March 24, 2007


Goat Rope is not entirely pleased to note the return of one of its weekend animal commentators.

The guest in question is a snapping turtle who refuses to identify himself and is known only as the Untrustworthy Reptile.

(For first time visitors, this blog generally covers fairly serious topics during the week but provides space during the weekend for various animal commentators.)

Due to our profound commitment to the First Amendment (although the extent to which it applies to animals is unclear), we will allow this creature to have his say despite our many reservations. However, we will assume no liability for anyone who chooses to follow his advice.


Jeez, you look like hell! What happened to you anyway?

Are you sure you’re still alive? There are buzzards circling over your head…

Man, there’s only one hope for you. You need a shot of ol’ Doctor Tortuga’s Pick-Me-Up--fast.

And you know what? Today is your lucky day. I just so happens I’ve got some on me. Yeah. I try to keep some on hand in case I run into anyone as pathetic looking as you.

Let me tell you about it…it’s all natural, made from secret ingredients. It’s guaranteed to heal all diseases and injuries, correct genetic defects, and protect you from meteor showers and lightning.

It makes you look real attractive too. Makes you look younger if you’re old and old enough not to be carded if you’re young. Makes you gain weight if you’re too skinny and lose it if you’re too fat.

It’s strong stuff. Comes in a tiny little bottle.

I’ve got one right here in the back of my mouth. And today only, it’s free. No smackeroos.

Why don’t you just reach right in and help yourself. Just reach in there part way for a second…

Hey! Where are you going? I hope you rot! You’re worm-chow, buddy! I hate you!


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.


March 21, 2007


Caption: The constant struggle within human nature is here symbolized by a cat playing with a peacock feather and a dog searching a squeaky toy. It's like really deep or something.

This is the fourth post in a series on obedience to authority and all the carnage that has caused over the years. It was initially inspired by reflections on psychologist Stanley Milgram's classic experiment.

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

So why is it so easy to get people to hurt other people who have done them no harm when told to do so by an authority figure?

It would be nice to think that people who do so are abnormally cruel or sadistic, but that's not the case. They (we?) are pretty normal people.

Could it be that a dark and aggressive side of human nature accounts for it?

Milgram explored but dismissed that explanation in Obedience to Authority at least as it applied to the results of his "shocking" experiment and presumably in many related situations.

He describes the aggression argument thus:

By aggression we mean an impulse or action to harm another organism. In the Freudian view, destructive forces are present in all individuals, but they do not always find ready release, for their expression is inhibited by superego, or conscience. Furthermore, ego functions--the reality-oriented side of man--also keep destructive tendencies under control. (If we strike out every time we are angry, it will ultimately bring us harm, and thus we restrain ourselves.) Indeed, so unacceptable are these destructive instincts that they are not always available to conscious scrutiny. However, they continually press for expression and, in the end, find release in the violence of war, sadistic pleasures, individual acts of anti-social destruction, and under certain circumstances self-destruction.

But he ultimately rejects it:

Although aggressive tendencies are part and parcel of human nature, they have hardly anything to do with the behavior observed in the experiment. Nor do they have much to do with the destructive obedience of soldiers in war, of bombardiers killing thousands on a single mission, or enveloping a Vietnamese village in searing napalm. The typical soldier kills because he is told to kill and he regards it as his duty to obey orders. The act of shocking the victim does not stem from destructive urges but from the fact that subjects have become integrated into a social structure and are unable to get out of it.

In one of the permutations of the experiment, subjects were allowed to choose the level of shock they could administer. Overwhelmingly, they gave the lowest possible shocks. Only when they were in a structured environment directly supervised by an apparently "legitimate" authority did most subjects administer the highest shocks.

Another variation on the experiment deliberately frustrated subjects to see if anger and similar emotions would increase the probability that they would choose to inflict severe shocks given the choice. It had very little effect.

Milgram concludes that

The key to the behavior of subjects lies not in pent-up anger or aggression but in the nature of their relationship to authority. They have given themselves to the authority; they see themselves as instruments for the execution of his wishes; once so defined, they are unable to break free.

In other words, our problem is not that we are "killer apes," rather that we are all too human.

He called this relationship to authority "the agentic state," which will keep until tomorrow...

VERY COOL NY TIMES ITEM ON THE EVOLUTION OF MORALITY. In the history of philosophy, there have often been conflicting schools of thought on ethics between those who based it on rationality (like Kant) and those who based it on empathy and emotions (like Adam Smith, Hume, and the Scottish Enlightenment). El Cabrero, as a Scotch-Irish hillbilly with an admiration for German philosophy, has mixed emotions on that one. But it looks like my Celtic cousins are winning as the scientific evidence comes in.

VERY INTERESTING ITEM ON THE FACT THAT WE MAY NOT BE AS NASTY AS WE USED TO BE. Harvard professor Steven Pinker has a fascinating article in the March 19 New Republic titled "A History of Violence: We're getting nicer every day."

Citing studies that show a long term decline in violence, he argues that this trend may be "the most important and most underappreciated trend in the human saga..." As bad as things seem now, he argues that they were worse in the past. Of course, there are more people now and we have more nasty toys. Probably we have shifted from more overt forms of cruelty to more impersonal, systemic, and structural violence.



Caption: This man would shock anybody for a squeaky toy.

This is the third post in a series on the issue of obedience to authority (among other things), which has probably led to more atrocities than all the many individual acts of cruelty combined. The series was inspired in part by El Cabrero's musings on the lessons of psychologist Stanley Milgram's classic and "shocking" experiment.

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

Obedience is related to but different from conformity in that the former applies to people in a higher organization position while the latter applies to people in a similar position.

One generally obeys people who occupy a higher position within a bureaucratic structure and conforms with the opinions and actions of peers. Still, conformity can reinforce obedience. An example would be a society or subculture where people frown on those who question their leaders. (Good thing that doesn't happen around here, huh?)

In his book Obedience to Authority, Milgram writes

Obedience is the psychological mechanism that links individual action to political purpose. It is the dispositional cement that binds men to systems of authority. Facts of recent history and observation in daily life suggest that for many people obedience may be a deeply ingrained behavior tendency, indeed, a prepotent impulse overriding training in ethics, sympathy, and moral conduct.

He was speaking not only of his well known experiment in which subjects supplied what were apparently lethal shocks to another person when commanded to by a scientist, but also of the complicity of many ordinary Germans in the Nazi Holocaust and more recent examples of military atrocities committed under orders in wartime which inspired it. Regarding the experiment, he said

It is the extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority that constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation....

This is, perhaps, the most fundamental lesson of our study: ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with the fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources need to resist authority. A variety of inhibitions against disobeying authority come into play and successfully keep the person in his place.

Next time: possible explanations.

HEALTH CARE ITEMS. There are two good items about the need for comprehensive health care reform in the latest New Republic, including this editorial calling for universal health care and addressing the tax issue head on:

raising taxes to finance universal health care isn't tantamount to imposing a new financial burden. It's swapping one burden for another. And there is good reason to believe that, ultimately, the new burden will be smaller. Serious reform schemes have the potential to restrain costs substantially--whether by eliminating administrative waste, bargaining harder on prices, or reducing unproductive profiteering.

And there's a much more detailed article by Arnold S. Relman showing that market based approaches to universal health care is a non-starter. Here's the punchline:

A real solution to our crisis will not be found until the public, the medical profession, and the government reject the prevailing delusion that health care is best left to market forces. Kenneth Arrow had it right in 1963 when he said that we need to depend on "non-market" mechanisms to make our health care system work properly. Once it is acknowledged that the market is inherently unable to deliver the kind of health care system we need, we can begin to develop the "nonmarket" arrangements for the system we want. This time the medical profession and the public it is supposed to serve will have to be involved in the effort. It will be difficult, but it will not be impossible.

Well said. No shock for them...


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...


March 19, 2007


Caption: Ferdinand only obeys the goddess of love.

A long time ago on Saturday Night Live, Fr. Guido Sarducci talked about the Five Minute University, an educational program that would teach you what you'd remember after you graduated.

Sample: and demand.

In the spirit of Fr. Sarducci, if you ever had a psychology class or talked with someone you had, you would probably remember "some dude who told people to shock other people and they did."

That would be the late Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram, who, in light of the many atrocities of obedience in the 20th century, wondered how and under what conditions ordinarly people would follow orders to inflict harm on people they had nothing against.

Short answer: it was WAY easier than he initially thought.

To briefly recap, Milgram set up a situation in which subjects thought they were participating in an experiment on the relationship of punishment or negative reinforcement to learning. They were to give a task invovling word memory to a learner who was in fact an actor. Each time the learner/actor made a "mistake," the subjects were asked to give them an electric shock of steadily increasing severity.

According to the website, published by Dr. Thomas Blass,

He found, surprisingly, that 65% of his subjects, ordinary residents of New Haven, were willing to give apparently harmful electric shocks-up to 450 volts-to a pitifully protesting victim, simply because a scientific authority commanded them to, and in spite of the fact that the victim did not do anything to deserve such punishment.

(Blass, by the way, wrote a biography of Milgram cleverly titled The Man Who Shocked the World. That's going on my list.)

Milgram tried lots of variations of the experiment, but the above will do if you remember nothing else.

In addition to whatever topics emerge,El Cabrero is going to ponder the issue of obedience to authority, which has probably led to more atrocities and misery than all the crimes of "deviance."

SPEAKING OF (ERODING) AUTHORITY, a new poll released this weekend reveals a further drop in support for the war in Iraq. This weekend, thousands of Americans, including several hundred West Virginians, came together to protest Bush administration Iraq policy. El Cabrero took part in an event at the state capitol sponsored by WV Patriots for Peace, WV Citizen Action Group, and allied organizations.

(Once again, I didn't bring a camera. I keep forgetting that those things work with people too...)

MORE ON PRIVATIZATION AT WALTER REED. Here's a new item that came out yesterday that shows how the administration's mania for privatization eroded the quality of care at Walter Reed:

Documents from the investigative and auditing arm of Congress map a trail of bid, rebid, protests and appeals between 2003, when Walter Reed was first selected for outsourcing, and 2006, when a five-year, $120 million contract was finally awarded.

The disputes involved hospital management, the Pentagon, Congress and IAP Worldwide Services Inc., a company with powerful political connections and the only private bidder to handle maintenance, security, public works and management of military personnel.

While medical care was not directly affected, needed repairs went undone as the staff shrank from almost 300 to less than 50 in the last year and hospital officials were unable to find enough skilled replacements.

SELF ADMINISTERED FILM CRITICISM. I'm still getting used to having DSL, which is way cool. I admit that this short Ferdinand flick is not exactly Citizen Kane. They should get better though.