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 Maarten Maartensz:    Philosophical Dictionary | Filosofisch Woordenboek                      

 O - Ordinary men

 

Ordinary men: Ordinary men are those who are not individually remembered after death, because they are not and did nothing remarkable, for whatever reason. In terms of statistics, they form 9999 out of 10,000, and in terms of practice, it is they who do the work in any society, maintain its ideology and morals, protect or elect its leaders, and do its murderings and persecutions when ordered by their leaders. And no society can become better than the qualities and shortcomings of the ordinary men in it enable it to be.

This shows in principle that ordinary men are quite important in history and society, if not in person but because it is they who form and maintain and do nearly all in any society, even though they rarely or never originate its ideas, values, science or religion, for ordinary men are followers and executioners much rather than leaders or thinkers.

As defined - in terms of whether or not one is individually remembered after death, outside the circle of one's family and friends - ordinary men comprise the great majority of men, and include most of its intellectuals and artists, for these too mostly are when known locally in their own society in their own time mostly forgottten by following generations.

The fundamental problem this poses about the human state of the world and its possibilities for improvement may be indicated by a table like the following one.

Mr. Randolph J. Rummel has taken the trouble of finding out how many civilian persons have been murdered in the 20th Century apart from the many soldiers that were killed on battle-fields. He wrote a book about it called Death by Government, in which one can find, among other things, the following table - that lists only civilian deaths and no military deaths in wartime:

Dictator Ideology Country Years Deaths
Joseph Stalin Communist Soviet Union 1929-1953 42,672,000
Mao Tse-tung Communist China 1923-1976 37,828,000
Adolf Hitler Fascist Germany 1933-1945 20,946,000
Chiang Kai-shek Militarist/Fascist China 1921-1948 10,214,000
Vladimir Lenin Communist Soviet Union 1917-1924 4,017,000
Tojo Hideki Militarist/Fascist Japan 1941-1945 3,990,000
Pol Pot Communist Cambodia 1968-1987 2,397,000
Yahya Khan Militarist Pakistan 1971 1,500,000
Josip Broz Tito Communist Yugoslavia 1941-1987 1,172,000

 

 

 

 

 

 


When summed, this comes to over 200 million murders - nearly all committed by perfectly ordinary men, for what they considered to be the best of moral reasons, from love for Our Fatherland or Our Party or Our Race, and because those they murdered stood in the way of a better society, or so their leaders claimed and they mostly believed.

What the above table also makes somewhat credible is that a considerable part of the murdering that ordinary men do happens especially when they are caught up in totalitarian states, political ideologies, or religious faiths.

And what the above table is misleading about is the role of politics: In the 20th Century most murdering on a social scale happened in the name of totalitarian political ideologies like fascism and communism, but in early ages most murdering on a social scale happened in the name of totalitarian faiths like Catholicism, Protestantism or Mohammedanism.

These facts show that the abilities and inclinations of ordinary men are of fundamental importance to the state and shape of human societies, and of what is possible and impossible in it, and suggest a number of questions.

Also, it so happens that next to Rummel's statistics, there are some interesting studies about ordinary men and totalitarianism: Browning's "Ordinary Men", Conquest's "The Great Terror", and Laqueur Ed.'s "The Holocaust Encyclopedia".

And part of the reasons for the above table of results of the abilities of ordinary men especially when combined with totalitarianism can be gleaned from the following table and quotation that concerns research into the actual moral behavior and thinking of human beings by the psychologist Kohlberg. I quote from the "Introduction to Psychology" by Hilgard & Atkinson:


Stages in the development of moral values

LEVELS AND STAGES

ILLUSTRATIVE BEHAVIOR

Level I. Premoral

1. Punishment and obedience orientation

Obeys rules in order to avoid punishment.

2. Naive instrumental hedonism

Conforms to obtain rewards, to have favors returned.

Level II. Morality of conventional role-conformity

3. "Good-boy" morality of maintaining good relations, approval of others.

Conforms to avoid disapproval, maintaining good relations, dislike by others.

4. Authority maintaining morality.

Conforms to avoid censure by legitimate authorities, with resultant guilt.

Level III. Morality of self-accepted moral principles

5. Morality of contract, of individual rights, and of democratically accepted law.

Conforms to maintain the respect of the impartial spectator judging in terms of community welfare.

6. Morality of individual principles and conscience.

Conforms to avoid self-condemnation.


"Kohlberg's studies indicate that the moral judgments of children who are seven and younger are predominantly at Level I - actions are evaluated in terms of whether they avoid punishment or lad to rewards. By age 13, a majority of the moral dilemmas are resolved at Level II - actions are evaluated in terms of maintaining a good image in the eyes of other people. This is the level of conventional morality. In the first stage at this level (Stage 3) one seeks approval by being "nice"; this orientation expands in the next stage (Stage 4) to include "doing one's duty", showing respect for authority, and conforming to the social order in which one is raised.

According to Kohlberg, many individuals never progress beyond Level II. He sees the stages of moral development as closely tied to Piaget's stages of cognitive development, and only if a person has achieved the later stages of formal operational thought is he capable of the kind of abstract thinking necessary for postconventional morality at Level III. The highest stage of moral development (Level III, stage 6) requires formulating abstract ethical principles and conforming to them to avoid self-condemnation. Kohlberg reports that less than 10 percent of his subjects over age 16 show (...) kind of "clear-principled" Stage 6 thinking (...)"

And thus we have arrived in principle at some sort of explanation for the facts and numbers in the previous table: "actions are evaluated in terms of maintaining a good image in the eyes of other people. This is the level of conventional morality" and "many individuals never progress beyond Level II", which is that conventional conformist level.

On ordinay men: Here are some human all too human weaknesses that - especially but not only - ordinary men easily fall prone to

  • Ordinary men  
    • engage mostly in wishful thinking (so as to keep themselves "happy")
    • are ruled by bias and prejudice
    • do not know real science, logic, mathematics or philosophy
    • do not do unto others as one would not be done by only within one's group
    • are role-players who play by wishful thinking, make-believe - "The quality or act of pretending; assuming something is true when in fact one knows it is not" (wiki dictionary) - and pretension who normally do not step out of their roles out of self-interest and because of group-sanctions
    • are collaborators: They mostly do as they are told by leaders
    • are followers, of fashions and leaders of all kinds, usually because it is the fashion and they are conformists
    • are levellers: The only ones who excel are the leaders of the group and what the media display as excellent
    • believe truth coincides with their interests and prejudices, especially as regards things that involve their or their groups' supposed interests
    • personalize or animate everything: all manner of abstractions - nations, corporations, groups, the people - are supposed to will and feel
    • do not reason in terms of quantified terms: Terms like "Some", "most" are carefully avoided often to infer all from some without mentioning either: ("Women are emotional", "Germans are no good")
    • cannot reason abstractly on any high level
    • make all manners of fallacies esp. of generalization, ambiguity and begging the question
    • are not independent individuals with their own ideas and values intentionally gathererd by their own life's practice

One result, supplementing Rummel's statistics, is this:

"I fear we live in a world in which war and racism are ubiquitous, in which the powers of government mobilization and legitimization are powerful and increasing, in which a sense of personal responsibility is increasingly attenuated by specialization and bureaucratization, and in which peer-group exerts tremendous pressures on behavior and sets moral norms. In such a world, I fear, modern governments that wish to commit mass murder will seldom fail in their efforts for being unable to induce "ordinary men" to become their "willing executioners." " (Christopher R. Browning, "Ordinary men", p. 222-3)


See also: Ethics, Evil, Society, Stupidity, Totalitarian


Literature:

Browning, Chang, Conquest, Diamond, Goffman, Kohlberg, Laqueur, Milgram, Thieme,
 

 Original: Aug 17, 2004                                                Last edited: 21 Feb 2015.   Top