Obedience to Authority Essay

Excerpt from Essay :


Obedience, Authority, & Responsibility

There are indeed, problems with obedience, as the reading's title proclaims. One problem with obedience is that if there is more than one person cohabitating in the same area, some form of obedience is necessary. Thus, on a grander scale, it is more apparent that obedience is mandatory for societies to exist and function. Another problem with obedience is how those who obey are often predisposed to obey to a fault -- to knowingly obey orders that result in actions that are in direct conflict with that individual's conscience. Blind obedience is a problem. The paper will argue that instances when people obey blindly, it is a problem for the individual and the society. Another problem of obedience occurs when "normal" and otherwise moral individuals obey orders to commit crimes against humanity and do not feel any responsibility or accountability for the result of the actions/obedience. That obedience breeds detachment from responsibility, with particular regard to the most heinous of crimes, is yet another problem of obedience. Through examples of research studies, historical events, and everyday situations, Milgram makes several sound points and asks several key questions regarding responsibility, obedience, authority, and the nature of humanity. This paper explores the points main in "The Problem with Obedience," concluding that while obedience is necessary to function in groups, critical thinking, and strict adherence to a personal code counteract and/or balance the potential fatality of blind obedience.

Milgram's interest in is to what degree ordinary person's in a non-wartime situation will obey orders that result in the harm of a third party. He describes studies conducted at universities across the United States of America with relatively the same results: people are perfectly willing to hurt others when a perceived authority figure instructs them to do so, regardless of personal principles, ethics, or morals. The most important conclusion of the piece for this author was:

Predictably, subjects excused their behavior by saying that the responsibility belonged to the man who actually pulled the switch. This may illustrate a dangerously typical situation in complex society: 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 confront 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 the modern society. (Milgram 1974)

While the whole piece is worthwhile and engaging, the paper contends that the aforementioned quotation toward the closing of the piece is a truly cogent presentation of the author's point. The author's point is that when positioned as a subordinate within a power structure, people will inflict violence upon others or take other harmful actions against others and detach themselves from culpability because they do not hold authority.

These behaviors are quite evident in society, from the workplace to the battleground, from the university, to the after party -- people do not take responsibility for harming others when they are following orders. When each person in the chain of command relinquishes him/herself from responsibility, deadly forced is used and no one is responsible; therefore, no one will suffer any consequences. That may be an underlying reason why people avoid responsibility and cling to obedience as an excuse to not be held accountable. People fear consequences. People fear consequences of actions they know are wrong; thus, people, as a defense mechanism or protective barrier from actions that they know are wrong yet obey anyway, ordinary people evade responsibility. (Benjamin, Jr. & Simpson, 2009)

Audiences often see representations in the media of organized groups or professionals who work in teams where there is a clear hierarchy or power structure. Often times in those media representations, those in command or authority hand out orders that may seem counterintuitive or wrong to the subordinates, yet the subordinates follow orders. Subordinates are not always aware of the pressures of command nor of the classified or protected information the authority figure is privy to, so it may be quite out line to question orders rather than obey them. On the other hand, where is the line? What lacks in the character of the average people that allow them to follow orders they know are wrong? What lacks in the character of the average person that allows them to believe that they are in no way responsible for harm inflicted upon others because of the orders they executed? A possible answer to those questions is critical thinking skills; there is a gross lack of critical thinking skills in cultures today. If people were thinking more critically, especially in times of ethical quandary, perhaps the results of Milgram's experiments would have varied a bit more. This the position of the paper: that more people acquired and applied critical thinking skills more often, less people would commit atrocities against others, fully aware that they are wrong, and reject such orders. Applying critical thinking skills to ethical dilemmas dismantles corruption at the organizational level and prevents people from rationalizing away their culpability (Aguilera & Vadera, 2008)

"The Problem with Obedience" raises many questions regarding social structures, power structures, culture, institutions, and basic interactions among people. The nature of obedience that Milgram brings to light is what is problematic about the reading. What is problematic is how true his findings ring in everyday life in the microcosmic and macrocosmic levels. What do we, as a society, do? Elms suggest that the first think a society should do, is bring our attention to the phenomenon of obedience in general. (2009) He states that what societies have to learn about obedience, authority, and responsibility begins with comprehending obedience and rendering meaning about ourselves from it. It is an integral part of society of which we cannot fully rid ourselves. Some forms of obedience keep people safe, such as we all agree that the green light means go and the red light means stop. People obey the traffic lights so that there are not car crashes of epic proportions everywhere, especially in densely populated urban areas. We cannot rid our society of obedience without destroying the society, yet at the current levels of obedience, there is potential for society to be destroyed because of blind obedience, detachment, and denial of accountability?

America is a country that was founded by people who reacted to unjust actions with organized revolution. America is a country that has forged its own path and very unique national identity. America has not seen a great cultural shift or revolt since the 1960s, a result of which is the assassinations, extraditions, and incarcerations of numerous leaders in counterculture and politics. I think that since then, Americans have really been afraid to speak out against authority. Then after 9/11, the government used that tragedy as a way to further restrict and surveil the citizens, so citizens feel even more like they are not free, they are always watched, and anyone who speaks out against authority will swiftly and thoroughly be shut down.

I agree with Milgram: obedience is a problem, but it should not have to be. Critical thinking skills keeps leaders in check because they know that if they send down unethical orders, the subordinates will be alert enough to at least question and maybe even fully hinder such orders from being executed. This would decrease the likelihoods of genocides and other gross crimes against humanity. Critical thinking skills would also help subordinates or followers good material for leadership in the case a leader has to step down or is killed. Lack of critical thinking skills may have little do to do…

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