Obedience and Individual Responsibility

At the time of the Eichmann trial, Stanley Milgram, a psychologist at Yale University, conducted an innovative study. It addressed the perpetual conflict between obedience and conscience. Indirectly, the study addressed the bizarre justifications of genocide by Nuremberg War Criminals on the basis of obedience and following orders (Miale and Selzer 7).

In the experiment, the teacher was to administer an electric shock of increasing intensity to the learner upon each mistake. However, the teacher was oblivious to the fact that the learner was an actor, merely indicating discomfort as punishment increased. When the teacher asked for advice regarding increasing the punishments, he/she was verbally encouraged to continue. Ultimately, 65% of the teachers obeyed orders to punish the learner all the way to the end of the 450-volt scale. Not a single teacher disobeyed orders before reaching 300 volts (Miale and Selzer 8).

Obedience significantly dropped when the experimenter was absent, or when the experimenter provided contradictory instructions. In fact, at times, the teacher questioned the experimenter, asking who was responsible for shocking the learner. Upon the reply that the experimenter assumed full responsibility, the teachers seemed to accept the response and continue shocking. The results of the study merely raised more questions. Foremost, how could these teachers bring themselves to continue shocking?

Milgram maintained that every human possesses the dual capacity to function as an individual exercising his/her own moral judgment and the capacity to relinquish his/her autonomy. Yet, he failed to understand the deeper meaning inherent in the transformation of ordinary behavior through obedience to orders. Milgram argued that since authority demands obedience, the subjects administered increasingly high shocks in obeying the authority of the experimenter.

While the teachers feeling of responsibility did affect how they acted, it cannot explain the behavior. The deeper meaning lies within the responsibility paradox between beauracracies and the individual. Indeed, moral responsibility is not a transferable property as is personal property. In the experiment, the teachers confused moral responsibility of the individual with technical responsibility, in which certain officials are deemed accountable in an institution for an action, decided by the institution (Dimsdale 336). When the institutions are no longer legitimate and turn immoral, the individual cannot remain unconcerned with the moral considerations of their actions.

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