March 20, 2007


Caption: These guys never obey anybody.

This is the second of several posts dealing with the issue of obedience to authority (among other things). If this is your first visit, please scroll down to yesterday's entry.

The question of why people obey authority when they are asked to do things they would never do as individuals has taken on urgency since the Nazi holocaust and subsequent atrocities.

It's pretty easy to understand why people would obey if violence or the clear threat of violence was involved. But most of the time it isn't (although the unspoken threat of violence or other sanctions is often a factor).

In general rulers prefer not to rule by force alone but by making the ruled obey in a way that appears to be voluntary (Marx called the belief system that supports this ideology).

Obviously socialization, as in experiences in learning from and dealing with other individuals and institutions from birth on plays a major role. As Dostoevsky wrote in Crime and Punishment, "Man gets used to anything, the scoundrel."

Sociology pioneer Max Weber identified three types of authority that have prevailed at one time or another in various societies. These were often seen as legitimate by both rulers and ruled. They are traditional, charismatic, and rational-legal.

(Note: Weber used the word "rational" in several senses and would be the first to say that so-called rational authority can be very irrational in a substantive sense.)

Traditional authority is pretty much what it sounds like. An example would be hereditary monarchy, chieftains, or any long-standing social institution.

Charismatic authority involves the special power of the leader, who may lack other forms of authority. Charismatic authority can be as good or bad as the leader involved. Jesus would be a classic example. He was neither a priest or a ruler and people responded to him on the basis of his personal characteristics. On the bad side, Hitler would be an example of a charismatic leader who fascinated his followers. Charisma still plays a role even in rational-legal systems. It tends to be fairly unstable.

In our world, the kind of authority that prevails is rational-legal, which is based on rules, laws, and procedures that are generally written down. We obey this kind of authority figure not because of personal traits or long standing tradition (though both can be a factor) but rather because these are seen to be legitimate within their sphere of influence.

To use some examples, most people would write a term paper assigned by a teacher in a class in which they are enrolled but wouldn't accept a parking ticket from him or her. They might obey a supervisor at work but not at home, etc.

Obeying isn't always or even usually a bad thing. But it gets interesting and tragic when rational-legal authorities demand from their subjects acts of injustice, violence and aggression on others.

When that happens, people too often seem to stop being morally autonomous individuals and enter what Stanley Milgram called "the agentic state" in which they become in effect a cog in the machinery of power.

More on this next time.

SPEAKING OF (DECLINING) LEGITIMACY, a recent poll of Iraqis shows that only 18 percent have confidence in U.S. led forces,

About 86 percent were concerned about someone in their household being a victim of violence. Iraqis were also disappointed by reconstruction efforts since the invasion, with 67 percent saying efforts had not been effective.

AND THEN THERE ARE THOSE TIMES WHEN RATIONAL-LEGAL AUTHORITY IS NEITHER...such as the domestic spying scandal, the firing of U.S. attorneys, or any number of other examples.

I guess the good news is that when authority oversteps the bounds, it sometimes loses legitimacy...



Anonymous said...

Sometimes authority can go a very long way before people conclude that it has overstepped it's bounds.

In one version of the Milgram experiments, the experimenter was able to get the person administering the shocks to actually force the "subjects" hand down on the electrode.

The percentage of people who could be persuaded to do this dropped to about 40% in this set of trials.

40% is pretty scary.

El Cabrero said...

That's for sure.