February 4, 2016 by Cláudia
Stanley Milgram’s Obedience to Authority was one of the most (I will risk and say it was the most) significant book I have ever read in my entire life. It completely changed my view and relationship with society and it made me think about how my actions could be conditioned by outside forces.
The experience (I will try to be brief although I would love to describe it in great detail) was supposedly to test the relation between punishment and memory, by having a “teacher” administering shocks to a “student” whenever he failed to memorize a set of words. But in reality, the experience was designed to test the extent to which a subject would obey to an authority they considered legitimate. The electric shocks varied from a harmless 15 volts to 450 lethal volts. The “teacher” was supposed to increase the shock for each wrong answer. Obviously this experiment was fictitious and no real shocks were administered. The result was shocking: 65% of the subjects carried the experiment until the end. That means that, if the experience was real, 65% of the people would have killed an innocent man just because they were told to.
This raises some interesting questions. We cannot describe 65% of the people as aggressive or immoral. In fact, most of the subjects experienced extreme signs of discomfort – anxiety, fidgeting, nervous laughing, sweating, and other signs of conflict and stress. It was obvious they weren’t keen on continuing the experiment, so why did they? They had an authority behind them, and an authority they considered legitimate. They asked the scientist for permission and confirmation, ultimately feeling like they were not accountable for what they were doing and placing all responsibility in the one who was giving orders.
When given orders by an authority considered legitimate, the individual abdicates his individual thinking, feeling like he/she’s part of a bigger plan and that there’s more at stake that he/she can understand. Milgram observed this, stating:
The person who, with inner conviction, loathes stealing, killing, and assault may find himself performing these acts with relative ease when commanded by authority. Behaviour that is unthinkable in an individual who is acting on his own may be executed without hesitation when carried out under orders.
This is very common in our daily lives: “I’m just doing my job”, “I’m just doing what I’m told to do”. It’s not that the individual person necessarily agrees with what he/she is doing, it’s that now he’s become an agent instead of an individual. An obedient subject no longer has his individuality – he’s part of a machine, he’s an impersonal executor. This is how most calamities happen: we have some ringleaders, some supporters, and then a lot of people that feel like they have no choice but to obey.
Obedience is a response that has been instilled in us since we were born. Obey to your parents, obey to your teachers, later obey to your school teachers, later to your superiors at work. There is a hierarchy in authority and it is because we recognize and accept that hierarchy that we feel obligated to obey someone in a higher position. We instinctively associate disobedience with something negative, something disruptive that can imbalance the society and destroy its network.
But truthfully, looking at this experiment and at Human History, blind obedience cannot be a positive thing because we have no guarantee that the authority is benign. We may be a part of a maniac, evil plan (like those subjects would be if the experiment was real) and we may be doing things our conscience and morality would never approve in another situation. In truth,
more hideous crimes have been committed in the name of obedience than have ever been committed in the name of rebellion
Only when we act accordingly to our integrity, our action can truly be free. If acting doesn’t correspond to our feeling then outside forces are interfering with our discernment: the hierarchical relations of society, the concept of what is “normal”, or a physical authority that explicitly gives us an order. Of all these I would argue that the “normality” is the strongest because, being invisible and intangible, we have no way of recognizing it as an outside force.
This book made me think how important is to question. To think like an individual, and not follow masses just because it’s easier. To not question is more disruptive than to disobey. This is not a plea for anarchy, disobedience just for the sake of it is just as disruptive as blind obedience. When you disobey, you should consider in which way you are benefiting yourself, society or others from not following orders. This is a plea for thinking and questioning. When one’s values are conflicting with the actions, symptoms of discomfort manifest in the subject. If the values and the feelings are more important to the individual, then it is possible to cut the connection with the authority and become free.
Defy authority when you cannot obey it and stay righteous.
But if I could invite you to do something would be to read the book. I can guarantee it will have an impact on you.