Obedience to Authority

Obedience to Authority No human social organization can function without some degree of obedience to authority, as the alternative would be anarchy leading to total chaos. Hence we find some sort of a hierarchy in both the most underdeveloped and the most civilized societies where certain individuals exercise authority over others. Almost everyone will agree that some degree of authority in certain individuals or groups (and their obedience by other groups) is desirable for the proper functioning of a society. The problem arises when the obedience to authority is taken to extremes.

Unfortunately, history has shown that this happens time and again, usually with undesirable results. It is this blind obedience to authority that every individual with a conscience needs to guard against. The conflict between compliance with the demands of those in authority and individuals having private and sometimes different views, has been a subject of debate since ancient times in religion and philosophy. God’s command to Abraham to kill his son, being one such example. Many psychologists and writers have thought about, discussed and conducted experiments to understand this human characteristic.

The psychology experiments conducted by Stanley Milgram in the 1960s and 70s to study obedience to authority among ordinary individuals are, perhaps, the most significant and startling. (“Baxter”) These experiments were conducted at a time when the world was still struggling to understand the atrocities committed by the Nazis in World War II. Milgram’s experiments, conclusively showed that such traits of obedience to authority as exhibited by the Germans, were by no means confined to them or even to a particular set of circumstances.

Milgram’s experiment consisted of selection of “teachers” from ordinary people who were asked to participate in an “experiment” in which the teacher was to ask certain simple questions from a learner. In case of an error or incorrect response from the learner, he was to be given an electric shock through a generator. These shocks were to start at a mild 15 volts and gradually increased to an extremely painful (and lethal) level of 450 volts. During the experiment the teacher was coaxed to continue giving the shocks to the learner.

The results of the experiment were most disturbing: most (60%) of the “teachers” (who were ordinary people) continued to give the electric shocks right up to the maximum (lethal) level of 450 volts, just with a little bit of coaxing from the psychologist. Milgram repeated his experiments in several other countries apart from the USA, like Australia, South Africa and several European countries. The response of the “teachers” in most of these countries was similar. In one of these studies, 85% of the teachers readily “obeyed” to give the maximum (lethal) punishment to the “erring” learner. (“Baxter”).

Although no such experiment can be 100% conclusive, the Milgram experiments do shed considerable (and disturbing) light on the behavior of ordinary people in obedience of authority. They also explain, to a large extent, the seemingly perplexing behavior of many ordinary Germans during World War II and some American soldiers in Vietnam. (“Milgram,” Obedience to Authority.. ). Another writer who has carried out work of significance on the subject of obedience to authority is Doris Lessing. Although, not a professional sociologist or historian, Lessing is a brilliant, self-taught thinker and observer.

In her book, Prisons We Choose to Live Inside (a collection of lectures given by her in 1985) she propounds the thesis that groups of people behave in predictable ways under certain given circumstances. But she passionately believes that instead of going along with the herd, those of us who value independent and individual thinking, can resist the trend. In Lessing’s opinion this can be done by being aware of the propaganda techniques used by the Governments, advertisers and other people in positions of authority to manipulate and control group behavior, and by consciously resisting pressures to conform.

Such pressures include peer pressure, dogma and theories propagated by political and religious leaders and parties. Lessing believes that we are by nature “group animals” with a marked herd instinct and in order to fight this instinct a conscious and deliberate effort is required. She claims that because of our group-orientation “it is the hardest thing in the world to maintain an individual dissident opinion” and remain a member of a group. She advises us to recognize the “obedient streak” in our nature and teach our children to be wary of it. (“Lessing,” Prisons We Choose…”)

Erich Fromm tackles the problem of obedience to authority from a psychological and moral viewpoint. He alerts the readers to the seductive comforts of obedience and the discomfort one must endure in order to disobey. One of the main points of Eric Fromm’s thesis is that any act which results in submitting one’s will to someone else’s (or to a group) is a cowardly act. On the other hand, any act that affirms one’s individual will and autonomy is an act of freedom. In this context he observes “among our most shameful memories is—how often we said black was white because other people were saying it. ” (“Fromm,” On Disobedience…)

Jo’ana Meyer is a sociologist at the Rutger’s University who has carried out valuable research on children’s susceptibility to leading and suggestive interviews in the context of court testimony. She has discussed the effects of stress, prompting and imagination on children’s memories and powers of recall. She stresses the importance of Milgram’s research and points out that children are likely to obey authority at an even higher level than the adults in Milgrim’s experiments. Meyer has made important suggestions about ways to interview children that would increase the accuracy of their testimony. “Meyer’” Inaccuracies in Children’s…. ). The theme of obedience to authority has even greater significance in the military environment. The issue has been explored in the recent popular cinema through films such as The General’s Daughter and more significantly in the 1999 court-room drama A Few Good Men. The film, starring Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson, presents both sides of the need for absolute obedience versus the right of individual conscience in the military. The issue of following orders versus human rights in the military has been intelligently handled.

The film does not treat the issue in a one-sided or black and white manner but gives both sides of the subject. (“A Few Good Men: Review”) This is perhaps the crux of the issue—almost everything in the world having more than one perspective or side to it. Similarly, the issue of obedience to authority cannot be a simple black and white question. One cannot have a society with absolutely no obedience to authority or even too little authority. It will simply result in disastrous anarchy: Individuals have to relinquish some of their own autonomy for the welfare of the larger group.

On the other extreme when the state refuses to allow individuals to exercise their right of freedom, we move closer to totalitarianism. So the best answer in any civilized society is to take the middle path. This has even more relevance to our circumstances today. The question that we have to ask ourselves is: Are we taking the middle path in the wake of the 11th September events? Is the bomb them into oblivion “majority opinion” as reflected in the polls to be followed without questions or should the issues be analyzed in a more dispassionate manner?