March 23, 2007


Caption: These guys get along. Is it because nobody is in charge?

This is the fifth and final post on obedience to authority and all the damage that can do. It was inspired by reflections on Stanley Milgram's classic experiment in which the majority of participants gave apparently lethal electric shocks to a stranger when ordered to do so by a scientist.

If this is your first visit, please scroll down to earlier entries.

To summarize the results of Milgram's experiment and analysis, under certain circumstances, people commit acts of violence against harmless others when ordered to do so by an apparently legitimate authority:

With numbing regularity good people were seen to knuckle under to the demands of the authority and perform actions that were callous and severe. Men who are in everyday life responsible and decent were seduced by the trappings of authority, by the control of their perceptions, and by the uncritical acceptance of the experimenter's definition of the situation into performing harsh acts.

This happens not because they are sadistic or are motivated by aggressive drives but because people act differently in a hierarchical situation than they would if they were on their own.

He calls this change "the agentic shift."

This isn't always a bad thing. Functioning as part of a coordinated hierarchy can have great survival value in dealing with external threats. Within the group, acceptance of the structure increases harmony and reduces internal violence and conflict.

As social animals, we are born with the potential for obedience which then is influenced by our interactions with the larger society. Whatever moral or other inhibitions we have when acting independently become secondary when we are acting as a part of a larger unit:

Therefore when the individual is working on his own, conscience is brought into play. But when he functions in an organizational mode, directions that come from the higher-level component are not assessed against the internal standards of moral judgment.

People in this situation do not see themselves as acting on their own but rather as agents for another person's wishes.

A number of factors serve to bind people to this state. These include years of socialization in which obedience was stressed; the rewards or punishments that a hierarchy can bestow; specific indoctrination; ethical ideals of duty, loyalty, and discipline; dominant ideologies; etc.

Given all that, the bigger question may not be why people obey but rather how some are able to muster the resources to disobey. Milgram suggests that this involves a process in which the individual responds to the strain of the situation. It begins with inner doubt, moves on to dissent and the threat to disobey, and finally to the act of disobedience itself. It's a painful process which can leave the person who chose to do the right thing feeling as if he or she was guilty of disrupting the social order.

No wonder it doesn't happen that often.

We are left with a pretty grim picture. Milgram believed that our tendency to obey is a fatal flaw that may in the end diminish our chances of survival:

It is ironic that the virtues of loyalty, discipline, and self-sacrifice that we value so highly in the individual are the very properties that create destructive organizational engines of war and bind men to malevolent systems of authority.

Each individual possesses a conscience which to a greater or lesser degree serves to restrain the unimpeded flow of impulses destructive to others. But when he merges his person into an organizational structure, a new creature replaces autonomous man, unhindered by the limitations of individual morality, freed of humane inhibition, mindful only of the sanctions of authority.

It is the opinion of El Cabrero that our only hope for dealing with this is

*to make people aware of how this system of obedience works and the harm that it can do; and

*to design social structures that include systems of checks and balances and accountability and to create institutions of countervailing power that limit the damage that other institutions and individuals can do.

FEDERAL BUDGET ANALYSIS. For an in depth analysis of the negative impact of President Bush's proposed budget, check this report from the WV Citizen Action Group.

THE CAPITO ONE. Previous posts described the arrest of the Rev. Jim Lewis, who refused to leave Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito's Charleston office following her support of President Bush's Iraq surge. He was later sentenced to perform a day of community service picking up garbage. Here's the latest edition of his Fig Tree Notes.



Jspiker said...

Love the video...looks like the peaceful kingdom to me!

El Cabrero said...

That's because they all join forces to be a pain in my behind...

dolls like us said...

People are not row boats they cannot be forced to do things. It is not fair to human beings . To me your arguments make no sense .

El Cabrero said...

But people often do things that are unfair to other human beings just because they're told to. That doesn't make a lot of sense to me either but it happens all the time.