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May 28, 2011


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Patrick S. O'Donnell

I recommend David Luban’s excellent discussion of Milgram’s experiments in chapter 7, “The ethics of wrongful obedience,” in his Legal Ethics and Human Dignity (2007): 237-266. Among the points made by Luban:

“The Milgram experiments demonstrate not only that in the right circumstances we are quite prone to destructive obedience, but also that we don’t believe this about ourselves, or about our neighbors—nor do we condone it.”

“...[T]he odds are almost two to one that we are fooling ourselves to think we would never engage in [destructive obedience].”

In the abstract, most of us think the “no-harm” principle should trump the “performance principle” when the two come in conflict. “But the Milgram experiments seem to show that what we think in the abstract is dead wrong. Two out of three people you pass in the street would electrocute you if a laboratory technician ordered them to.” (Recall that a third of the subjects did not comply.)

Luban invokes, persuasively I think, cognitive dissonance theory (motivated in part by the subjects’ ‘susceptibility to the urge to excessive self-regard’) to explain the “slippery slope”-like process of “corruption of judgment” that took place in the Milgram experiments. He draws a parallel here to Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963 ed.), calling it the “most famous philosophical study of wrongful obedience in our time,” as it explores the “idea that obedience to evil may result from corrupted judgment rather than evil values or sadism,” for Eichmann, “on Arendt’s account, was neither a monster nor an ideologue, neither an antisemite nor a sadist. He was a careerist—an organization man through and through, who could never understand why doing a responsible job well might be regarded as a crime against humanity.”

In short, “the point for both Arendt and Milgram is that if an ordinary person’s moral judgment can be corrupted to the point of failure even about something as momentous as mass murder—or shocking an innocent experimental volunteer to death!—it is entirely plausible to think that the same organizational and psychological forces can corrupt our judgments in lesser situations. The extreme situations illuminate their ordinary counterparts even if , in the most obvious ways, they are utterly unlike them.”

Luban’s conclusion is both sober and hopeful:

“Our moral compass seems tremendously susceptible to the responses of the people around us. That fact creates the problem of wrongful obedience, but it also implies that noncompliers can influence their compliant fellows. The social psychologist Serge Moscovici has argued for many years that even a small number of virtuous noncompliers can sometimes exert enough influence to break the corrupting spell of situations. Human nature seems malleable more than overtly wicked—and that means susceptibility can be toward the good as well as the bad. The thought that a small number of righteous dissenters can sometimes sway the judgment of a larger majority is a profoundly hopeful one.” [Perhaps needless to say, this has been demonstrated again and again in the 20th and 21st centuries in campaigns of nonviolent—civil—resistance.]

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Let‘s cross the bridge when we come to it.

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