Essay: Obeying Authority Human Beings

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[. . .] He states, "The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation" (Milgram 360). He wanted to understand how rational, otherwise decent human beings could become involved in heinous acts against humanity. In his test, few people were willing to stand up against the authority figure, in this case Milgram and the others involved in the research project, and refuse to administer further electric shocks. Rather, despite the visual appearance of the test, their own electric shock, and the apparent distress of the other person in the experiment, they almost unilaterally completed their tasks, explaining their compliance as their inability to do anything else. Only after reflecting on the experience did some of the participants realize what they had allowed themselves to do and how many options they did, in fact, possess. As one participant stated, "What appalled me was that I could possess this capacity for obedience and compliance to a central idea, i.e., the value of a memory experiment, even after it became clear that continued adherence to this value was at the expense of violation of another value" (Milgram 365-66). Within the central moment of the authoritative pressure, it seems that the only option may be to give in to the order, even when that instruction is counter to everything you value as a person, such as the characteristic of kindness and empathy. A similar idea has been echoed historically by perpetrators of crime who claimed that they were just following orders and should therefore be excused for their actions. The individual, who may not necessarily enjoy causing pain or suffering, is still satisfied in some desire themselves, such as in the seeking of approval or the potential rewards that might come from successfully following orders from those in authority. In these cases, the need for approval and also potentially the fear of consequences for failing to do one's duty will also be a heavy influence in whether someone follows orders they know to be morally wrong.

It is not only soldiers and misguided folk who become so indoctrinated by authority figures into behaviors that they would otherwise have objected to. In Philip Zimbardo's experiments with young men and the prison setting, he wanted to determine what effect complete obedience would have on individuals who either had to be completely obedient or who had to be completely obedient to them (Zimbardo 391). While those students who were put into the role of prisoner were certainly altered by the experiment, what was perhaps most interesting were the students assigned to be prison guards. When given complete authority over others, they adapted and developed into firmer authority figures. Another expression springs to mind; absolute power corrupts absolutely. The longer that the experiment went on, the more affirmed the roles became. Rather than fight against their captors, the "prisoners" behaved less humanly, as though they were the base creatures they were being treated as by the "guards," who in turn became less reluctant to punish infractions and indeed became less able to see the others as fellow college students. The fact that all this happened in a period of two weeks makes it all the more devastating and the larger real-world applications all the more terrifying. Anyone can become these men. The role that a person is assigned and the inherent authority granted to that role has a direct correlation to the person's behavior and their likelihood to give or obey orders, regardless of their content.

Bringing together the research of these three men, it can be seen that there are many factors which contribute to the ability of the human mind to abandon free will and obey orders from members of authority. From birth, we are raised to deny individuality in many things and accept the word of the authority figure. This transcends into adulthood where such obedience can and often does get taken to extremes. Asch, Milgram, and Zimbardo show the myriad of consequences of blind obedience, whether it is to an individual, to a group, or to a type.

Works Cited

Asch, Solomon E. "Opinions and Social Pressure." "Chapter 9: Obedience to Authority." 351-

57. Print.

Milgram, Stanley. "The Perils of Obedience." "Chapter 9: Obedience to Authority." 358-70.


"Obedience to Authority." 349-51.

Zimbardo, Philip G. "The Stanford Prison… [END OF PREVIEW]

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