. The only good or bad in the world are reactions of virtue and vice. It is your job as a human to investigate these and cultivate an evermore nuanced personal code of conduct.

“What would you risk dying for—and for whom—is perhaps the most profound question a person can ask themselves. The vast majority of people in modern society are able to pass their whole lives without ever having to answer that question, which is both an enormous blessing and a significant loss.” -Sebastian Junger

I fear that now more than ever we are creating a mindless, passive generation who will not stand for their convictions or even define them. Kids grow up in the age of social media where everyone is great at putting on masks of bravado, but living up to values requires more than tough tweeting. Few stand up when their friends shoplift or litter. It is far more socially acceptable to not care.

Unfortunately, or, rather, fortunately, youth won’t be happy unless they become capable of heroism. This was once a prerequisite for adulthood that every society assured through rites of passage. Young-adults don’t have to storm beaches or run into burning buildings, but they need to stand for something greater than themselves. At a deep level, our kids want to know they’d have the moral courage to say “enough is enough.” That is not easy.

Modern challenges are not simple, but they offer tremendous opportunity for purpose and human ingenuity. In order to meet the challenge, we must earnestly strive for truth over dogma. We must have the ability to put ego aside and do the hard work of dialoguing, questioning, and making trade-offs. These all require a nuanced capacity for judgment.

Question of the week: Would you be of the 65% who would have shocked someone to death in deference to an authority? If you think there is a chance, what do you do to change that?

Milgram photo credit: https://www.simplypsychology.org/milgram.html

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