George Walford: Not My Will But Thine

Obedience is all around us; has it been imposed upon people yearning for freedom, or volunteered by people who don’t value independence? Everybody interested in social affairs will have an opinion, and most of us are ready to give voice to our belief. Stanley Milgram took a different approach, setting up a series of experiments to find out. Obedience to Authority is his account of them.

What he found out was not, strictly speaking, what the critics or supporters of existing society want to know (or, more often, are convinced they do know). They look to the behaviour of some body comprising millions of people and constituting a social force; the workers, the socialists or conservatives, or the English or sometimes just “people,” while Milgram tested something over one thousand individuals, by themselves or at most in threes.

Each experiment used a subject and a victim (these are not Milgram’s terms). The subjects were a chance selection, obtained by public advertising and paid for their time; the ‘victim’ was in fact art actor in cahoots with the investigator. Impressive electrical apparatus was provided shown by its dials to be capable of administering shocks graded from “15 volts SLIGHT SHOCK” to “450 volts DANGER – SEVERE SHOCK” (but in fact inoperative), and the subject was instructed to administer a shock, more severe than the previous one, each time the victim, strapped into place, made a mistake in a learning test. Subjects were told that the responses of the victim were being tested while in fact the object was to find out how far the subjects would go in torturing an innocent and inoffensive stranger, the only pressure on them being instructions issued by a person wearing the white coat of scientific authority.

As the “shocks” grew “stronger” the (actor) victim responded accordingly, with grunts at 75 volts, verbal complaints at 120, demands to be released at 150 and at 285 volts, an agonised scream. The subjects showed obvious signs of inner conflict, but at each hesitation the experimenter ordered that the experiment continue; the subject’s only way out was to reject authority.

Milgram thinks it may surprise some readers that “no one ever” refuses to administer the first shocks, but the “surprising and dismaying” feature of the results is that even with the victim screaming in agony, protesting that his heart is weak and begging for release, “a substantial proportion of subjects continue right up to the maximum of “450 volts DANGER – SEVERE SHOCK.”

The book gives quantitative details, charts, particulars of variations tested, and much other information too complex to outline here. Milgram himself summarises his findings: A substantial proportion of people do what they arc 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 [p. 190].

As that statement shows, Milgram believes that his results can be extended to people generally, and although this conclusion goes against accepted democratic beliefs it is difficult to refute him. The experiment was repeated at other universities with similar results, and Milgram relates how college students, although shocked by hearing how his experimental subjects had behaved and declaring that they would never do anything like that, within months were in the army, committing deeds that made the administration of electric shocks seem pallid [p .180]. He says this astonished him, but it is hard to see why. Did he not already know that people ordered into the armed forces usually comply, that others volunteer and that most of them, once enlisted, kill on command?

From the beginning of history massacres on a scale proportionate to the population has occurred repeatedly; during the present century the numbers slaughtered have gone far into the millions. Sometimes those killed had been trying to kill their killers, sometimes not, but every time large-scale killing took place those immediately responsible were acting under orders; without the willingness to obey horrors of this magnitude could not have taken place. Most of us have had little direct contact with atrocities, but we are a1l familiar with the attitude that makes them possible: “Can’t help that; I’m just doing my job.”

Milgram holds out little hope of any great change, saying: “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” [p. 1]. That goes directly against a great weight of anthropological evidence showing that for much the greater part of their time on the planet human beings have lived in communities innocent of command or submission, so much so that they are known generically as acephalic or headless. Command, obedience and authority belong to a syndrome that appeared, together with agriculture and the beginnings of the state, only about 10,000 years ago.

Milgram’s results do not suggest that a substantial proportion of ordinary people spontaneously administer torture, only that they will do so on command. Command and obedience together are responsible; where either of these is absent these horrors do not happen and commands only get issued in societies having agriculture, government, and the features that accompany these. By the use of domination, command and obedience these societies have produced Milgram’s results and the greater, more terrible events in the historical record; the torturers, the hangmen – sorry, hang-persons – the death-camp guards and the military all work to command.

So, however, do the nurses, the rescue services, the teachers and the printers, the people who grow the food and mend the clothes that you dear reader, are wearing. Whatever other ways of working may be possible, it is mainly by command that this society has operated since its beginnings, and if this is not always obvious it is only because obedience is complete enough for commanded to remain largely implicit.

Command and obedience have been active from the beginnings of history. They have been largely responsible for everything, good and bad that organised society has produced and there is no good reason to believe that they are losing their effectiveness. Far from collapsing, capitalism is stronger than ever and growing faster than ever; industry has increasing power at its disposal technology provides the means for governments to exercise closer control, there are more people alive than there ever have been, and the population is still increasing faster than it has ever done. It looks as if we have to expect war, massacre, torture and genocide also to increase.

But social development rarely follows a straight-line course, and the society that wields these new powers is not just a larger version of the society that began to develop them. As well as strengthening its former powers it has developed new ones, and among these are powers of self-criticism and self-restraint. Milgram’s book is one instance of this. First published fifteen years ago, it created a flurry which has since died dowrn but his results are on the record and anybody putting forward an account of social behaviour which claims to take account of what is known will have to reckon with them. This was not formerly so. On a larger scale, the actions of governments, institutions and powerful people come under scrutiny to an extent not formerly known. The British government is still obsessed with secrecy, but the USA (rather more important in world affairs) has its Freedom of Information Act – of limited value certainly, but still an advance. Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and a range of informal groups maintain a barrage of criticism against actions likely to damage the environment, encouraging whistle-blowers, drawing attention to the consequences of blind obedience and offering support to recalcitrants. The reformist and revolutionary political movements maintain continuous exposure and attack of an extent, intensity and sophistication unknown a century ago.

Obedience is not on the way out but disobedience, criticism, resistance and opposition are strengthening against it. Milgram’s subjects, being selected by chance, are statistically certain to have included a great majority of eidostatics, ideologically inclined towards compliance with authority. Had he tested revolutionaries – anarchists in particular – his results might well have been different.

from Ideological Commentary 42, November 1989.