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  July 3, 2012                  
Crisis: Milgram on obedience


̈́   ". . . civilization means, above all, an unwillingness to inflict unnecessary pain. Within the ambit of that definition, those of us who heedlessly accept the commands of authority cannot yet claim to be civilized men."
-- Harold Laski, The Dangers of Obedience

This is a sequel to Crisis: US Healthcare, Chinese changes, North-Korean horror (July 1) and Crisis: Liu Binyan on being human  (July 2), and addresses the problem of obedience, and also, but less explicitly so, the problems of conformism and groupthinking.

It consists mainly of a quotation from

    Stanley Milgram - Obedience to authority

that also includes the quotation that start this piece (and ends the text in the last link). (*)
I have changed nothing to the text as I found it, in the above link, except that I added some links to Wikipedia, to provide some background.

The text is from the book mentioned above, and "the experiments" mentioned below refers to the Milgram experiment, that indeed were repeated quite a few times, always with the same outcome: The great majority of subjects obey authority, also if this involves administrering electric shocks to someone they only met in the context of the experiment:

In reading through the transcripts of the My Lai episode, the Eichmann trial, and the trial of Lieutenant Henry Wirz, commandant at Andersonville, the following themes recur:

1. We find a set of people carrying out their jobs and dominated by an administrative, rather than a moral, outlook.

2. Indeed, the individuals involved make a distinction between destroying others as a matter of duty and the expression of personal feeling. They experience a sense of morality to the degree in which all of their actions are governed by orders from higher authority.

3. Individual values of loyalty, duty, and discipline derive from the technical needs of the hierarchy. They are experienced as highly personal moral imperatives by the individual, but at the organizational level they are simply the technical preconditions for the maintenance of the larger system.

4. There is frequent modification of language, so that the acts do not, at verbal level, come into direct conflict with the verbal moral concepts that are part of every person's upbringing. Euphemisms come to dominate language - not frivolously, but as a means of guarding the person against the full moral implications of his acts.

5. Responsibility invariably shifts upward in the mind of the subordinate. And, often, there are many requests for "authorization." Indeed, the repeated requests for authorization are always an early sign that the subordinate senses, at some level, that the transgression of a moral rule is involved.

6. The actions are almost always justified in terms of a set of constructive purposes, and come to be seen as noble in the light of some high ideological goal. In the experiment, science is served by the act of shocking the victim against his will; in Germany, the destruction of the Jews was represented as a "hygienic" process against "jewish vermin" (Hilberg, 1961) .

7. There is always some element of bad form in objecting to the destructive course of events, or indeed, in making it a topic of conversation. Thus, in Nazi Germany, even among those most closely identified with the "final solution," it was considered an act of discourtesy to talk about the killings (Hilberg, 1961). Subjects in the experiment most frequently experience their objections as embarrassing.

8. When the relationship between subject and authority remains intact, psychological adjustments come into play to ease the strain of carrying out immoral orders.

9. Obedience does not take the form of a dramatic confrontation of opposed wills or philosophies but is embedded in a larger atmosphere where social relationships, career aspirations, and technical routines set the dominant tone. Typically, we do not find a heroic figure struggling with conscience, nor a pathologically aggressive man ruthlessly exploiting a position of power, but a functionary who has been given a job to do and who strives to create an impression of competence in his work.

Now let us return to the experiments and try to underscore their meaning. The behavior revealed in the experiments reported here is normal human behavior but revealed under conditions that show with particular clarity the danger to human survival inherent in our make-up. And what is it we have seen? Not aggression, for there is no anger, vindictiveness, or hatred in those who shocked the victim. Men do become angry; they do act hatefully and explode in rage against others. But not here. Something far more dangerous is revealed: the capacity for man to abandon his humanity, indeed, the inevitability that he does so, as he merges his unique personality into larger institutional structures.

This is a fatal flaw nature has designed into us, and which in the long run gives our species only a modest chance 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.

What is the limit of such obedience? At many points we attempted to establish a boundary. Cries from the victim were inserted; they were not good enough. The victim claimed heart trouble; subjects still shocked him on command. The victim pleaded to be let free, and his answers no longer registered on the signal box; subjects continued to shock him. At the outset we had not conceived that such drastic procedures would be needed to generate disobedience, and each step was added only as the ineffectiveness of the earlier techniques became clear. The final effort to establish a limit was the Touch-Proximity condition. But the very first subject in this condition subdued the victim on command, and proceeded to the highest shock level. A quarter of the subjects in this condition performed similarly.

The results, as seen and felt in the laboratory, are to this author disturbing. They raise the possibility that human nature, or-more specifically-the kind of character produced in American democratic society, cannot be counted on to insulate its citizens from brutality and inhumane treatment at the direction of malevolent authority. A substantial proportion of people do what they are told to do, irrespective of the content of the act and without limitations of conscience, so long as they perceive that the command comes from a legitimate authority.

Note that the "fatal flaw nature has designed into us, and which in the long run gives our species only a modest chance of survival", apart from stupidity and egoism, that can be seen in just the same terms, for the most part come down to conformism and groupthinking, that "nature has designed into us" because these tend to support the survival of the group that the individual conformer and groupthinker belongs to. (**)

This also explains why such
individual conformers and groupthinkers believe they are "doing the right thing" when obeying authority: Their own superiors in their own group ask or command them to do it, and insist that doing what they ask or order is a moral or desirable thing to do, if not directly, then indirectly in terms of good consequences for the group: The worst acts tend to be justified in terms of the highest motives.

And indeed there is a parallel to Christopher Browning's conclusions in his "Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland
" that is concerned with the causes of the holocaust, that also is quoted in my

     Introductory Political Texts

which is a commented list of over 60 worthwile books about or relating to politics. Here is Brownings conclusion:

    I fear we live in a world in which war and racism are ubiquitous, in which the powers of government mobilization and legitimization are powerful and increasing, in which a sense of personal responsibility is increasingly attenuated by specialization and bureaucratization, and in which peer-group exerts tremendous pressures on behavior and sets moral norms. In such a world, I fear, modern governments that wish to commit mass murder will seldom fail in their efforts for being unable to induce "ordinary men" to become their "willing executioners.""
(p. 222-3, Ordinary men)

I quite agree - and the only antidotes I know are intelligence and altruism, both of which are not common:

A realistic numerical look at human morality

- for which reason it also tend to be the intelligent and altruistic persons who, next to truth, tend to be the first victims in wars, revolutions and dictatorships.

(*) The reason I mainly quote is that I am not feeling well, after two nights of very little sleep.
(**) This means there is a perfectly rational evolutionary reason for it, that can be spelled out as follows: Human beings live in groups, that give human individuals a much better chance of surviving and reproducing than when living alone or with a few; groups have a much better chance of survival as groups - ceteris paribus - if their members stand together; hence groups with many conforming members, and individuals who are conformists, have a much better chance of survival than groups with few conformists or proportionally many individuals who are not conformists.

Corrections, if any are necessary, have to be made later.


As to ME/CFS (that I prefer to call ME):

1.  Anthony Komaroff Ten discoveries about the biology of CFS (pdf)
3.  Hillary Johnson The Why
4.  Consensus of M.D.s Canadian Consensus Government Report on ME (pdf)
5.  Eleanor Stein Clinical Guidelines for Psychiatrists (pdf)
6.  William Clifford The Ethics of Belief
7.  Paul Lutus

Is Psychology a Science?

8.  Malcolm Hooper Magical Medicine (pdf)
 Maarten Maartensz
ME in Amsterdam - surviving in Amsterdam with ME (Dutch)
 Maarten Maartensz Myalgic Encephalomyelitis

Short descriptions of the above:                

1. Ten reasons why ME/CFS is a real disease by a professor of medicine of Harvard.
2. Long essay by a professor emeritus of medical chemistry about maltreatment of ME.
3. Explanation of what's happening around ME by an investigative journalist.
4. Report to Canadian Government on ME, by many medical experts.
5. Advice to psychiatrist by a psychiatrist who understa, but nds ME is an organic disease
6. English mathematical genius on one's responsibilities in the matter of one's beliefs:

7. A  space- and computer-scientist takes a look at psychology.
8. Malcolm Hooper puts things together status 2010.
9. I tell my story of surviving (so far) in Amsterdam/ with ME.
10. The directory on my site about ME.

See also: ME -Documentation and ME - Resources
The last has many files, all on my site to keep them accessible.


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