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Exploring The Nature of People’s Obedience to Authority

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A once peaceful country within a single whistle of command, turns into a bloodshed zone, scampering for safety, outcries, forceful incorporation into the army for the male adults and youths, incarceration and extermination of the civilians. In Nazi Germany, faith in a destructive kind of obedience manifested itself during World War II with the command of Adolf Hitler. More than six million Jews, Communists, Roma, and trade union members in Nazi Germany and all other regions under Nazi leadership were taken to concentration camps and killed.

The questions that arise from this massacre are, how could people be slaughtered on command? How could gas chambers be built and torture concentration camps guarded? How could one expose a person who was a neighbor to extreme forced labor, starvation, hunger, and poison? Does it mean that there were dispositional factors that led to such evil, in that, are humans inertly evil? Obedience to authority requires that everyone under the hierarchy accept the leader’s legitimacy, knowledge, and competency in administering the command. Thus the person who gives commands has a higher rank than the one getting orders. Obedience also happens when one is told to perform a task which can have either good or bad outcomes, For instance, the chief master planner of the Holocaust in Germany, Adolf Eichmann claimed that he did not have hatred for the Jews. Instead, he just followed orders that made sure the collecting, transporting, and massacre of the victims ran smoothly. From this scenario, obedience is a natural phenomenon but, extreme and blind obedience to authority has disastrous outcomes, and their morals should guide them in choosing what is right for them because all humans have the gift of free will.

In society today, being obedient is a primary element in the lives of many individuals. Obedience is vital for peaceful coexistence in society, and only the people living in isolation are the ones who cannot get coerced into responding or submit to other people’s commands. Being obedient is a rooted character in the hearts of many people, and it overrides ethical training, conducts in their morals and sympathy. Disobedience, on the other hand, has adverse outcomes for those who practice it. Disobedience is a failure to obey the commands of the person in authority. As a result of disobedience, the agent may feel awkwardness and discomfort that we are disrupting an order. It often leads to anxiety on the part of the one disobeying the command because it may lead to punishment. What if the Nazi soldiers disobeyed the command on the grounds of morals and humanity? Was fear a driving force behind the soldiers’ actions of brutality? Eichmann’s actions could be considered of an insane man since his blind obedience without questioning the authority led to the holocaust that sends a chilling spike in the hearts and minds of many. As a result, Eichmann examined by six psychiatrists to ascertain his sanity only to diagnose that he was very sane and his life was that of an average human being. Since he was a normal human being, his inhuman conduct was, therefore, a result of blind obedience coupled with situational factors that affect all humans and may lead to enormous acts. After the effects of the Holocaust of World War II, psychologists decided to examine the marvel of human obedience since earlier trials that got carried out, had their primary focus on the German culture which was thought as being distinct. But, if we were in the same situations as the Nazi soldiers, would we have obeyed the command to torture and slaughter fellow human beings who were once our neighbors?

The quandary dilemma in obedience to authority traces its origin to ancient times when Abraham was told to leave his ancestral land and go to an area he did not know. In the historical era, human obedience has been investigated by many, and the question that remains is whether people should submit to authority even if the submission should compromise human morals. The conservative sophists claim that since society faces the threat of disobedience, people have no choice other than to obey. On the hand, scholars emphasize the supremacy of personal conscience. The philosophical view of obedience gave very little insight on how humans behave in extreme situations.

Yale Psychologist Stanley Milgram investigated the rationale for the actions which those who got criminal trials at Nuremberg War Criminal trials for causing the Holocaust. Many of those convicted based their justification on the obedience of superior authorities. Milgram desired to examine if the people from Germany were distinctively obedient to their superiors in power or obedience runs across all humans.

Milgram’s experiment at Yale University was redone with ten male participants from the university to quantify obedience. The pain was inflicted on a learner by the teacher as instructed by the experimenter, who is a professor at the university. From the experiment, a harsh authority gets pockmarked against the morals of the teacher opposing him to hurt the learner. The teacher could hear the victim scream because of the pain of the electric shock generator, but he could not stop administering the shocks, and instead, he chose to heed the command of the experimental scientist. The study shows that humans are capable of going an extra length on obeying commands. In the experiment, testing of the learner’s ability to memorize word pairs occurs. The learner should remember the second-word couple after hearing the first one, failure to which an administration of an electric shock of different voltages should take place. The learner gets tied to an electric chair, and his wrists are also linked to an electrode to minimize his movements.

The main objective of the experiment is to see how far a teacher would go in administering the shocks to the learner after been commanded to obey what the experimenter wants. The teacher then sits a chair placed in front of an electric shock generator that has horizontally placed lever switches that range from 15 volts to 450 voltages. The switches indicate the intensity of the shocks from slight to extremely dangerous, which is denoted by XXX. Pilot lights that correspond to the various switches illuminate a bright red light when switched.

In the experiment, the teacher is an ingenious subject who comes to experiment in the laboratory. The victim is the learner who ultimately does not receive shocks (Behrens and Leonard 584). In the modern world, the human rights activists view the aftereffects of administering shocks on a human being as a crime against humanity, and more so, nobody will be willing to undergo such. The laboratory at Yale University, the electric shock generator, the lab coat, electric chair, and the screams drive home the point of the experimental scientist. It is to investigate to what extent can a human obey and administer pain on a complaining victim when he is commanded to do so by a person in authority. The clash comes in where the learner shows that he is undergoing pain during the switching of the switches on the machines. At the moderate shocks of 75 volts, he growls; when the switch moves to 120 volts, he whimpers; the learner commands to get out of the experiment at the voltage 150, and he emotionally and intensely protests as the energy continues to increase. At voltage 285, his scream indicates extreme torture, and afterward, no sound comes from the learner. The teacher morally feels the urge to stop administering the shocks when the learner vehemently screams. But the moment the teacher feels like quitting; the experimental scientist commands him to continue. At 330 volts, it is a tug of war between the teacher obeying his morals or submitting to fatal commands from the experimental scientist.

From the findings, it is evident that humans can go a long way in obeying the people in authority rather than using their conscience to distinguish wrong from right. Even though the learner screamed, 65% of the participants failed to obey their morals and executed the experiments to the full voltage of 450V and chose to listen to the prods of the experimenter. What mattered to them was to obey the command of the experimenter. In the Nazi Germany concentration camps, the people were subjected to harsh conditions, exposure to cold, starvation, and brutal treatment. The lives of the people were not a matter of concern for the soldiers. Instead, they tortured and took the people to poisoned gas chambers. The soldiers went a long way to see their fellow humans immensely suffer by a 450 voltage as denoted by the Milgram’s electric shock machine for them to meet the goals of Adolf Hitler.

Obedience is a natural phenomenon, and we are all faced with hierarchies at home, school, or the workplace, and as such, we give our control to another person. We come to an agentic state that has four components that are; capacity of an agent, becoming an agent, the features of an agent, and limiting factors that limit us from exiting the agent. The role of the agent is made social in many spheres of our lives where there are rewards for obedience and punishment for disobedience. We usually find ourselves acting as agents because as humans, we value order and more so, we no longer feel responsible for our actions, and we would carry out the rules of the one in authority. In Nazi Germany, the soldiers no longer felt guilty for their actions in killing and torturing millions of innocent civilians because they were acting on behalf of their leader Adolf Hitler.

The agency also binds us so that we are unable to exit from it. When we feel we have done something wrong, morally, we are obliged to leave it, but according to Milgram, consistency makes us fail to admit that our actions are illegal at times. We always feel obligated to our leader in authority, and we tend to ignore the legitimacy, knowledgeability, and competence of the leader. The soldiers who participated in the Holocaust felt obligated to carry out the monstrous commands of their leader and consistency made them feel no longer accountable for their actions.

Based on Solomon Asch’s study on opinions and social pressure, a study was made to unearth the impact of group pressure on individuals. The study aimed to ascertain the extent to which individuals judgments are affected by force from other people. The result from the experiment was that many people cave into the influence of the group while others may choose to remain indifferent. The same happened to Nazi Germany, where the army officers carried out massive bloodshed and torture of victims not because they had anything against the victims but because everyone else was doing it. The experiment involved 120 college learners whose gender was male, and a display of sequences of lines, both standard and those that were not standard was given to them. They were seated in a specific order except one who sat at the end of the sitting arrangement. The participants were to provide answers unanimously except for the one at the end of the sitting method whose answers served to create awareness on the effects of group pressure on individuals’ decisions.

From the experiment, 45 individuals supported the wrong answers that groups gave. And if more people gave incorrect answers, the group pressure to support the wrong answers increased. Many people followed the group clues because they felt that unanimous answers were the best, and it was good to follow them. Others followed the pressure since they thought it was wrong to tarnish the answers given by the majority for fear of ridicule while others that they were on the wrong, so they just followed the wave. Others still thought that the effects of optical mirage were fooling them.

The participants, who were not affected by the group pressure, wondered why the groups had many incorrect answers, and this made them continue trusting in themselves. Some of them chose to be a dissident. From the results, it is natural for many individuals to conform to the ideas of the majority groups, that is suggestibility, even if they are on the wrong and a few choose to be non-conformists. Thus, people want to be conformists because of informational sway in that they trust that the crowd is more knowledgeable. Also, people conform to social pressure and opinion because of the normative control, where they want to blend with the group.

The size of the group also was a matter of concern since, the larger the group, the larger the number of conformists. Also, when given difficult tasks, a large percentage of the participants did not want to think independently, but rather, they followed social pressure. When people are few, the tendency of suggestibility becomes less potent because the fear of ridicule and rejection from peers is on a lesser degree. Evidently, during World War II, those who were involved in the extermination of the human race, the ones guarding the camps and those who were torturing their fellow beings feared to be killed. As a result, they helped Hitler to fulfill his goal of crime against humanity.

From the redone experiment based on Stanley Milgram’s experiment on destructive obedience, humans would go an extra length in obeying command even if the power will lead to grievous acts. Also, humans naturally feel obligated to follow a hierarchy set, and they would feel awkward, anxious, and unease if they disobeyed the authority. When people obey commands given, they no longer feel responsible for their actions, and they tend to shift responsibility to the person in authority. Also, since the superiors in author set goals, the agents in the hierarchy focus towards meeting the goals without questioning the authority. From Solomon Asch’s study on opinions and social pressure, group pressure has an enormous effect on a person’s ego. A person’s urge to blend with others makes them ignorant of obedience and conformity to superior authority, and people tend to accept authority blindly without questioning. All humans need to obey so that a peaceful society may exist. However, when the command extends beyond what is unreasonable, we have to challenge the authority. From experience gathered in Nazi Germany, all humans should guard against destructive and blind obedience. People need to exercise obedience with human morals, and their conscience should act as their guide so that evils in the society are at a minimum level. 

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