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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Moral Choice, Group Dynamics, NASA, and Duels

In my last post I spoke about moral choice — what led a Protestant village in France to save the lives of thousands of Jewish children during World War II — the question of how to weight individual leaders, the history of Protestants in France, the location of the village, in understanding their heroism and thus heroic acts in general. Mark brought up a study that showed individuals making opposite moral choices depending on group pressures. By coincidence,  I had a chance to interview Dr. Al Holland, the NASA psychologist who went down to Chile during the mine rescue. I’d found an old interview with him in a site that recounts the history of the Mir space program. There he listed the ideal traits for a set of astronauts confined together for a long flight — those traits almost perfectly matched the behavior of the miners. so the question is why did the miners do so well? They were not carefully selected for a mission — indeed, some were not even miners, where you could say that years of experience underground helped. Some of the men trapped 2100 feet down were drivers who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and had no underground experience. And yet they all performed as well as the best carefully tested, interviewed, and selected astronauts. Why?

Dr. Holland said that everyone has some degree of potential to rise to the occasion in a crisis — not an equal potential, but some such capacity. The challenge is to create a social environment that both activiates that capacity — whether it is an ability to lead, or to be an attentive follower — and does not clash with or restict those impulses in people. In other words, individuals will on their own have a greater or lesser impulse to, say, save Jews from Nazis, or help slaves escape, or risk dogs and fire hoses to march for Civil Rights, or, in revese, burn crosses, spread rumors. But it is the group dynamic that fuels or dampens those instincts. And that social dynamic, Dr. Holland suggested, is complex. For example, on a mission, as in Chile, there is the sociology of the people in trouble, another dynamic in their families, and a third in the helping community.

As I was thinking about this, I read about a new book by the interesting thinker Kwame Anthony Appiah called Honor Code, How Moral Revolutions Happen As you will see, the cover features a kneeling, pleading slave — an image used very effectively by the British abolitionists in the 1800s. I suspect that part of my interest in all thsee questions is that the book Marina and I wrote on sugar turns on exactly that movement — and the question of why England, which was making more money out of sugar slavery than anyone else, was the first to abolish slavery. So Appiah, it seems, is asking that same question about group dynamics and moral choice about an issue I’ve just been thinking about. (He also speaks about dueling, hence the headline of this blog)

Any of you who are teachers may find all of this old hat — what is your job but to activite the  capacity for learning in a group, that’s what a classroom is. Perhaps, but that might well make such questions about moral choice all the more interesting for students and classes to discuss.


  1. Great post & I have learned about 2 new authors vis a vis this post. Pater Gay wrote a book about dueling which I believe is titled The Culture of Hatred. I have a great deal of academic freedom in my classroom ( a great gift ) and I will expand my curriculum on the Holocaust to include the issues you raised in this post and others. The intersection of individual moral choice and society and government has been underexplored with the children, in my view. The kids are very interested in individual stories and we are responsible to broaden that view, I think

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    let us know how those classroom discussions go, will be interesting to hear

  3. Hi Marc – I really enjoyed your interesting essay. I was surprised at the number of distracting spelling errors though: treat>trait, hehavior>behavior, activiates>activates, pleeding>pleading, headlien/headline. Spellcheck?

  4. Marc Aronson says:

    comes from writing so early in the morning

  5. Yes, thank you for the two new authors to check out. Also, what an interesting way to look at the ways in which the miners took care of each other…