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Conditional Morality And Cynicism In The Authoritarian Mind

One of the symptoms of unfree thinking is conditional morality – the view that one cannot afford to apply everyday moral standards under the circumstances. So when they look for guidance as to what is right and wrong, the will of the oppressor will fill the gap left behind by morality.

It is often covered up by cynicism, which is an obvious façade for the underlying sense of helplessness. Rebranding things from “I don’t even try” to “It couldn’t be done” is a way to rationalize as well as to pose as competent in the face of the crippling sense of helplessness.

“Although it first appeared as a kind of intellectual game, by the 2000s, anti-ethics had become a semi-official governmental doctrine—“we are no better but no worse than others either; everyone in the world behaves equally badly”—though it is never articulated.

Anti-ethics doesn’t contain anything positive; it’s built solely on the denouncement of others’ value systems. Its fundamental negativity is based on the following idea: individuals are unable to decide for themselves what is good and what is bad. Only the government can see the big picture and therefore make ethical evaluations.”

Andrey Arkhangelskiy – The Black Hole Where Russia’s Ethics Should Be, Carnegie Moscow, July 2016

Where freedom is a luxury, so is morality (and soft ideas, such as reciprocity, respect for human life, dignity, let alone happiness). The law is the rule of the powerful. When that is missing, it is the assumed interest of the powerful. Anything else is risky, and nothing else is in one’s power. Power replaces moral considerations as the way to decide right and wrong, creating moral dependence. The victims lose confidence in their own decisions and judgments, anyway.

Cynicism is one of the sneakiest of symptoms and is very prevalent in the authoritarian way of thinking. Posing as rightly suspicious and world-weary (“I am not a pessimist, I’m a realist.”) is easy to be interpreted as caution and wisdom – but glorifying this pose is erosive to social capital as well as the sense of control.

Everyone has encountered the devil’s advocate pose. But unlike their namesake, the everyday devil’s advocates only resort to this mind trick when they wish to mask their ulterior motivations. They are not genuinely looking for alternative ways to see things. They are looking for a justification to compliance with the strong. They don’t want it to be a choice – they want it to be inevitable, and convince others about it.

Bending one’s own moral compass is a reaction to feeling helpless. But the resulting moral relativism is even more damaging. It suggests that one should not comply with rules, unless it is backed by force – because no one else does. It is usually accompanied by an implicit (often explicit) ridiculing of idealism, or the belief that things can be improved and people are to be trusted.

One way out of the discomfort is the Nuremberg defense, replacing moral imperatives with the necessity to follow commands, the law, or objective necessities. The other is blaming other people by projecting our own helplessness or moral ambivalence on them. It may sound innocent, but having a low view of other people (their competence, morals or objective limitations) also happens to be a justification of one’s own moral capitulation.

The consequences are ubiquitous.

Conditional morality

A study of East and West Germans after the fall of the Berlin wall provides an illustration of how political regimes corrupt individual morality – long after they are gone (Ariely 2014). Lars Hornuf of the University of Munich and Dan Ariely, Ximena García-Rada and Heather Mann of Duke University ran an experiment in 2014 to test Germans’ willingness to lie for personal gain. Some 250 Berliners were randomly selected to take part in a game where they could win up to 6 euros. Each participant was asked to throw a die 40 times and record each roll on a piece of paper. A higher overall tally earned a bigger payoff. Before each roll, players had to commit themselves to write down the number that was on either the top or the bottom side of the die. However, they did not have to tell anyone which side they had chosen, which made it easy to cheat.

Honest participants would be expected to roll ones, twos and threes as often as fours, fives and sixes. But that did not happen: the sheets handed in had a suspiciously large share of high numbers, suggesting many players had cheated. After finishing the game, the players had to fill in a form that asked their age and the part of Germany where they had lived in different decades. The authors found that, on average, those who had East German roots cheated twice as much as those who had grown up in West Germany under capitalism. They also looked at how much time people had spent in East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall. The longer the participants had been exposed to socialism, the greater the likelihood that they would claim improbable numbers of high rolls.

There are countless surveys comparing attitudes toward cheating in (former) authoritarian and non-authoritarian countries (Grimes 2004, Payan et. al 2010, Magnus et. al 2002) that consistently point toward the morally damaging effect of authoritarian survivalism. A system against which the individual feels powerless can corrupt – and the damage cannot be undone without conscious effort.

Morality is one of the first things we outsource to government, along with physical protection and the provision of a national identity. Then we find it harder and harder to consider each other to be honest in the absence of law enforcement. (See the absence of trust) Form this perspective, it hardly matters whether it was grabbed by an authoritarian regime or voluntarily surrendered to a pampering welfare regime, whether it was blamed on warfare or welfare.

Many thinkers have spared a thought to the layers and possible motives of morality. The exact reason we refrain from committing a crime is important. In a very simplified distinction:

  • Do we refrain from crime because we consider it immoral?
  • Or because we are concerned about our reputation? (Implying that we would do it if we would not get caught.)
  • Or do we behave morally simply because of the certainty of punishment? (Implying that we would do it if we could get away with it.)

The latter spells no good for the state of society, yet we tend to regard people like this. State enforcement of moral behaviour is justified with Type 3 people in mind (and is optimised on them). It does not reward a more internalised sense of morality and even makes one feel stupid to comply when punishment is nor forthcoming. Does this approach encourage this kind of superficial morality?

When we outsource our morals to be enforced by law, we place our moral compass outside of ourselves.  As a consequence, we find it difficult to tell the difference between immoral and illegal (consider victimless crimes). With a thick set of regulations, one will eventually fall for the sentiment that whatever is not explicitly banned, must be allowed – with all its implications.

But is it better when we only care for our reputation – and not the actual moral thing to do? (Type 2) By this logic what does the birth of mass surveillance mean for our morals? We may get more compliant when we know we are being watched – but it shrinks the territory of real moral behaviour (Type 1). Surveillance is justified with these kind of people in mind – it therefore reproduces this kind of mentality.

Surveillance also excels at finding out victimless crimes as well as real ones. Given our sense of morality being confused by what is legal and what is not, this means an absolute reign of the legal – which then has to cope with no oversight apart from itself. Is state enforced morality (law enforcement and surveillance) crowding out the real thing?


When one feels helpless to improve things, one will regard pessimism and cynicism as smart, while aspiration to change and improvement is dismissed as naïve, or bitterly attacked. These views are mere justifications and a way to pose as strong or competent despite one’s own sense of helplessness, or moral capitulation.

State enforced morality is a fact cynics thrive on. It justifies them and their own dark views, it thus erodes social capital and discredits the proponents of the necessity of a personal moral compass. With so many rules to keep in mind one can be forgiven not to spare time to keep catalogue of the subtle differences between moral and law.

Pessimism and cynicism are widely regarded as smart, while aspiration to change and improvement is often dismissed as naïve (and bitterly attacked). The reason is obvious: these are mere justifications of one’s own immorality (active or by inaction).

Cynicism is a reaction to helplessness, not the cause of inaction. It is a way to pose as strong or wise despite one’s own moral capitulation. A form of “moral Stockholm syndrome”, often triggered by the lack of control and resignation. It also makes disengagement with the regime less likely due to the sense of complicity.

One should wonder why pessimism and cynicism are not widely condemned and why it is not socially shamed.

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2 thoughts on “Conditional Morality And Cynicism In The Authoritarian Mind

  1. Pingback: How To Be A Useful Idiot – Part 2. | Meanwhile in Budapest

  2. Pingback: How To Be A Useful Idiot – And Not Get Paid To Do It | Meanwhile in Budapest

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