Authority Followed Blindly can Only Result in Tragic Consequences.
History has repeatedly taught us that blind or absolute faith in anyone is frequently the spark that ignites a rapidly accelerating cascade of events that ends in unspeakable tragedies. Two rather poignant examples of such disasters include the My Lai Massacre and the Jonestown Mass Suicide. In March of 1968, during the Vietnam War, My Lai, a small South Vietnamese village, was the site of despicable atrocities. More than 500 civilians were raped, tortured, and executed by American soldiers acting under the direct orders of Lieutenant William L. Calley (History.com). The Jamestown Mass Suicide is another example of the disastrous consequences that are inevitable when unconditional faith is placed in another individual. On November 18, 1978, more than 900 people, most acting voluntarily, participated in a massive suicide under the direct orders of their leader, Jim Jones (Jamestown). Many people feel that such events could never happen today, or that they would never be willing participants in such sadistic events. However, the landmark experiments conducted by Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram in 1963 provide compelling evidence to the contrary.
Milgram claims that obedience is an essential element in the structure of social life. Furthermore, he asserts that, for people who live communally, some system of authority is required. In addition, he believes that obedience is a deeply ingrained behavioral tendency that will emerge triumphant when in opposition to ethics, morals, and sympathy. He also asserts that the dilemma inherent in obedience to authority surfaces when the orders given by said authority conflict with one’s conscience (Milgram 631).
The experiments conducted by Milgram all had the same rudimentary set-up with the only deviations explicitly stated. Milgram’s experiment was designed to test how much pain the “teacher” would deliver to the “learner” as the result of orders from the physically present “experimenter.” The learner was strapped to a miniature electric chair that delivered electric shocks ordered by the experimenter and administered by the teacher. Although no actual shocks were applied, the teacher was unaware of this and believed that he/she was genuinely inflicting pain upon the learner (632).
Prior to the experiment, the learner was read pairs of words. During the investigation, the learner was told the first word in the couple, and an unsuccessful recitation of the appropriate second word resulted in the delivery of an electric shock. The voltage of said shocks began at 15 volts and increased in 15-volt intervals up to a maximum voltage of 450 volts. The first incorrect answer, including a failure to answer, resulted in the delivery of a 15-volt shock to the learner. Each subsequent wrong answer resulted in a shock that was 15 volts in excess of the prior shock, up to a maximum of 450 volts. Once the 450-volt shock was administered three times, the experiment concluded. The investigation also terminated if the teacher refused to continue the administration of the electric shocks. Out of the 40 subjects, 25 took the experiment to its conclusion and administered the three final 450-volt shocks (Milgram 632-34).
There were multiple variations in this experiment. In one variety, the subject/teacher chose the shock voltage administered for an incorrect response. Another modification had the experimenter deliver his orders via telephone, rather than being physically present. In a third variation, two experimenters of equal status gave conflicting orders to the subject. A fourth variation utilized three teachers: two actors, and a subject. It was designed to test group pressure on disobedience. Lastly, in the final variety, the subject read the word list while another person pulled the lever to deliver the shock (Milgram 639-642).
The major conclusions drawn were that, given a choice, most subjects administered lower voltage shocks, the experimenter’s physical presence increased subject compliance three-fold as compared to identical orders delivered via telephone, and two experimenters with conflicting voltage demands resulted in the delivery of no shocks past their point of disagreement. Additional conclusions drawn were that disobedience increased markedly when other members of the subject group refused to administer shocks. When the subject participated in behavior resulting in the administration of a shock but did not apply said shock directly, 37 out of 40 subjects continued to take part in the experiment up to the maximum shock voltage. The subjects rationalized their behavior by telling themselves that the person pulling the lever was ultimately responsible (Milgram 639-642).
In the initial experiment, many subjects wanted to quit at some point. However, many rationalized their behavior as merely following orders, and, somehow, this nullified their self-culpability. These subjects, according to Milgram, exhibited what he termed the “essence of obedience” or the shift of viewpoint resulting in a person seeing himself/herself as a tool for carrying out another’s orders. This shift alleviates all guilt that the person would typically feel, and he/she no longer feels any responsibility for his/her actions (Milgram 641).
Any individual with an ounce of conscience has no choice other than to be sickened by these experimental results. What makes these findings more difficult to comprehend is that a scientist in a very serene environment gave these orders. When did a scientist become an authority figure? Only one with either little self-esteem or a non-existent conscience, or both, could proceed as the subject in this experiment. Unfortunately, this result unearthed nothing new about human nature. One can hardly watch the news or read the newspaper without regularly encountering stories about despicable acts committed by those in power, e.g., sexual harassment, theft, discrimination, etc. Many people in power feel that they are entitled to live life under a different set of rules than the rest. To quote the immortal Lord Acton, “Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Never have more valid words been uttered.
Milgram, Stanley. “The Perils of Obedience.” Writing and Reading Across the Curriculum. 12th ed. Behrens, Laurence, and Leonard J. Rosen. New York: Pearson/Longman, 2013. 630-43. Print.
History.com Staff. “My Lai Massacre.” History.com. A+E Networks, 2009. Web. 21 July 2014.
—. “Jonestown.” History.com. A+E Networks, 2010. Web. 21 July 2014
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