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”The Perils of Obedience” by Stanley Milgram

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In Stanley Milgram’s, The Perils of Obedience, Milgram states “obedience is as basic an element in the structure of social life as one can point to.”(1) Milgram then shows how submission to that authority goes back as far as Abraham. He makes us look into ourselves and see why we obey these commands against our better judgment.

Milgram then goes into detail about the experiment he set up at Yale University to test how much pain a person would inflict on another person just because they were ordered to do so. He explains the details of this experiment by setting the scene. They brought in 2 people one to be the “teacher” and one to be the “learner”(3) The learner is then strapped to an electric chair while the teacher asks questions. For each wrong answer the learner gets an electric shock, which progressively grows stronger.

The outcome of this experiment shocked Milgram since he had spoken to many people about this subject and they deduced that most people would not go beyond 150 volts. This experiment showed that the majority of people would shock the learner all the way into the danger zone, which was marked on their board with XXX representing 450 volts.

There were many different reactions from the participants in this experiment. Some questioned whether they should continue to issue the shocks, while others simply shocked all the way thru occasionally acting nervous or upset. One subject in particular stated; “what appalled me was that I could possess this capacity for obedience and compliance to a central idea…”(91)

Milgram’s Experiments showed another interesting fact, when left to decide how much of a shock to administer to the learner, the teacher usually chose a painless level. There were very few occasions in which the teacher chose to shock at a high level we can assume by this that “they come from the sadistic fringe of society.”(96) The experiments also showed that while some people protested they still obeyed orders and issued the shocks. But obedience to authority only went as far as when the person issuing orders was there with you. When this was done via the phone then the obedience level dropped to thirty percent.

Milgram states “The essence of obedience is that a person comes to view himself as the instrument for carrying out another persons wishes, and he therefore no longer regards himself as responsible for his actions.”(108) This obedience is a moral obligation just like “loyalty, duty, and discipline.” When we are ordered to do something we can easily act as if we are not responsible and that by following orders we do nothing wrong.

Milgram shows us how if we cannot see the entire situation as it is occurring we can isolate ourselves from the final “evil” outcome. He brings up Eichmann who was sickened by visits to the concentration camps in Nazi Germany. Eichmann ordered the execution of the Jews and was able to say he was simply “following orders”. By alienating ourselves from the final outcome by saying we were following orders we can remove the evil from ourselves and place it on someone else’s shoulders.

In Response:

In response to Stanley Milgram’s “The Perils of Obedience”, I feel that it shows just how people tend to follow orders even against their own judgment. While I understand that obedience to the law is a must in any society, I feel that obedience without thought of consequences is not only immoral but makes us no better then the animals who we disparage by saying they cannot think.

By Milgram’s experiments we are shown that humans follow orders without question, without thought to final consequences and without any feelings of doing wrong at all. We separate ourselves from the act of violence being done. Maybe this is a psychological way to protect ourselves from the knowledge of doing evil. Whatever it is that causes this disparity, in human beings, truthfully needs to be explored farther. What is it that makes a human question authority? What personality traits lead a person to follow his/her heart instead of just following orders?

Quite a few questions were raised for me in this experiment. I had always believed that humans would follow commands regardless of the outcome but I had never realized just how far reaching that truthfully is. By “just following orders” we are committing horrors for the sake of God, country, or just plain greed.

While I understand in any kind of group there is a hierarchy and obedience to the chain of command. If we just follow orders then we take the human factor out of it and place us on equal footing with animals. We were given brains to use them. If you are given an order and question that order inside of yourself, shouldn’t you ask the big question, ‘why do you need me to do this?’

We can use the argument that our soldiers are just following orders in Iraq. Yet does that negate the fact that they are killing innocent Iraqis? Does that make it better that woman and children are being dragged from their homes in dark of night and hooded and dragged off to some prison camp? By the argument of “just following orders”, we give them no consequences for the evil atrocities that they do under the guise of helping. But who is it that we are helping? Is it not true that Iraq did nothing to us? Is it not true that they have no weapons that could ever harm us? Well by following orders from our weak-minded president we are now in a no-win situation with a country that never did us any harm. We are there simply because Bush ordered it, and now our fighting men and women are dying every day, simply for “following orders.”

Our obedience to the laws of the land and to the government in particular has caused this problem we now face. Bush’s greed and protection of the Saudi Arabia’s has led us down the path of destruction. And just like Milgram’s findings show we follow along blindly. Yet surprisingly those of us, who do not follow, merely sit by and watch as our own destruction happens. While Milgram’s experiments show us how we follow orders it does not show us why there are those who do not. I think that for his experiment to be considered complete we need to look at what causes a person to not follow orders or to at the minimum to question authority. In finding the answers to those questions maybe we can see what it is that makes the many follow the orders of the few.

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