People seem to calibrate toward moral mediocrity. If we see, or are told, that many people violate a norm, that seems to increase the rate at which we ourselves violate the norm (e.g., Cialdini et al 2006; Keizer et al. 2011 [though see here]). Commit a good deed or think of yourself in a good light, and shortly thereafter you might be more likely to commit a bad deed, or less likely to commit another good deed, than you otherwise would have been ("moral self-licensing"; though see here). Susan Wolf tells us that people do not, and should not, aim to be moral saints. But maybe she understates the case: Not only do people not want to be saints, they don't even want to be particularly good.
If so, this might fit nicely with the psychology of genocide and war crimes: Yes, it was wrong, perpetrators often say in interviews after the fact. So (the audience wonders), if you knew it was wrong, why did you do it?! Answer: So many people were doing wrong and getting away with it; others would have done the same in the same situation. Interpretation: I was aiming at mediocrity and I hit the target!
How good do you want to be? Don't try to think about what you would have done in Auschwitz. I doubt most of us can know that. Some closer-to-home thought experiments:
Suppose you think that cheating on taxes is morally wrong, independent of compliance rates and whether one is caught. Suppose, now, that you learn that 20% of tax filers with capital gains income cheat on taxes by underreporting their gains, without being caught. You have capital gains you've been honestly reporting. Do you now feel like a sucker? Or do you proudly stand with the upright 80%? What if you learn that only 1% cheat? What if you learn that most people -- 70%, 95% -- cheat?
Or consider sacrificing luxuries so that you can give to charity, or spending two hours to give blood, or having a secret romantic affair, or cheating on a badly-proctored exam, or doing unpleasant duties at work. If the majority are reaping the benefits of immorality -- or if a non-trivial minority (say 20%) are -- do you join them? Do you want to be more charitable than average and more giving of your time than average and to carry more than the average load of group-supporting duties at work and to be more honest with your spouse and a better parent and a better citizen and and and...? Or is moral mediocrity, when you think about it, actually fine with you, the level to which you really aspire?
You might say: To be better than average in so many ways would be to be a moral saint of sorts -- maybe not even humanly possible. But I don't think that's true. I believe that I know some people who are, across a pretty wide range of dimensions, morally admirable (certainly not perfect). But I don't think many people aspire to be like them.
If this is correct, two further thoughts:
(1.) Maybe it's fine to aspire to moral mediocrity? I don't think most of us like to think ourselves as moral mediocrities. But when I think of all the demands the world puts on us, and all the opportunities to be better that we decline or don't even bother to try to see, I feel considerable sympathy for moral mediocrity. (To be clear: In some situations, such as the Holocaust, I think mediocrity is a moral catastrophe to be avoided even at high personal cost.)
(2.) Part of the idea of mediocrity is that the moral standards are relative to what one sees others doing. So if one wants to change one's calibration, or the calibration of others, one effective way might be to change what sorts of behavior receive attention. Some of the ancient wisdom traditions encourage us to think about positive exemplars -- Confucius, Jesus, Buddha, saints, heroes. Perhaps the more we think about those types of cases, keeping them salient, and because salient perhaps representative, the more we will be inclined to model ourselves after them. (Perhaps.) Conversely, perhaps the typical business ethics or research ethics class, which focuses on analyzing examples of corporate or scientific malfeasance, risks backfiring by creating the impression that the world is full of unpunished cheaters.
P.S.: I write this in the spirit of arguing with myself.
[See also: The Calibration View of Moral Reflection]