3.3 Authoritarian conscience
- an inner feeling or voice viewed as acting as a guide to the rightness or wrongness of one’s behavior (source New Oxford Dictionary)
- for libertarians: a brake on initiating or continuing behavior that might hinder or harm others
As a direct consequence the authoritarian does not have a strongly developed conscience (in the eyes of a libertarian), but relies on social norms to judge whether behavior is appropriate or not. Adherence to social norms is qualitatively different from a conscience because the last form relies on individual autonomy and understanding so that behavior can be tuned flexibly to specific and novel situations. While authoritarians and libertarians can, and often will, agree on the applicability of social norms and judicial laws; for the authoritarians they form unquestionable origins of their behavior to be adhered to strictly: because if they don’t, they have nothing to fall back to (and chaos looms).
For the libertarians social norms and laws are fully understood, man-made, and therefore malleable and to be applied skillfully and flexibly. For a true libertarian an adapted, more suitable, or even improvised norm that is consistent with higher and more abstract notions of freedom, self-expression, social responsibility, equality, or fairness is fine. While for libertarians norms and laws arise as human social constructs, and are as such mundane, for the authoritarian the origin of norms and laws are inaccessible, their scope eternal (even if they change over time), their character profound, and on the whole of a religious quality that one should not argue with, adapt to the situation, nor question.
Social norms, whether or not explicit as regulations, procedures, and laws, are extremely important for authoritarians because they form the basis of their behavior and the essence of their ability to cope. But norms have a very special quality. Authoritarians group those that adhere to their norms as “us” and those that do not as “them”. At the same time, for authoritarians, adherence to the norms means “good” because it keeps life manageable and violation means “bad” behavior because it challenges their coping capacity. While libertarians, in many cases, might agree with qualifications in terms of good and bad, they will rely on their own conscience and not on mere norm adherence or norm violation to decide whether something is good or bad.
It was this norm-following that made Eichmann the monster he didn’t think he was himself. His [pathological normality] was in his own eyes just normal obedience and therefore moral. Of course “he remembered perfectly well that he would have had a bad conscience only if he had not done what he had been ordered to do.” That this was “to ship millions of men, women, and children to their death with great zeal and the most meticulous care” was beside the point. It was the proper norm-following obedience and therefore moral. It was also deeply immoral from a libertarian in the same situation for whom cooperation and prevention of harm are virtues, while blind obedience is a sin.
Note that after the fact and in low-fear conditions — in the case of Eichmann after the war — authoritarians and libertarians tend to agree on the immorality of certain acts. However that is not an indication of a similar conscience. Although the New Oxford Dictionary defines a conscience as “an inner feeling or voice viewed as acting as a guide to the rightness or wrongness of one’s behavior”. Simply having a feeling of the rightness or wrongness of some sort of behavior that harms others is a very weak form of a conscience. Eichmann might have had these feelings as well some of the time. A much stronger and meaningful form conscience is actually stopping yourself from engaging in such behavior, especially when peer-pressure is strong and when you might face the consequences of your non-compliance. This is the moment in which you really prove you tend to act authoritarian or libertarian.
Authoritarians will interpret the non-compliance of the libertarian as immoral, while the libertarians will judge the willingness of authoritarians to harm outgroups as immoral. Consequently, authoritarians and libertarians might easily and fundamentally disagree on what is good and bad. And because they reach conclusions in qualitatively different ways, they might never understand each other. It is this phenomenon that is relied on by geopolitical operatives in coups. CIA-coups follow a predictable script that relies on this lack of mutual understanding.