Many Republicans and Independents find themselves faced with the tension experienced by Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan on whether or not to support Donald Trump. Ryan withheld his support publicly for weeks and then caved in and gave it. Within a couple of days Trump made outrageous remarks about the Mexican heritage of a judge presiding over a case regarding the now defunct Trump University. Ryan found himself twisted like a pretzel having to deride Trumps words as “the definition of racism” while continuing to support him.
One explanation for Ryan’s actions can be found in the experiments on obedience to authority conducted by Stanley Milgram at Yale in the 1960s. They contain crucial observations that warn us that the tension Ryan was experiencing can be momentarily resolved for the individual without having made an ethical decision.
Here’s how it works. When demands placed on an individual by social forces conflict with matters of conscience, the resulting tension must be resolved. The first way to resolve the tension is to reduce one’s own divergence and capitulate to the social forces. This is what Ryan did. The psychological tension is at the moment resolved though the choice made is ethically problematic.
The second way to resolve the tension is to amplify one’s divergence with the social forces and clearly refuse to go along. One is no longer torn between competing choices so the tension also dissipates. In this case, however, ethics has been served well. This is a crucial distinction. The higher goal is not resolving the tension, but making the ethical choice. Many American politicians will find themselves at this juncture in the weeks ahead. Let us hope they meet this test better than Speaker Ryan has done at this time.
Paul Ryan’s Regrettable Choice
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