The relations between an individual and authority are complicated, and people have to learn how to behave regarding their personal principles and the social standards set. The work of Stanley Milgram (1963), “The Perils of Obedience” is one of the sources where captivating and educative information on how people should train in ethics, sympathy, and moral conduct is given. The purpose of “Perils of Obedience” is to show the extent to which an individual can go in obeying orders from the authority. Milgram is successful in using the experiment to prove that ordinary people will always obey orders. He is also trying to show how blind obedience can lead people to do some inhumane incomprehensible deeds. Some people cannot even realize how obedient they are to their authority, and some people fail to comprehend where the line between blind and dangerous obedience and proper and acceptable obedience should be; “The Perils of Obedience” is the experiment that helps to clarify how people should interpret obedience and behave regarding personal needs and expectations.
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“The Perils of Obedience” contains a number of interesting thoughts. However, its basis is the experiment developed by Milgram in a psychology laboratory. There are two main participants: a teacher and a learner. The learner sits in a room with an electrode attached to the wrist. The teacher regulates voltage and administrates the shock in case the learner give a wrong or no answer (Milgram, 1963). The voltage of the shock varies from mild to dangerous. The teacher does not know that, in reality, the learner is an actor, who does not receive the intended portion of shock but plays a role. Despite the level of danger and harm that could be possibly made to the learner, about 65% of teachers continue shocking students with the highest voltage. It means that ordinary people obey the orders established by the authority even if it means to do harm to a person they care of. The experiment seems to be very instrumental in showing how people sometimes obey orders blindly without considering how their actions or decisions may hurt people. The participants do not know each other, yet, they comfortably obey the orders of the experimenter. They do not wonder if there are some alternatives to punishment, or if the experiment is credible and legal. It is the example of blind obedience that results in student’s “pain”.
This experiment should help people to realize if it is justified and necessary to be obedient to the authority all the time. It explains that society is in need of certain measurements set by the authority according to which obedience may be appropriate (Milgram, 1963). People should understand that there is the line between blind obedience that causes harm to others, and there is acceptable obedience that should not be neglected. In fact, the experiment does not provide the reader with the answer concerning the reasonable line but makes people think how and where this line should be created. The results show that obedience may be symbolically compared with a big tree with a number of sweet and bitter fruits on it. The authority does not want to inform its people where bitter (dangerous and harmful outcomes) and sweet (justified and appropriate) fruits are. People should clarify “the flavors” independently. Still, the question remains to be open: “Should people always obey a voice from above or not?”
Well, one thing that can really help people determine where to draw the line between dangerous and proper obedience is the necessity to think about consequences. People must always question their conscience before they act. Ethics must always play a role during obedience. In “The Perils of Obedience”, it is evident that the majority of the participants do not question whether they do right or wrong things. They neglect the ethical aspect of their work and the importance to identify the morale of the duties established. The first task of ethics and morality is to make people define what they ought to do and not to do. If a person does what has to be done, they should understand the value of an action. In Milgram’s experiment, the results of shocking therapy cannot be interpreted as pure wrong or justified because all reactions and wrong answers are planned in advance. It is hard to comprehend if the learner can give right answers and stay focused on the procedure in case they experience true pain. The value of such an experiment is questionable, and the results do not focus on the learner but on the teacher, who should control the shocker and obey the orders.
The conditions and results of the experiments may be connected to the theory of Consequentialism when people have to understand that the consequences of human behavior perform the function of the basis for judgments concerning the rightness and wrongness of the chosen behavior. In the experiment, the teacher cannot feel what the learner feels. The teacher cannot understand if it is right or wrong to continue shocking the student in order to get the right answers. The experimenter sets the boundaries that mislead and confuse teachers. At the same time, the study shows that “if a person is placed in a situation in which he has complete power over another individual, whom he may punish as much as he likes, all that is sadistic and bestial in man comes to the fore” (Milgram, 1963, p. 376). The presence of power should not confuse but makes people think about what they do right and wrong.
Obedience to the authority becomes a problem rather than the proper way to live one’s life when it threatens the lives of others. In the experiment, the idea to use a shocker on the learner is dangerous and harmful to human health. Still, it is the requirement that should be followed. The same examples could be observed in history when the governments of different countries formed the laws according to which some groups of people should be marginalized, and some groups of people had to follow the principles of racism or xenophobia and obey the rules set by the authority without even questioning why such differentiation took place. For example, in New Zeeland, the government promoted the ideas of xenophobia and forced the foreigners from China or other Asian countries to pay taxes for registration. The inequality between people was promoted, and the citizens did not find to do something to change the situation and support the ideas of equality. In the USA, there was the Immigration Act of 1917 under which the conditions for immigrants were predetermined, and the opportunities were rather measured. The immigrants had to pass a number of registration details and faced the outcomes of racism. Nowadays, the situation seems to be changed. Still, the echoes of discrimination and inequality can be observed. People find it normal to follow the norms set by the government and do not participate in the discussions of why such cases of discrimination take place.
These real-life examples, as well as the situations described in “The Perils of Obedience”, prove that the importance of obedience and people’s inability to understand its worth and outcomes turn out to be a serious problem. The government formulates the laws that cannot be neglected. People find it normal to follow them blindly even if they make people commit atrocities against humanity and personal interests and preferences.
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There is a need to understand the types of authorities in order to determine the differences between rational and irrational authorities. There are two possible legitimate ways to form a sovereign authority. Authority that is formed by the institution is the first type to discuss. Such “Authority by Institution” is possible in case people agree to covenant and submit to the authority in place. Milgram (1963) notifies that people try to hide their true aggressive instincts that are usually under the press of authorities. Still, as soon as the authority provides people with the rights to demonstrate their true nature or use some forbidden means to achieve the goal and the institutional justifications to release their impulses (Milgram, 1963), the outcomes may be unexpected and even harmful. However, when people are intimidated to submit to authority, they covenant only by protection. This is what is called “Authority by Acquisition”. It should be remembered that the aforementioned forms of sovereignty (by the institution or acquisition) are treated as legitimate. In the experiment under analysis, the participants are under the “Authority by Institution” first. They agree to participate in the experiment and consider their free will to become the subjects of the investigation using the information offered in the advertisement offered (Milgram, 1963). However, in the psychological lab, the elements of “Authority by Acquisition” are observed with time. The experimenter orders the teacher to continue shocking the learner using such phrases as “You have no other choice” or “It is absolutely essential that we continue…” (Milgram, 1963, p. 372). Such phrases can easily instill fear in the participants and make them obey all orders set by the experimenter, who performs the functions of the authority in the experiment.
The approval of both forms of authority as legitimate may raise a number of questions and critiques. They seem to be contradicted each other and introduce rather conflicting interests. “Authority by Institution” seems to support the interest of the people. People are free to choose and submit to the authority. This practice is spread in many democratic nations today. People have the rights to question and criticize the government. Their opinions are considered and analyzed with much attention and acted upon. During the general elections, people have their rights to choose the personal and a political party they find more appropriate to govern them. This kind of authority sounds like democracy. In its turn, Authority by Acquisition does not provide people with a chance to come up with their own choices. The authorities violate the idea of human rights by intimidating the citizens to obey and submit to the policies. Generally, there is no freedom of expression here, and people have to live in fear. The Milgram’s experiment shows that the participants are ready to consider the experimenter as the legitimate authority that is able to deprive students of their human rights and choices. Is it fair that something that may deprive people of their humanity can be defined as legitimate? The author of the article does not provide a clear answer to this question but informs that the problem of obedience does not have a psychological nature only, but “the form and shape of society and the way it is developing have much to do with it” (Milgram, 1963, p. 378).
Therefore, a rational authority should be such as the one described in terms of the “Authority by Institution”. It should allow the subjects to take part in the major functions freely. It should also encourage democracy. People must be allowed to question the government and the departments of the authority whenever they are dissatisfied with the services. Lastly, a rational authority must respect the rights of its people (subjects). In the experiment, the majority of these factors have not been taken into consideration. The participants are invited to take part in the experience freely and then forced to obey the commands. Money for participation is used to pay those, who joined the experiment, and the phrases such as “you have no choice” or “we should continue the experiment” are used to motivate people to continue participating. The type of authority used in the experiment seems to be irrational, and the author helps to realize that people should consider their opinions and rational sense to be sure that all actions and decisions are justified and not harmful to others.
Milgram, S. (1963). The perils of obedience. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67(4), 371-378.