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Andrew Killmer

Kyle Swan
Phil 122 MW 12-1:15

The Contrary Will of Authority

The article The Perils of Obedience, by Stanley Milgram, is Milgrams
analysis of a series of social experiments he conducted on the nature of Obedience.
The experiment (s) consisted of three individuals, an Experimenter, a Teacher,
and a Learner. The teacher was instructed to administer an increasingly powerful
electric shock to the learner, under the instruction of the experimenter.
While common sense and faith in humanity predicted that teachers would
stop administering shocks once the learners began to scream for help, a shocking
propensity was exhibited, across the gamut of the many instances of the test, of
teachers who would (albeit not without a sense of moral conflict and reservation)
continue to follow the orders of the experimenter, even to the point where the
teacher became concerned that the learner had, or would die.
The bulk of the article is devoted to exposing this trend, and Milgram
describes variation after variation of the setup, where teachers continually
obediently followed orders until they stopped being issued. Some of the versions of
the experiment gave people the freedom to choose the severity of the punishment,

and while nearly all teachers who were able to, chose to administer only minimal
amounts of electricity, they still nonetheless uniformly chose to be obedient to the
perceived authority of the experimenter.
The data yielded by Milgrams experiments showed the tremendous
normative power of authority within human society. Milgram himself applies it to a
Nazi war criminal (and all similar drones of evil), and suggests that the reason
people are very easily able to commit acts of wanton violence and cruelty is not
because we are evil or malicious by nature, but because the presence of authority
(and the division of labor) allow people to divorce themselves from their actions,
and to lay responsibility at the feet of someone they deem more culpable than
Milgrams experiment is something we must analyze on the strength of its
insights into human behavior, rather than the strength of his argument, as is typical
of a philosophical unpacking. Without having a background in social psychology on
par with Milgrams, it would be presumptuous and counter-productive to question
Milgrams analysis of his own data. However, we can look at common knowledge
facts about human political history and apply Milgrams analysis to potentially gain
further insight than is contained in the Harpers article.
As long as humans have been congregating in societies, we have been ceding
authority to a select few, sovereigns who stand at the helm of that societys
particular trajectory. Often times this authority was granted in return for protection
from outside hostilities, although in the modern era of relative peace among (1 st
world) nations, we see allegiance to authority rising out of economic or moral

grounds. These modern societies are all industrialized practitioners of divided labor,
which we have seen to be the linchpin in Milgrams analysis. Milgram sees the
division of labor as blinding the individual to the consequences of their actions,
allowing guilt to be transferred from one agent to another. What is also worth noting
here is that the division of labor brought an exponential increase in the delegations
of authority as well. As the individual ceased to be his own overseer at work, so
arose myriad new positions of authority, which the worker had to obey. This new
distribution of power quickly became enculturated into these industrial societies,
and by the time Milgram is conducting his experiments, society fully relied on the
authority be so distributed.
This is the kind of authority Milgram deals with in his essay and experiments.
The experimenters are just people doing a job (as the teachers perceive
themselves and the learners to be as well). The reason this is striking is because
of the extremes Milgram had his experimenters instruct the teachers to go to. Had
the shocks been real, the actions of the teachers would have not only crossed moral
boundaries, but legal ones as well all without any real coercion, only the
perception of authority. It shows that people are easily capable of suspending
personal will in the face of the contrary will of authority, even when the will of
authority is grievous, potentially murderous.
The individuals capacity for suspension of will is the leaping point for
Milgrams extrapolation that this is where human evil and heinousness comes from.
He references the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, acknowledging that even he,
who issued the oders for countless deaths, was sickened when he saw the
physicality of the concentration camps. In this example, the labor or murder was
divided between officers and soldiers, and each were able to sublate their guilt by

imagining the culpability to lie somewhere else along the chain of command. In this
manner, people who share no genocidal inclination with their Fuhrer can be shown
to engage willingly in actions that would imply otherwise.
This is a story, told by Milgram, which should prompt us to examine our own
behavior. Milgrams experiments show us that we, as individuals, can fall victim to
the perils of obedience. These perils certainly do not arise because of the division of
labor, but they increase along correlative lines. Even though the relationship
between divided labor and blind obedience to authority is not causal, Milgrams
experiment conclusively shows that they are not mutually exclusive either. Though
our industrial society is not nearly as established as, say, feudalist societies of the
last millennium, it is safe to assume that the trends of industrialization will not be
seen to be waning any time soon. Our labor force is going to remain divided for the
foreseeable future, and the whims of authority will continue to direct it. Milgrams
experiment, his analysis, shows that it is incumbent upon the individual under
authority to continually examine and grant legitimacy to the authoritative figure.
This vicariously implies the responsibility to deny legitimacy and resist authority
once the authority crosses into despotism. Unfortunately, this requires a strict and
universal ethical code, which has thus far eluded humankind. Fortunately, the
division of labor means that finding such an ethics is the job of some other
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