Socrates, individualism and conformity

Here is one way of seeing the timeless relevance of Socrates for us today: Think of him as the archetype of individualism fighting against oppressive social conformity.

In this thread on Socrates, I’ve already looked at some noble and less noble aspects of the man’s character. And every time I found him to be thoroughly modern and recognizable. So too in this way.

Watch the 2-minute video above of the famous Asch Experiments that began in 1956. They were devastating: We saw confirmed what we already suspected, that people will readily surrender truth to a group.

To me, still emerging from my old Ayn Rand phase, this was always the ultimate, the most disgusting, sin. To me, this is how the Nazis perverted an entire nation, how Mao’s Red Guards did it again, how all great evil throughout history spreads.

Hence the inherent appeal of a hero such as Socrates. He told the group (the Athenians) to bugger off. In return, they killed him for it. (This will get a lot more nuanced in future posts, but let’s leave it at that for now.)

If Socrates had sat in the Asch Experiments, he would never have changed his answer.

But should the group really bugger off?

If it were as simple as all that, The Hannibal Blog would not find this so interesting. But it is not so simple. It turns out that we have moved on from the Asch Experiments somewhat. Read, for instance, Bert Hodges and Anne Geyer, two psychologists who took a new approach.

The people who might change their answer to “lie” in unison with the group were in fact facing an exceedingly difficult situation that inherently required all sorts of complex trade-offs, they argue:

  • On one hand, there is the value of truth.
  • On the other hand, there is the value of social solidarity.

In practice, most people did not conform consistently (ie, “lie” with the group every time) but varied their response in what Hodges and Geyer call

patterns of dissent and agreement to communicate larger scale truths and cooperative intentions.

In short, they were being biological organisms that keep in mind 1) their own survival in a group and 2) the survival of the group as a whole.

Now this is exactly the sort of poppycock that I used to have no time for at all. But as I get older I see more complexities. In Socrates’ case, for instance, there actually was a specific threat to the group survival of the Athenians, and I will get to that.

So we can add another timeless conundrum to the issues that Socrates raised. We already said that truth often conflicts with gentleness and kindness, and that one cannot assume truth must always win this fight. What if Hodges and Geyer are right and truth must also occasionally take a backseat to those “larger truths”– and that Socrates, failing to understand that, paid a fair price?

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12 thoughts on “Socrates, individualism and conformity

  1. Hi Andreas – another great post on meaty issues… apologies in advance for lack for lack of brevity:

    Re “they were being biological organisms that keep in mind” – that is a crucial point – we are creatures of habit and have the habits of creatures baked into us. One refinement, we humans often make decisions without the intervention of out concious deliberative minds. We frequently behave instinctively (from out creaturely habits).

    Re the influence of non-concious and clearly illogical factors in human behavior – my favorite example is the “Eyes of Honesty”
    http://www.nytimes.com/2006/12/10/magazine/10section1C.t-3.html
    To summarize the presence of a poster showing a person watching you can substantially change behavior – even though everyone consciously knows the eyes are 2 dimensional.

    Re – social pressure – its not all bleak – you could think of socially normative pressures as being like any other tool – can be used for good or bad. As Sunstein writes about in Nudge – you can use herd instincts to encourage people to choose behaviors that support social good. And lets not forget he and his fellow behavioral economists are deep in the Obama administration.

    Finally re “larger truths” – I think that could just mean more useful goals, not necessarily truer ones.

    • The “larger truths” are a Pandora’s box. Who decides what’s larger? In my years in China, I got an earful about larger truths from the cadres. Then again, sometimes there really ARE truths that are larger….

    • Jag, I find the “Eyes of Honesty” idea very interesting. It’s very much a literal interpretation of the “eyes on the street” principle of urban planning. It seems Big Brother was on to something after all.

    • I was worried about that, and placing my bets that the Hannibal Blog’s readership would know it’s British for … well, you know. It sounds better than the American equivalent.

  2. “…….as I get older I see more complexities……..”

    Me too. I see also that the greater, or ultimate truth of anything, lies usually near the middle of two opposing extremes. Also that the morality of an action, whether conforming, non-conforming, killing, stealing, lying, or anything else, should be judged in the light of its circumstances – in terms of situational ethics.

    Was Socrates a situational ethicist?

    • Hi Christopher,
      Though by no means a Socratic scholar, I will jump in here and say no, he wasn’t. Obnoxious as it appears he could be, and finding himself at the center of ethical inquiry, he stayed true to his Truths.

      Impressive to be sure, considering his circumstances: surrounded by the polis in all its group individualism, having little tolerance for dissenting opinion.

      His accusers remind me of some of America’s finest liberaldemocrats today championing the liberal agenda while trashing individual thought.

      That’s one reason I am a Libertarian. Hooray for Socrates.

    • Good for you that you are a Libertarian, for you and your fellow Libertarians are the needed counterweight to those who advocate government intervention everywhere. Somewhere in the middle between the philosophies of you and them lies the Truth about how societies work.

      From what you say, Socrates would have been a moral absolutist. So, had he been a ruler (not the measuring kind) he would therefore have been a despot, for, as a moral absolutist, he wouldn’t have tolerated the compromises so necessary for a democracy.

      And, as a despot, would not Socrates have dealt harshly with Libertarians, such as you?

  3. Christopher and Cheri have gone in a very interesting direction here: 1) Was Socrates a situational ethicist? 2) Was he a Libertarian, or how did he feel about them?

    Hmm. The Platonic Socrates (ie, the Socrates we know as the character in Plato’s dialogues) was the ultimate absolutist. That’s what his Theory of the Forms was about: Every value has an unchanging and absolute form out there that we approximate. None of that contextual nonsense.

    But Socrates the person might have been (we know very little about him) a lot more “situational”. There were two anti-democratic revolutions (ie, brief dictatorships) in Athens during his time, which became crucial as the backdrop to his trial, and his behavior was, well, remarkably adaptable, shall we say.

    Libertarians: The Platonic Socrates had no room for them. Free thinking, yes, but only for the “Philosopher Kings”. The rest of the population had to know its place, as in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

    So you see that Yogi Berra had a leg up on Socrates: “In theory there’s no difference between theory and practice; in practice there is.” In theory, Socrates was an absolutist, in practice he might have been a wee bit situational here and there. In theory, Socrates was a free-thinking libertarian; in practice, his ideas would have led to the end of liberty.

    All of which is YET ANOTHER reason to study the man and to understand his relevance to us today.

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