Authority is Nearly Always Bad

There’s a general tendency to forget bad things. We need reminders. I need reminders. One of those reminders is Stanley Milgram’s famous book – Obedience to Authority.

Milgram conducted an experiment in 1961, where he tested the nature of obedience. One of the motives of this study was the efficiency of the Nazi state in handing out millions of deaths. Officers were made to obey sinister commands not by force but by authority, and many of them didn’t even think they shared the responsibility for what they had done.

Obedience to Authority is a research report par excellence: it describes all variations of the experiment, presents all the results, and then draws a conclusion. Yet it remains easy to read, confronting the reader with the darkest places in human nature.

The experiment is briefly described here. An even shorter description is this: subjects were made to think they participate in a different experiment about human learning. They (acting as ‘teachers’) had to teach word pairs to another person (called the ‘student’). When the student made a mistake in repeating the word pairs, the subject was to give feedback by an electric shock. The more mistakes the ‘student’ made, the stronger the electric shock became. The subject knew that stronger shocks inflicted pain, and even stronger shocks were lethal. As shocks grew stronger, the ‘student’ was showing signs of discomfort, then pain, and then stopped responding.

Here was where authority came into play. The ‘teachers’ – the real subjects – were randomly recruited individuals from the city of New Haven, none of them evil, violent, or in any way psychopathic. They did not enjoy inflicting pain or causing death. They usually started to protest, and at some point, a number of them quit the experiment. But as the ‘teachers’ started to hesitate or protest, the authority – a stern, assertive person in laboratory attire acting as the ‘experimenter’ – insisted that the ‘teacher’ carry on, and it is central to the experiment that the ‘student’ experiences all levels of shock. This made some ‘teachers’ obey, and proceed until the highest – lethal – level of shock is administered.

In the infamous experiment 18, distance was also introduced: the ‘teachers’ did not administer the shock themselves, they were handed out by a peer, unseen by the ‘teacher’. In this experiment, 37 out of 40 subjects (‘teachers’) were obedient – they carried on until they reached the lethal level.

[In reality, the ‘student’ was not harmed, and he was asked to play out the reaction as if to a real electric shock.]

How does that relate to freedom? When I think I have moral integrity, and I think I’m free, I will act as my free will and my conscience tells me. When I obey authority, I do not act that way. But my conscience – and most moral norms – will still hold me responsible.

In his conclusions, Milgram attributes this to antecedent conditions – family, institutions, rewards. These and what he calls the binding factors can put individuals in an agentic state, which causes them to obey, often against their better judgment.

When we obey against our conscience, Milgram continues, we experience strain. First, it causes discomfort, then dissent – when we are no longer so eager to obey –, finally disobedience. It’s a good question when disobedience starts, seeing as how many individuals obeyed to the very end – in Milgram’s 18th experiment, in the Nazi organization, and in many places elsewhere.

Milgram admits that there might be other explanations: he himself points out that it might have been aggression, rather than obedience, that happened in the experiment. That’s an even darker interpretation of the human nature, assuming that we are naturally prone to being aggressive.

Regardless of the explanation, we have many things in our history that prevents us from acting freely. We might not be able to help it, but – and I say this the umpteenth time – it will do us good to be conscious about our reasons to act. We will probably never get to learn all of these, but that’s no excuse for giving ourselves up to unconditional obedience.

By our upbringing, we are conditioned to obey. From the moral viewpoint, C. S. Lewis gives an excellent analysis of this in The Abolition of Man, written in 1943, way before we had irrefutable evidence of the Nazi death camps. By our upbringing, we are inclined to obey authority without challenging it (“they must know what they are doing”).

Unchallenged authority is bad, because there is no guarantee it will be benign. In fact, we have a lot of historic evidence of the opposite. And there is a point where obedience becomes immoral, way before it involves killing people. Let me give you a dangerously simplified example: imagine a corrupt government in a captured state that channels a lot – or most – of taxpayer money to the benefit of a few undeserving individuals. Under such a government, paying taxes might be immoral because those monies will never serve the interest of the general public, and, at the same time, paying them might prevent you from helping causes that you think you must help.

I’m not saying we should stop paying taxes (with a lot of dissent, I’m still paying taxes to a government that I think is very corrupt). I’m saying more: we must challenge authority, and we must do all in our power to prevent authority from becoming absolute. An absolute authority is the abolition of freedom. When democracy spawns a group that wins a majority of total control, it will inevitably turn against freedom. But that’s another story – I will dedicate another post to my doubts about democracy versus freedom.

Read Obedience to Authority. Read The Abolition of Man. Challenge your inclination to obey. Challenge authority when you cannot obey without acting against your conscience.

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