Moral Rebels and the Rest of Us


By: Julie Ragatz

Sergeant Joe Darby walked into a hot Baghdad night, lit up one cigarette and then another, and tried to decide what to do.

Darby was a solider with the U.S. Forces at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. One day he asked his fellow solider and guard, Charles Graner, for some scenic pictures he could send home to his friends and family. Graner gave him two CDs, but when Darby opened the folders and looked at the pictures he was shocked by what he saw. The rest of the world would be as well.

We know the rest of the story. Darby turned over the CDs with the incriminating photos of horrific and degrading prisoner abuse. He was lauded as a hero by the media and strangers. But inside the small community of military families in his hometown, things did not go so well for Joe Darby. Family members and friends shunned him, his property was vandalized and he and his wife now live in protective custody in an undisclosed location. Moral rebels are individuals who act in accordance with their moral beliefs even when it is unpopular or in the face of widespread apathy.

Moral rebels are usually lauded by outsiders, but condemned or shunned by those who didn’t take action. Many times people justify their failures to act by persuading themselves that action was impossible. Jean-Paul Sartre called this self-deception bad faith, which he defined as the flight from the ‘displeasing truth’ of our freedom and responsibility to the ‘pleasing falsehood’ that we are not free and therefore not responsible. Further, most of us are confident in our moral goodness. Our failure to ‘rebel’ creates a mental dissonance that is very uncomfortable. To relieve the tension, we can change our beliefs about ourselves (i.e. we are less moral than we thought we were) or we can somehow denigrate or diminish the wrong. One way to do that is to condemn the ‘moral rebel’ as a ‘snitch’ or of being self-righteous. It is clear which option is the ‘easier and softer’ way.

Standing up for your convictions can be very difficult. I don’t think that this point is emphasized enough in conversations about business ethics. Being all alone, even on the moral high ground, can be a very lonely place to be. The dark side of our social natures can be manifested in an unwillingness to place oneself on the outside of a group. In the 1950s, Solomon Asch devised a series of experiments to test the power of conformity in a group setting. The subjects were told that they were participating in a ‘vision test’ and asked to assess the relative length of several lines. When asked individually, the subjects properly identified the longest line with more than 90 percent accuracy. The subjects were placed in a group (composed of actors) who unanimously agreed that a ‘shorter’ line was in fact longer. Nearly 75 percent of the subjects voted with the group at least once, despite the fact that they had previously identified the correct answer.

“But surely,” you think, “I would never be so foolish. I would stand up for what I believe to be correct in terms of geometry and morals.”

But reality is not so simple. The creation of knowledge is a social enterprise and we gain confidence in our beliefs by confirming their coincidence with the beliefs of others. Truth is objective and therefore publically verifiable. This means that other people, if operating with their full rational capacities and no perceptual defects, will arrive at the same truth. When our assessments don’t match up, we naturally question our own beliefs. This is a helpful response, since it keeps us from uncritically accepting our perceptions. If you are seeing something differently, perhaps you have made a mistake. Moral questions are murkier and more complex than a series of parallel lines. If everyone around you fails to act, perhaps you are seeing the situation incorrectly. Perhaps you have made a mistake. Offering a moral reproach is difficult under the best of circumstances; it is even harder when you doubt that you are correct.

The case of Joe Darby points to the phenomena of moral luck, specifically what Thomas Nagel calls ‘circumstantial luck’. This is luck in the kind of problems and situations that one faces. Moral luck is a tricky philosophical issue because it seems that luck should not factor into our moral assessments. But despite its counterintuitive nature, moral luck does seem to matter. Certain people, like Joe Darby, will have the terrible experience of opening a CD and finding pictures of prisoners being tortured in indescribably awful ways. Fortunate are the rest of us who do not suffer the terrible weight of that knowledge. We should remember this and approach our judgments of others with a degree of humility; do we really know how we would behave? Are we really sure?

As leaders and members of an organization, we need to create an environment in which it is easier (or as easy as possible) for people to tell the truth and to be brave and courageous. We need to tell stories about moral rebels in our organizations who have affected real and meaningful change. We need to be conscious of our own tendency to dismiss moral rebels and diminish their courage because we are afraid of what their actions say about our own moral character. We need to celebrate people who represent the best of who we can be.