standards of decency

April 10th, 2007

There is no better starting point for learning than to be a child. Actually if you had known, you may have been quite stressed. You have all the potential and you haven't made one single mistake yet. Can we make it a flawless game? Kids need a lot of guidance. They know nothing, and they are about to learn everything.

When you're a kid your parents will guide you in all sorts of ways. They will try to shape your behavior, whatever it may be in its most natural, unfeathered form, to something they believe is correct with respect to the society they live in. They tell you to respect people, to be nice, to shake hands, to say goodbye when you leave, to be unselfish, to not abuse people's trust in you, and so on. These are all very simple rules, and you will choose at some point which ones you are going to follow. It's entirely up to you.

But that was then, you aren't a child anymore. What have you decided? Do you have it all figured out, or do you think you could use some more guidance? Do you think you've outgrown that kind of influence? Would it be possible for someone to exert an influence on you that would make you behave more good or more evil?

I believe that studies have shown that people are very susceptible to outside influence. I also feel this to be true from experience. But one thing in particular that has concerned me for a long time is how it is that people decide to be decent and to what extent to be decent.

This is something that's very easy to observe, because wherever they are people they are exhibiting what is their standard of decency to that particular situation. And I believe we have a general standard as well, that covers every eventuality, to which we refer in cases of uncertainty.

What I'm implying here is that there is a range of behaviors we allow ourselves. You will allow a different standard when you're fighting with that guy at work you just positively hate (and you're being attacked), compared to when you're dealing with your parents.

Another point to consider is group influence. It isn't just the person you are dealing with that is affecting your decisions on how to behave, it's also people around you. Just being an observer already attunes you to the standards of interaction that are the norm in this environment. Observing one conversation between two people has a direct influence on your next conversation with someone from that same group.

Eventually, through all of these influences, we set the bar for ourselves somewhere. And I feel the urge to ask where and how. Why are people so classless sometimes? Why do they laugh at the most base jokes?

Every person has their standards, but people, if they can co-exist, tend to balance each other out, to fit into the social context. So if you think racist jokes are bad, and your coworkers love them, the only way you'll fit in is if you'll accept them, at work. It's also very clear to me that people, as a group, can choose to raise their standards or to lower them. One person's choice affects the next, but if one person or part of the group decides to move the bar, the rest tend to follow.

Influence is possible, but is it a good thing? This goes back to the very well established question of whether it's right to influence people because we know what's best for you. Are you an adult who makes all of your own decisions or do you need some guidance yet? Without that influence people will work out the balance among themselves. And that outcome tends to be fragile. An influential person (without any conscious effort to influence the group), a person people pay attention to, can tip that balance up or down.

Of course, if I were more serious in any of my endeavors I would actually research the subject at hand instead of just plainly talking about it. I would grab that relevant book in sociology or group psychology or whatever the exact term is, read the conclusion and say "so that's the way it is". But that would be denying myself the satisfaction of being able to figure out something for myself, even if it is a well established scientific truth since 1873.

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2 Responses to "standards of decency"

  1. erik says:

    Peer pressure, I think, is distinguishable from the type of influence parents and political figures have. Influence over a group of people is a very tricky subject. Even the discussion of how to measure it is. Is it charisma? Power? Something else? Why are people like football players influential for our children? Because they want to be like them?

    I have never really looked into this but from what I have read, there is never just one answer.

  2. erik says:

    'One answer', as in one prevailing commonly accepted view