Your Neurochemical Self

Getting real with a 200-million-year-old brain

Abuse of the Nuremberg Principle

Automatically opposing authority is as bad as automatically obeying

“I was just following orders,” said Nazis officers tried for war crimes in Nuremberg after World War II. This defense failed. Individual responsibility was enshrined by international law, and the duty to refuse inhumane orders became known as the Nuremberg Principle. 

People began teaching their children to resist authority in hopes of preventing future wars. This well-intentioned habit has gone too far. Opinion leaders now cast acts of violence as principled opposition to injustice with the kind of reflexiveness we sought to deter. Not everyone shares this habit, but it is de rigeur among intellectuals. That includes people who make their living using words, such as journalists and academics. When you want news or education, it usually comes filtered through the presumption that opposition is glorious. 

This thought pattern is not new, of course. Monkeys fight the power in their troops whenever they can get away with it. The downside is not new either. Knee-jerk oppositionalism hurts the common good, even though it’s done in the name of the common good. A dangerous free-rider problem is created when resistance to authority is glorified. Any time you find it convenient to break the law, you can call yourself a courageous ethicist who’s resisting an unjust authority. We all benefit from the rule of law, but an individual can benefit more if they break the rules while others obey. This view is bad for a society, but it’s good for the popularity of the individual who’s peddling it.

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I’m not saying the law is always right, but if every individual can choose when to exempt themselves from the law, it’s a formula for social chaos. Few people realize how they benefit from the rule of law. We take it for granted and underestimate the suffering of daily life in places where rules are not enforced. It’s human nature to want to put yourself above the law, but it is not higher ethics. People have gotten spoiled from living in a society where "the consumer is always right." You can return a dress to Macy's after wearing it to a party, but that doesn't make it right. You can tell yourself that Macy's is a rich corporation so it doesn't matter, but if everyone did that, life would change. Cheating is not always principled resistance to injustice. Sometimes it's just cheating.

Opinion leaders are not serving the public interest when they spin illegal acts into “opposing injustice.” They are serving their own careers. They succeed in journalism and academia by bowing to the ideology that the legal system supports the powerful, so law-breaking is ethical for the "common man." Pundits compete with each other to fit the latest calamity into this template. How different are they from Nazi officers trying to save their own skins? Of course, Nazis faced torture and execution if they resisted the consensus. Today’s opinion leaders only face career plateaus. 

You do not need to accept their view that oppositional behavior is motivated by higher principles. You can refuse to follow cynical opinion leaders. More on this in my book Beyond Cynical: Transcend Your Mammalian Negativity, and in my earlier post, Do You Say Creative When You Mean Dishonest?


 

 

Loretta Graziano Breuning, Ph.D., is a Zoo Docent and Professor Emerita of Management at California State University, East Bay. 

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