Better than worshiping gods is obedience to the laws of righteousness
Why Are We Obedient
Whenever an article talks about obedience it’s almost inevitable to bring up the famous Milgram experiment. In order to not break the cycle I will be doing the same exact
thing. But I will attempt to look more about why the subjects went as far as they did as well as the different variations of the experiment you probably never heard of.
I will briefly introduce the experiment here as I realize that many people know how it goes. If you already know about the experiment feel free to skip this section. Stanley Milgram was shocked at the genocide of the Nazi regime and wanted to know why people would do such things. Is it really because of authority that leads people to commit such atrocities?
There were three roles in this experiment:
The Experimenter; a man dressed in a lab coat.
The Learner; an actor posing as a volunteer
The Subject; the person who volunteered.
All participants were subjects however they all mistakenly thought the learner was also a fellow participant. The subject would administer non-lethal electrical shocks to the learner and the authority would be there to simply tell the subject to keep going despite the pain he caused. The shocks were administered after the learner got a question wrong and it started at 15 and went all the way to 450 volts.
Of course nobody was actually getting shocked. The learner was an actor who pretended to get shocked while the subject truly believed that he was shocking this person and causing harm. In the original experiment the subject can see the learner through a double sided mirror and can hear the learner scream in agony.
The surprising part is that 65% of the subjects went all the way up to the 450 watts (26/40). Even the rest of the subjects went extremely high before disobeying.
So why did this happen? The subjects saw the experimenter as an authority figure. We have all been raised to follow authority figures since we were children. Rebelling against authority gets us grounded, gets us detention or makes the adults angry at us. So we are taught to obey authority but unfortunately it seems as if we have taken it too far.
We obey for two reasons. The first reason is because it’s easier. Disobeying causes conflict in our lives and we naturally want no conflict in our life. Think about authority figures, what would happen if you disobeyed them? A teacher? A police officer? A judge? Your parents? Most of the time only conflict occurs and you can even end up in prison!
The Agentic State
The second reason people obey is because it is easy to blame the authority when things go wrong. This was shown in the experiment. During the experiment Milgram noticed that when the volts went high subjects tried to shift the responsibility to the authority. They would ask the experimenter if he would assume all responsibility for any possible harm caused. This is a defense mechanism which takes away the subjects morality from the equation. Now others cannot judge the subjects’ morality because he was just ‘doing what he was told’. This state of thinking has a name; it is called the agentic state.
The agentic state is a very dangerous state to be in. The agentic state is the reason why the Nazi soldiers who guarded the watchtowers of the concentration camps told themselves that they weren’t responsible for the hundred thousand deaths of the Jews released into gas chambers. This was just a way of distancing themselves from the terrible act of violence of the Nazi regime. The truth of the matter is they were responsible. They had a hand in the genocide by allowing it to take place. A machine cannot work unless every cog in that machine turns. All it takes is one cog to stop working for the effects to ripple throughout the machine.
Intrigued, Milgram wanted to learn just how far obedience extends. Would people obey anyone? In a new variation the experimenter left the room and told the subject that they were to continue with the shock experiment. Another person then stepped in and posed as just another subject. This new person simply did the same thing as the authoritative figure would – He told the subject to administer the shocks.
The results were drastically different. This time the subjects were completely appalled by the cruelty of this person. They instantly rebelled against this person and called this person a horrible, inhumane human being. It seems as though the presence of an authority figure is important for obedience. The experimenter was clearly administering shocks for the betterment of science while this new subject was merely doing it out of spite.
Milgram decided to up the ante once again. How far past morality would subjects go to obey the experimenter? Milgram kept the same volts but told the subjects that they had to physically move the learners hand onto the shock plate so they may be shocked. With this variation subjects could no longer distance themselves from the shock and were forced to confront what they were doing. This caused a 70% disobedience rate compared to the 65% obedience rate in the initial experiment.
By making the shock such a personal event for the subject; the subject could no longer go into this agentic state of giving the moral responsibility to the experimenter. The subject chose to move the learners hand on the plate. He chose to administer the shock. It wasn’t just a press of a button anymore. They had to hear the learners’ screams of pain right beside them and see the twisting of agony on their face. It proved to be too much and they could not pretend anymore. They were forced to face the cruelty of their own actions.
This experiment has been repeated decades later and the results were mostly the same. So we have not gotten ‘more moral’ over time. On one hand the subjects did not want to ruin the experiment but on the other hand they did not want to cause harm to fellow human being. It seemed as if either way somebody would be upset with them. This conflict caused a huge amount of emotional stress so much so that few broke free and disobeyed but many continued.
The lesson here is when conflicted between your morals and the commands of an authority figure; choose your morals. Nobody should be allowed to force you to do something that you do not think is right – Or trick you into a agentic state where you believe your indirect actions are justified.
Going back to the Nazi’s most Germans in the agentic state denied or tried to forget the heinous crimes they had so obviously committed. Yet, some Germans told to disobey. Their decision to disobey despite certain death in doing so is why they are still recognized as heroes today. It takes courage to disobey authority in favor of your own values.
Have a great day!
If you have never heard of the Milgram Experiment this video is original footage of the Milgram Experiment. It is extremely interesting and you should definietely check it out if you do not know much about the experiment.