Saturday, April 10, 2010

Obedience to Authority

Book Title:
Obedience to Authority: The Experiment that Challenged Human Nature

Stanley Milgram

This book presents the methodology, results, and formulated knowledge from the famous Stanley Milgram shock experiments and presents the thoughts of the man who created it.

Milgram begins by discussing the nature of obedience as it relates to everyday social life as well as the not-soon-forgotten implications of obedience as was displayed in the historical debacle known as WWII and the holocaust.

Milgram then sets up a method of inquiry into the nature of obedience with this Shock experiments in which a subject "teacher" at the command of an experimenter is to administer shocks to a "learner" who must answer a word pairing set up. The experiment is set up such that the learner who gets shocked is a paid actor who is faking pain and eventual death. The experimenter only replies to the complaints of the subject by telling him that the "experiment must continue" and that "there is no permanent tissue damage."

The shocks start small and increase in intensity until the shocks reach fatal levels.
The results of the baseline experiment showed that 65% of the subjects tested were obedient (remained in the experiment until fatal shocks were delivered)
Most subjects displayed extreme tension and anxiety during the experiment.

Several variations of the experiment were conducted including variations where the subject had to hold the learners hands to electrified plates to variations where the only signal from the learner was a light to indicate an answer. The variations of the experiment showed that increased proximity to the victim increased disobedience while increased proximity to the experimenter increased obedience.

Variations also included changes of personnel and personality types in the different roles and even multiple teachers. If the experimenter was not authoritative or a professional, disobedience would increase. If both learner and experimenter were professional authorities, the experiment would halt immediately.

In examining the results, Milgram found that people transition between two states of operations:
1) Autonomous State
2) Agentic State

In the autonomous state, the person is an individual where motivation and responsibility for one's actions are derived from one's own self. Here the overriding determinant of morality is the self which generally means that harm of others is avoided at all costs.

However, in the agentic state, the individual relinquishes responsibility for his or her actions onto the authority who issues commands presumably for a justifiable cause that benefits society in some way, whether the society is immediate or at some nebulous level. Since responsibility is with the authority, the judging of the morality of one's actions is bypassed and entrusted to the authority. Milgram argues that we are predisposed to obey the authority to preserve the structure of society. Morality is now viewed in terms of obedience, loyalty, duty, discipline, and self sacrifice.

Immediate Antecedent Conditions: (to entering authority)
Perception of Authority
Entry into Authority System
Coordination of Command with the Function of Authority
Overarching Ideology

Binding Factors:
Sequential Nature of the Action
Situational Obligations

Resolution of Strain:
Physical Conversion

Milgram notes that the steps to disobeying an authority are psychically painful and is done only as a last resort.
The steps toward dissobedience are:
Inner doubt
Externalization of doubt

Milgram also mentions several stain-resolving mechanisms that help an individual remain obedient.
My Spill:
Obedience to Authority, despite being several decades old, the book and the associated research has not lost any of the potency to shock (no pun intended) the reader at the apparent hardheartedness of humanity.

Milgram deconstructs and carefully examines each component of his experiment and comes up with a thorough theory of obedience that I think does much to explain the nature of authority.

With this viewpoint of authority, we begin to see man in a different light. A light where sources of authority should be held with great distrust as they hold with it the actions of every man under that authority.

The idea that really strikes me is how when switching to the Agentic State the nature of how one interprets morality is changed from one's own morals to the 'virtues' (perhaps principles is a better word) of obedience, loyalty, duty, discipline, and self sacrifice.

However, the Agentic virtues are only virtues when the aim of the authority is
toward benevolent ends accompanied with benevolent means.
Malicious ends and malicious means should be rebelled against!

Those in places of authority and power MUST act with morality.
In the end, we come to the quote (of debated origins),
"With great power comes great responsibility."
or as Jesus Christ says in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 12, verse 48: "For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more."

Here's some more food for thought:
"...those of us who heedlessly accept the commands of authority cannot yet claim to be civilized men." -Harold J. Laski (Not that I'm a proponent of the Labour Party)

“Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth.” -Albert Einstein

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