It's easy to be moral when nothing is at stake. Sure, we all think murder, rape, and theft, are immoral crimes, and they are. It's easy to feel superior to those whom we believe act dishonorably. However, moral behavior can be hard.
I read Maureen Dowd's editorial in the New York Times today where she discusses this issue. I agree that acting morally is more difficult in times of stress. For instance, if a cashier gives you too much change and you are low on cash, do you let her know and pay back the excess? Do you tell the IRS about the cash you receive for remodeling others homes, knowing you are having trouble paying the mortgage?
And what about morality in group behavior? Do you rat on your co-worker for taking money out of penny cash? Do you stop your "friend" from making fun of a disabled person, a fat kid, an ugly woman? Or do laugh and try to be one of the group? It's harder to step up when you want to be accepted. People who embarrass their friends and acquaintances by stopping or complaining about them are often ostracized.
Their are few cases of serial killers, but many instances throughout history of genocide. In Nazi Germany, it was popular to hate Jews. In Rwanda in the early 1990's mutilating, raping and killing enemies was in vogue in certain groups. The Mi Lai Massacre was committed by a seemingly normal group of soldiers and undoubtedly there are many unreported atrocities during war. People commit acts in groups that they would not fathom committing alone.
Where does this lead us? Are humans inherently immoral? No, but it takes courage to buck the crowd, to rebel against authority, to act with dignity. We must be ever vigilant. We must honor the heroes who act humanely under pressure, the Whistleblowers with the courage to expose injustice, the children who let the cashier know that she gave them too much money back.
Acting morally can be challenging during challenging times. We need to honor the heroes among us who show others the right way to act. It's really tempting to rationalize behavior when there is a motive. It is not so easy to do the right thing. That is one reason I feel so honored to represent Whistleblowers. I wonder if I would have their courage under pressure. Fortunately, I have not been tested.