Column by tzo.
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Stanley Milgram was an American social psychologist best known for his Milgram Experiment, a study conducted in the 1960s.
Dr. Milgram wanted to research the relationship between obedience and authority, and he was at least partly motivated to do so by the events of the Nazi Holocaust. It greatly troubled him that so many supposedly good people could participate in such atrocities. How was that possible?
In 1974, he published Obedience to Authority
in an attempt to explain his research and summarize his findings, but the poor doctor was at a bit of a loss when he tried to analyze just what his experiments had to say about human beings. The very first chapter of the book is titled "The Dilemma of Obedience."
Now a dilemma is a problem offering at least two possibilities, neither of which is practically acceptable. So it seems that whatever conclusion he does eventually reach—considering the chosen title—it must be an unsatisfactory one.
Let’s follow his line of reasoning in this, the summarizing chapter of his work. The opening sentence reads:
Obedience is as basic an element in the structure of social life as one can point to. Some system of authority is a requirement of all communal living, and it is only the man dwelling in isolation who is not forced to respond, through defiance or submission, to the commands of others.
Consider his foundational assumption. Society requires obedience to authority: Authority is apparently vested in certain individuals through some mechanism, allowing them to wield power over and command obedience from others.
I have written previously
about where just authority originates (I will drop the “just” qualifier for the rest of this article, with the understanding that it is redundant when the proper definition of authority is used), and that it can only be bestowed from one individual to another on a voluntary basis, and that anything else is thuggery.
Milgram actually is asserting that society can only exist through thuggery, which he inaccurately conflates with authority, and this centralized concentration of “authority” is the indispensable government. By applying the label “authority,” a term associated with justice, he disguises government’s true essence and confuses himself to the point where he cannot come to a rational conclusion.
Now one of Dr. Milgram's motivations for conducting his experiment was to explain how the Holocaust could have happened. He also acknowledges in the following passage that in general, government (obedience to thuggery) has always been the main perpetrator of violence in society:
When you think of the long and gloomy history of man, you will find more hideous crimes have been committed in the name of obedience than have ever been committed in the name of rebellion.
It seems to me that he has struck gold right here. Governments, operating under the guise of just authority, persuade good people to make other good people suffer. Sure, the holocaust could be identified as one of the more extreme examples of how this human suffering manifests itself, but the same mechanism responsible for the holocaust has been in place for centuries, churning out human misery and death, year after year.
In other words, government is the root and source of the problems that trouble human civilization. But Dr. Milgram could not see the obvious because he believed that this very mechanism of misery and death was absolutely essential—a vital good—to human society.
And so we have defined the dilemma according to Dr. Milgram. We need obedience to thuggery in order to have society, but then the thugs who wield the power rain down the most destruction upon society. But without obedience to thuggery, we cannot arrange a society at all and are doomed to live a solitary and brutishly miserable existence.
It seems we just can't win either way, and to this I wholeheartedly agree. Maybe we could just—I don’t know—leave the thuggery out of the equation altogether?
Because otherwise, Dr. Milgram expected something good (society) to be derived by instituting a bad idea (thuggery). Starting with such a premise can only lead to a messy conclusion. He continues:
Thus, obedience to authority, long praised as a virtue, takes on a new aspect when it serves a malevolent cause; far from appearing as a virtue, it is transformed into a heinous sin. Or is it?
Bowing down to thugs should never have been confused with virtue, because then it would have always been obvious that such behavior would inevitably lead to serving malevolent causes.
If authority is granted—and it is—then obedience to authority is merely obedience to self. Authority, a voluntarily granted power, can be revoked at any time. Obeying authority against your will is not possible. If you behave unethically, then you have chosen. The Nuremberg Defense didn't work for the Nazis and it doesn't work for IRS agents, soldiers, or any other human being.
And so, Stanley, what is the answer to the question you pose here? Is obedience to authority a virtue or a sin? Well, as we have been tipped off by the title of the chapter, we know that you believe that the answer is both and/or neither. Obedience to authority is necessary, hence good, but that authority can often be malevolent, and so one should obey the authority unless the authority is evil, then it should not be obeyed any longer. But who decides when the authority should not be obeyed? The individual with his own intact moral compass? But then he is the authority, no?
No, because society needs an authoritative structure that supercedes the authority of the individual. Unless it goes bad. And around and around we go.
If individual ethical behavior is intrinsically good and commands from authority—even when they conflict with an individual’s ethical training—are also intrinsically good, then what else but confusion can be the end result of this type of thinking? Consider the following question from the text that arises from this morass:
How does a man behave when he is told by a legitimate authority to act against a third individual?
Which just boils down to: How does a man behave when he tells himself to act against a third individual? Well, that is up to him, isn’t it? That would make it his responsibility, wouldn’t it? This is not at all difficult to figure out if we define our terms in a rational manner. And then:
Though such prescriptions as “Thou shalt not kill” occupy a pre-eminent place in the moral order, they do not occupy a correspondingly intractable position in human psychic structure. A few changes in newspaper headlines, a call from the draft board, orders from a man with epaulets, and men are led to kill with little difficulty.
Again, not seeing the obvious link between a coercive organization and its violent ends renders this mysterious. Lose the idea that authority exists outside of each individual and "Thou shalt not kill" will suddenly occupy a pre-eminent place in the human psychic structure. In fact, the phrase will become “I shalt not kill,” which is a much more powerful statement, as self-responsibility and understanding for the decision is being declared instead of some kind of mindless command(ment)-following.
Obedience is the psychological mechanism that links individual action to political purpose. It is the dispositional cement that binds men to systems of authority.
Is this not the description of brainwashing? Or perhaps even lobotomization? Doesn’t this describe the psychological mechanism utilized by cults? Especially when the system is thuggery masked as virtuous authority? Blind obedience to authority is a mindless action undertaken by dogs and other such non-rational creatures, not by rational human beings who understand who they are as autonomous individuals.
Think back to the earlier quote about how most of the misery suffered by the human race is due to obedience to government thugs. By stating that obedience is the cement that binds good men to evil thugs, shouldn’t the logical conclusion be that obedience is a very dangerous and undesirable trait for humans to acquire? And yet we cannot exist in any type of organized society without it?
He concludes the chapter with the idea that fragmentation and dissipation of responsibility in modern society due to the increasingly fine divisions of labor that distance people from the end results of their actions can explain the phenomenon of good people doing bad things:
This is, perhaps, the most fundamental lesson of our study: ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process.
...it is psychologically easy to ignore responsibility when one is only an intermediate link in a chain of evil action but is far from the final consequences of the action.
Thus there is a fragmentation of the total human act; no one man decides to carry out the evil act and is confronted with its consequences. The person who assumes full responsibility for the act has evaporated. Perhaps this is the most common characteristic of socially organized evil in modern society.
I agree with his assessment that evil is currently best organized under the illusion of doing good, and by recruiting good and unwitting people to the cause. This is indeed the modern way of slaughtering mass quantities of human beings—they are being “helped” by the humanitarians
But who engineers these socially organized evil acts that have been fragmented and distributed among society’s members so that responsibility dissipates into vapor? There is only one answer to this question: Government
The problem has been defined and the cause has been identified. Any rational man of science would have to conclude that the solution to the problem is the removal of its cause. What else?
Now in the epilogue of the book, Dr. Milgram reaches some more conclusions and comes agonizingly close to proposing voluntaryism. He makes all the correct arguments that lead him right to the very threshold, but then he simply cannot even see the door that is open right in front of him.
He states, for example:
For the problem is not "authoritarianism" as a mode of political organization or a set of psychological attitudes, but authority itself.
Let's remove all the extraneous verbiage, and we see the statement quite literally says that "the problem is authority itself." So once again, I contend that he has reached the logical conclusion with this statement. But then this immediately follows:
... authority itself cannot be eliminated as long as society is to continue in the form we know.
Which of course provokes an obvious line of inquiry: So why can't we continue society in a different form? Without the thugs? But instead, he finds himself at an impasse. Authority has been identified as the problem, but the solution cannot possibly be to remove the problem.
And he understands quite clearly that it matters not the form taken by the government—the fact that government is necessarily authoritarian (thuggish) is the central and inescapable matter of fact:
In democracies, men are placed in office through popular elections. Yet, once installed, they are no less in authority than those who get there by other means.
He so wants to be a voluntaryist, but refuses to follow the trail of breadcrumbs beyond a certain point.
Voluntaryist: OK, Stanley, what three numbers come next in this sequence: "1, 2, 3, 4, 5, ..."
Stanley: Umm, seven...
Voluntaryist: Excellent, Stanley. One more...
And he just can't do it. He trips on his shoelace and falls three feet short of finishing the marathon and cannot get back up. He has all the information he needs, but cannot put the pieces together. And any other analogy you can think of to express vexation.
At the end of the epilogue, he shows his frustration by forcing himself to conclude the worst possible forecast for a lamentably defective human race:
... [It is ultimately revealed that] the capacity for man to abandon his humanity, indeed, the inevitability that he does so, as he merges his unique personality into larger institutional structures.
This is a fatal flaw nature has designed into us, and which in the long run gives our species only a modest chance of survival. It is ironic that the virtues of loyalty, discipline, and self-sacrifice that we value so highly in the individual are the very properties that create destructive organizational engines of war and bind men to malevolent systems of authority.
Each individual possesses a conscience which to a greater or lesser degree serves to restrain the unimpeded flow of impulses destructive to others. But when he merges his person into an organizational structure, a new creature replaces autonomous man, unhindered by the limitations of individual morality, freed of humane inhibition, mindful only of the sanctions of authority.
The results, as seen and felt in the laboratory, are to this author disturbing. They raise the possibility that human nature, or—more specifically—the kind of character produced in American democratic society, cannot be counted on to insulate its citizens from brutality and inhumane treatment at the direction of malevolent authority. A substantial proportion of people do what they are told to do, irrespective of the content of the act and without limitations of conscience, so long as they perceive that the command comes from a legitimate authority.
And again, he hits the nail on the head and does not realize it because he holds on to contradictory ideas. One the one hand, he claims that flawed human nature is to blame, but then he specifies that perhaps not human nature itself but, in his own words, “more specifically the kind of character produced in American society” is to blame. If character is produced by society, then it is learned and is not innate. Character flaws are therefore not birth defects and can be molded or changed by proper education.
The proper conclusion to draw from all of this, it seems, is that human beings must learn that they are each independent, sovereign moral agents who are solely responsible for their own actions, and that there are no exceptions to this golden rule. Done. That is merely education.
The chimera of obeying some font of just authority that descends from the atmosphere and infuses itself into some group of transformed superhumans never even comes into being. Government finds itself at the Santa Claus level of existence.
A critical examination of Dr. Milgram’s assertions reveals that government is thuggery and obedience is the mechanism that binds good people to these thugs and their evil ends. The thugs develop ingenious ways to perform evil under the guise of doing good, recruiting good people to be obedient cogs in evil machinery that has caused most of the human misery that has existed during the entire era of human civilization. Understanding all this, shall government then be categorized as good or evil?
Once government is correctly identified as evil instead of good and necessary, the inevitability of the bad results from instituting it becomes obvious. The only solution, then, if one wants a truly civil society, is to remove government from the equation.
For Dr. Milgram, and all others who hold onto the idea that human society cannot be organized without a coercive government at its core, I contend that they must bear the burden of proof for such an assertion. Where is the empirical grounding in fact that gives validity to this claim?
Because if government is not in fact integral and vital to civilized society, then all logical arguments point to its elimination in order to improve the world, as it has been shown time and again to be the main source of human suffering.
Dr. Milgram also worried that the prescription “Thou shalt not kill” did not occupy an intractably high position in the human psychic structure. He then argued that this was an innate flaw in human design, but also hinted that society’s influence may cause such ideas to be undervalued and subordinated to obedience. I strongly believe that the latter explanation is the truth, and also that this unfortunate condition can be remedied.
When enough people understand that “I shalt not kill”—a principle that comes from the authority of self—must take up a prominent spot right behind “I must eat and have shelter in order to survive” because “we must all voluntarily cooperate together in order to have a society,” then the problem resolves itself.
And since I possess the ultimate authority over my actions, and since I am ultimately obedient only to myself, “I shalt not kill” implies that I cannot grant any “Thou shalt kill” power to others. “I shalt not steal” implies that I cannot grant any “Thou shalt steal” power to others.
And since government is defined by “We shalt kill and steal,” it necessarily disappears in a puff of logic in such an ethical and intellectual environment.
Dr. Milgram was convinced that human society could only exist if it had some group of humans with superhuman authority to organize and control it. What he failed to recognize, just as many, many people today fail to recognize, is that no human being can possess superhuman authority, and that those who do claim to have such power are merely thugs and nothing more.
When humanity begins to understand that authority is an inalienable individual attribute—as is the self-responsibility that is the natural result of possessing such a natural endowment—only then will we finally emerge from the long dark age of government and begin the renaissance of human freedom.
Teach your children well.