I'm not really close to any of my family, but I hear of one of them rather more often than the others. About once every three or four years, he makes the news locally, in some minor way, and I recognize his name: he's in law enforcement, and he's the officer quoted in some news story about that often. And I notice something every time, without exception. But first, some preface.
I've scarcely seen him at all since a family holiday event a smidgen over 25 years ago. I was back from college, he was a recent college graduate working for the county police department. And it came up in conversation that he'd been recently assigned to the vice and narcotics squad, working undercover. Knowing what I knew about vice and narcotics work in general, and about the then truly awful reputation of the county's vice and narcotics squad, I expressed my sympathy, and assured him that most officers find it pretty easy to rotate out within at most a year or two. He demured, and stated right out loud that he'd asked for the transfer to narcotics and vice, and intended to make a career out of it. I couldn't square that with his life-long reputation as the straightest of straight arrows in the family, as someone with zero taste for any kind of moral or ethical compromise, couldn't see how he could do work that compromises you ethically and morally even in the cleanest of departments, which the county vice and narcotics squad absolutely wasn't at the time. He couldn't understand what part of it was confusing me. So after talking past each other for a while, I brought up all the scandals I'd seen in the past year's worth of newspapers, asked how a guy who felt the way he did could make the ethical and moral compromises necessary to do undercover work at all, let alone participate in cover-ups of criminal activity by fellow officers and superior officers, and not want to escape it as fast as possible?
I think I was expecting some kind of nuanced answer. I did not get one, nor was I braced at all for what I got: an explosion. Incoherent, angry raving and screaming. To which, being no more mature than any other 20-something, I responded by trying to yell over him to try to ask him what he was yelling about, which, of course, only made things worse. The family began to steadily gather around us from other rooms, to see what the yelling was about, just in time for he and I to figure out exactly what the point of conflict was between us:
My relative is firmly of the opinion that it is flatly never acceptable to place your own moral judgment above that of anybody in authority over you. Ever. Not only is it never acceptable, it's never moral. Not only is it never moral, it is never even legal, he insisted. Not only is it illegal, but it's a sign of a sick mind; only the most twisted and psychopathic and immoral of perverted reprobates says that their moral judgment is more reliable and more trustworthy than that of any authority figure over them. If someone in authority over you tells you that something is moral, then either that settles it, or you're the kind of criminal monster sicko that guys like my relative have sworn to protect society against. And when he got that across to me, I lost my temper even bigger than he had. I reminded him of the Fourth Nuremberg Principle, as I'd been taught it all the way back in first grade: "I was only following orders" is not a defense, it's an indictment. I reminded him that we had sent Nazi and Japanese war criminals to long prison sentences for not exercising independent moral judgment when given immoral orders by their superiors. Within seconds, we were both screaming apoplectics, and that's when the whole family stepped in to separate us. Both his mother and my father said the same thing: "There is no way for you two to ever talk to each other ever again, if that's how you both feel." And we've both stuck to it, even at my parents' funerals; he stays over there, I stay over here. Even though he's almost one of the only living relatives I have in the local area, we never, ever interact, and it suits us both just fine.
And the thing is, in the immediate aftermath of that screaming match, my parents said something to me that took me decades to even grudgingly accept the possibility of: they told me that both he and I are completely insane on this subject. Someone who can never accept another person's moral authority when that person is in authority is just as crazy as someone who can never question it, they told me; the sane course is to know when the other person's moral authority is more trustworthy than your own, and to know when to question it. Some days, I can even intellectually accept that. But I cannot make myself actually believe it. I can be persuaded, when no moral issue is at stake, to follow orders I disagree with, because I accept that sometimes it's just not up to me. When moral issues are at stake but those in authority decree that there is to be no punishment for the path that's abhorrent to me, I can usually pretty effortlessly persuade myself to suspend judgment on others, usually even mind my own business, especially in cases where the people who're accepting the moral mis-steps are themselves the only ones being ripped off or hurt. But I can never, ever, ever judge right and wrong, especially as it applies to my own actions, by any standard other than my own moral compass.
Chalk it up as more evidence that I'm crazy, I know. But here's the thing I notice, every time he's in the news: he's gotten another promotion. Every couple of years, he moves up in rank, moves to a more prestigious department, or both. My particular insanity on this subject has rendered me unemployable, made enough actual and potential employers and co-workers uncomfortable as to have explicitly cost me three jobs, for not being unethical enough. Even when I was willing to go along to get along, people felt judged. His insanity, on the other hand, has been steadily lucrative for him, a lifetime source of satisfaction and prestige. And that makes me uncomfortable in ways I can't even begin to express, not all of which I even understand myself.