Programmed for Obedience
We humans like to think of ourselves as morally decent creatures. Indeed, our capacity for morality has been a major factor in the sustainability and prosperity of our species. We take pride in the acts of kindness we perform, and more often then not, we express genuine sympathy for those who are suffering. Yet as comforting as this mentality may be, it fails to give consideration to the atrocities human beings have enacted on one other throughout history. Such atrocities are often considered exceptions to the rule of human nature, carried out by a few sadistic and evil individuals that don’t represent mankind’s normal behavior. However, Christopher Browning and Stanley Milgram offer a less comforting explanation; they contend that proneness to obedience gives nearly everyone the capacity to commit horrific acts against his fellow man. Both Browning and Milgram argue that humans’ lack of individualism can explain such obedience. Milgram’s explanation focuses on the roles we assume in a group. He notes that throughout human history we have functioned in hierarchal structures (Milgram, Obedience, p.130). Indeed, organizing in this way has been essential to the survival of our race, allowing us to survive and prosper for centuries with some sense of stability. This premise adopted by Milgram stands in contrast to that of Hobbes, who argued that socialization can help suppress man’s animalistic tendencies. Milgram, on the other hand, claims that we are overly socialized, and have been throughout our existence. This offers an explanation as to why the hierarchal structure is a cornerstone of contemporary human life, with families, schools, and governments all relying on a hierarchy of sorts. Yet despite the success of these institutions, Milgram points out a consequence that has resulted from our existence in hierarchies: the instinct for obedience. He notes that, “internal harmony [within the hierarchy] is ensured when all members accept the status assigned to them” (Milgram, Obedience, p. 124). Thus, in order to prosper within a group, humans have been evolutionarily programmed to express deference for those in positions of authority. The pervasiveness of our deference to authority was illustrated by Milgrim’s experiment on the topic, in which subjects were told to administer electric shocks to a stranger. The results of the experiment were horrifying; a majority of subjects administered the highest-level shock with only a small minority expressing any kind of disobedience. The experiment is illustrative of Milgrim’s larger point on human nature. He claims that, “When he [an individual] functions in an organizational mode, directions that come from the higher-level component are not assessed against the internal standards of moral judgement” (Milgram, Obedience, p.130). In other words, our belief in hierarchy has programmed us to prioritize obedience over our own morality. The subjects in the experiment considered the cause of science to be a noble one, and thus they did not question the morality of the experiment, or the authoritative figure who told them to administer the shocks. This is in large because the subjects had entered an “agentic state,” which Milgram defines as “the condition a person is in when he sees himself as an agent for carrying out another person’s wishes” (Milgram, Obedience, p.131) In this state, individuals are removed from their own standards of morality. Instead, they see themselves as carrying out the will of another, and thus, their behaviors are altered (Milgram, Obedience, p.131). Milgram’s claim is that it does not take an especially weak-minded individual to enter this obedient state. Rather, we have been evolutionarily programmed to do so, and thus our capacity for evil is greater than we know. The idea of an agentic state is also central to Browning’s explanation of obedience. Although his case study, Nazi Police Battalion 101, is far different from the diverse individuals observed by Milgrim, the subjects follow the same trend. Browning contends that despite their horrific deeds, the men of Battalion 101, did not have any abnormal proclivity for violence. They were in many ways “normal” individuals in that they were nearly all of the working class and middle aged (Browning, Ordinary, p.1) The reason for their sadistic behavior coincides with Milgram’s argument: the men of Battalion 101 entered an agentic state in which their actions were justified as serving a noble cause. In this case, the cause was German prosperity. They did not see themselves as carrying out their own will, but rather the will of their superiors. This point illustrates another important aspect of Browning’s explanation of obedience, the division of labor. Browning notes that, “many of the perpetrators of the Holocaust were so-called desk murderers whose role in the mass extermination was greatly facilitated by the bureaucratic nature of their participation (Browning, Ordinary, p.162) Although none of the members of Battalion 101 were working at desks, the same idea applies. Many of the men could not stomach the horrific sites of “Jew hunts” and mass shootings, and instead elected to perform other tasks (Browning, Ordinary, p.164). This division of labor helped foster a “functional and physical” distancing from the mass murder of which Battalion 101 participated (Browning, Ordinary, p.162). While said distancing may have created some relief for the men, it was all an illusion. They were just as participatory in the genocide taking place, but the occasional separation from the actual killing helped prolong their participation. The concept of division of labor can also be applied to Milgram’s theory. Like the men of Battalion 101, Milgram’s subjects did not assume full responsibility for their actions. One of his subject’s even went as far as to ask the experimenter, “do you accept all responsibility?” (Milgram, Obedience, p.76). When the experimenter assured him that he was absolved of all blame for harm done to the learner, the subject, Mr. Fred Prozi, continued administering shocks as if he was contractually obligated to do so. This illustrates the process of psychological distancing that both authors frequently mention. Since Mr. Prozi did not design the experiment, he was able to detach himself from the experiment’s cruel nature. He was relieved by the notion that the experimenter accepted all responsibility, despite the fact that his hand was on the trigger, so to speak. Our tendency to absolve ourselves from all responsibility when operating within a group is key to understanding why ordinary men commit extraordinarily heinous deeds. Browning’s offers a more in-depth description of human psychology within a group. As observers in retrospect, it is easy to claim that our moral compass would have not allowed us to participate in the acts perpetrated by Battalion 101. However, this suggestion ignores the extreme circumstances to which these men were subjected. As Browning notes, refusal to carry out orders was likely to result in “isolation, rejection, and ostracism,” which was a “very uncomfortable prospect within the framework of a tight-knit unit stationed abroad” (Browning, Ordinary, p. 185). Browning’s claim here is indicative of his central point on obedience: Human beings, by nature, are scared of being exiled from the group, and thus, we display a strong proclivity for conformity. For this reason, Browning concludes that it was simply “easier for them to shoot” (Browning, Ordinary, p.184). While Milgram also emphasizes the importance of conformity in human nature, his explanation as to why this conformity persists differs from Browning’s theory. Milgram’s explanation is largely based on evolutionary forces. He argues that coping with the “dangers of the physical environment” and “threats posed by competing species” have necessitated group participation since the first human societies (Milgram, Obedience, p. 124). According to Milgram, this has led conformity to become an evolutionary trait passed on from one human generation to the next. His theory lends some explanation as to why “fitting in” is so pervasive in human behavior, even at the subconscious level. Indeed, when humans enter into a new environment, we seldom notice the behavioral changes that occur in attempting to blend in. Even the manner in which we speak is likely to be altered. Such impressionable characteristics of human behavior support Milgram’s argument that conformity is an evolutionary adaptation. In contrast, Browning offers no historical evidence as to why humans obey. This illustrates a key difference regarding their views on conformity: Milgram attributes it evolution while Browning considers conformity an instinctual trait. With regards to Battalion 101, he notes that, “to adopt overtly non-conformist behavior was simply beyond most of the men” (Browning, Ordinary, p.184). Browning’s word choice here is significant. The word “beyond” suggests that most men are incapable of thinking and acting independently of a group. He explains our inability to think for ourselves in the context of species’ limitations. Just as it is “beyond” the canine species to walk on two legs, the human species also has limitations according to Browing, most notably, freedom of thought. Milgram’s evolutionary explanation, on the other hand, paints a slightly more generous picture of human nature. By claiming that evolutionary forces have shaped human conformity, he suggests that lack of independence is a developed trait rather than an instinctual one. Thus, Milgram portrays proclivity for conformity as less influential on our psyche than does Browning. This difference notwithstanding, the theories of Browning and Milgram both recognize how difficult it is to practice true individualism. Indeed, the only way in which one can avoid succumbing to conformity in this way is to not seek love or acceptance from those around you. Sophocles’ Antigone exemplifies this point. She is a fictional character, yet she serves as the ultimate example of resistance to authority. This is largely because, unlike the men of Battalion 101, Antigone does not seek to fit in with anyone her around her. In fact, her life as a child of incest, and the recent death of her brother render it impossible for her to do so. Her lack of interest in affection is evidenced by her attitude towards her own sister: “I do not want love from anyone who loves with speeches” (Sophocles, Antigone, p. 42). Here, Antigone openly rejects her sister’s compassion, which serves as a testament of her own individuality. She is free from the need to be accepted, and thus can maintain her convictions in the face of authority. Milgram’s subjects and Police Battalion 101, did not have this luxury. These people did not share the extraordinary circumstances of Antigone, nor did they display her disregard for authority. In fact, it is evident that nearly every individual studied by Milgram or Browning acted out of a desire for approval. Whether it was the German police officer following orders at the expense of his own sense of morality, or one of Milgram’s subjects eagerly administering a damaging shock at the experimenter’s bidding, both of these cases display how far we are willing to go to achieve acceptance. More often than not, human beings will cast their own morality aside in order to do what they perceive as necessary for a larger purpose. For Milgram’s subjects this purpose was science, while for Batallion 101, it was German prosperity. Despite their different methods of research, both Milgram and Browning reach a similar conclusion; they contend that our senses of morality are generally weak, and thus we should not be so quick to judge the horrific actions of those who submit to authority.
Browning, Christopher R. Ordinary Men. New York: HarperCollins, 1992. Print.
Milgram, Stanley, and Jerome Seymour Bruner. Obedience to Authority. London: Pinter & Martin, 2005. Print.
Sophocles, and Richard Emil Braun. Antigone. New York: Oxford UP, 1973. Print.