19 Oct

The Milgram Experiment

Note: Some of the quotes and facts in this article come from the Wikipedia article.

In 1961, during the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi officer who was largely responsible for co-ordinating the Holocaust, Psychologist Stanley Milgram devised an experiment to test obedience to authority. Eichmann claimed that he was only “following orders”.

Simon Wiesenthal, a Holocaust survivor and a Nazi hunter who helped catch Eichmann, said: “The world now understands the concept of ‘desk murderer’. We know that one doesn’t need to be fanatical, sadistic, or mentally ill to murder millions; that it is enough to be a loyal follower eager to do one’s duty.”

While Eichmann was on trial, Stanley Milgram put subjects in a position where they would be ordered to toggle switches which they believed delivered painful electric shocks to another supposed volunteer that was strapped to chair and to the “shock” device, if that volunteer answered repeated some words back incorrectly (the true experiment was conducted under the guise of being a “memory experiment”). The subject and supposed volunteer could hear and talk to each other, but not see each other.

In reality the “volunteer” was conspiring with the experimenter and the experiment was really to assess how far the unknowing subject would go on “following orders”, even after the protests, screams, pounding on the wall and later a concerning silence, of the supposed volunteer. If the subject wanted to stop he was pressed verbally to continue. The result was that 65% of the subjects “delivered” the maximum shock to the supposed volunteer.

Professor Milgram gave two principle theories supporting the results (quoting Wikipedia):

The first is the theory of conformism, based on Solomon Asch conformity experiments, describing the fundamental relationship between the group of reference and the individual person. A subject who has neither ability nor expertise to make decisions, especially in a crisis, will leave decision making to the group and its hierarchy. The group is the person’s behavioral model.

The second is the agentic state theory, wherein, per Milgram, “the essence of obedience consists in the fact that a person comes to view themselves as the instrument for carrying out another person’s wishes, and they therefore no longer see themselves as responsible for their actions. Once this critical shift of viewpoint has occurred in the person, all of the essential features of obedience follow”.

Really, both theories may well be true. For an individual may think of himself as a mere instrument because he does not think himself capable of making a better judgement. The truth is, as human beings, we are ALWAYS moral agents. Anything else is sub-human. For Catholics and Christians in general, this wounded aspect of our nature can hardly be shocking.

Interestingly, 84% of the participants said they were “glad to have participated”. In fact, one of the participants sent a letter to Milgram which said:

“While I was a subject in 1964, though I believed that I was hurting someone, I was totally unaware of why I was doing so. Few people ever realize when they are acting according to their own beliefs and when they are meekly submitting to authority… To permit myself to be drafted with the understanding that I am submitting to authority’s demand to do something very wrong would make me frightened of myself… I am fully prepared to go to jail if I am not granted Conscientious Objector status. Indeed, it is the only course I could take to be faithful to what I believe. My only hope is that members of my board act equally according to their conscience…”

Socrates said that “The unexamined life is not worth living” We could add that the unexamined life is not one lived in freedom. And how could life be worthwhile without it’s fundamental purpose, freedom?

Thanks to this disturbing experiment, This participant was shown an ugly truth about himself that he was unaware of, and probably would have remained unaware of otherwise. So he was forced to analyze his behavior, compare it his beliefs and the objective truth of morality, and adjust it accordingly. So he began to analyze his life, and as a result became more free, even with the chance that he might land in jail for it.

Now this is separate from the issue of the morality of the Vietnam war. We are not discussing here the objective morality or immorality of the war. The most important thing is that we actually make informed judgements and act upon them, instead of merely giving our will up to a questionable authority. As we grow, we gain experience and better inform our conscious, becoming more free with our adherence to spiritual and moral laws.

We have to ask:

Would Ghandi have been in the 65%?
Would St. Paul, who often wound up in jail for doing what he believed have been in the 65%?
Would Martin Luther King Jr. have been in the 65%?

Obviously, they would not have been. You see those people we consider saintly or near-saintly are just those who live examined lives to the fullest. They are at the level that we should all strive to attain. What oppressive government could remain in a world full of saints? What wars could be fought? Don’t be in the 65%. If you want to change the world, if you want to make it better, then live an examined life, and be a saint.- Not a “Little Eichmann”.