“Obedience is a virtue, disobedience is a vice” (Fromm 267). In “Disobedience as a Psychological and Moral Problem”, the author Erich Fromm implies that “to be a human an individual must be free to obey and disobey” (272). Being obedient requires the removal of freedom, which comes from expressing your thoughts, feelings and emotions, without any boundaries or pressures from other individuals. An obedient individual is submissive towards another’s’ will and does not have very much freedom. Obedience occurs and can be analyzed when there is a setting of power and expectations to follow authority and a shift in viewpoint.
The Stanford Prison Experiment can be interpreted in terms of Milgram’s findings on submission to authority.
In “The Perils of Obedience”, Stanley Milgram conducts an experiment where individuals are forced to violate their conscience and to either obey or disobey the dissolute demands of an authority. The experiment tests the extent to which individuals will obey immoral commands when they are ordered to inflict pain on to learners.
“The teacher is a genuinely naï¿½ve subject who has come to the laboratory for the experiment. The learner, or victim, is actually an actor who receives no shock at all” (Milgram 223). The experimenter orders the teacher to ask word pairs to the learner; for every word pair wrong, the learner gets shocked with increasing intensity.
The individuals administering the shocks would do what was expected of them, “[obeying] the orders of the experimenter to the end, punishing victim until they reached the most potent shock available on the generator.
After 450 volts were administered three times, the experimenter called a halt to the session” (224). The teachers did what they were told to do, even when the learners produced loud cries and screams; they simply obeyed the rules and performed their assigned tasks because it was expected of them. Milgram learned that, “the experimenter’s physical presence has a marked impact on his authority” (232). If the experimenter was present in the laboratory rather than on the phone, the teachers would refuse to do their assigned task less than if the experimenter were on the phone giving orders.
In “The Stanford Prison Experiment”, Philip K. Zimbardo conducts an experiment where a group of males are selected to be prison guards or prisoners in a mock prison. The setting of the experiment was designed, as if it was a “real” prison. The prison guards were allowed to keep order in the prison by any means necessary; they obeyed the rules and performed their jobs as expected of them. They made the prisoners feel “powerless, arbitrarily controlled, dependent, frustrated, hopeless, anonymous, dehumanized and emasculated” (Zimbardo 256), simply because they were obeying rules.
The authoritarian nature of the guards became serious when they “insulted the prisoners, threatened them, were physically aggressive, used instruments to keep the prisoners in line and referred to them in impersonal, anonymous, deprecating ways” (260). In order to fit into the setting the guards were in competition with each other to be stronger and more respected. They wanted to follow “the behavior of the good guards [which] seemed more motivated by a desire to be liked by everyone in the system than by a concern for the inmates’ welfare” (261). We learn that if the setting requires an individual to become an authoritarian, others will be submissive and obedient towards them. Also, the expectations to follow authority are highly regarded until a shift in viewpoint occurs within the individuals.
A shift in viewpoint occurs when an individual realizes what they have done or are doing is not civilized and wrong. “The essence of obedience is that a person comes to view himself as the instrument for carrying out another person’s wishes, and he therefore no longer regards himself as responsible for his actions” (Milgram 231). After the shift in viewpoint, obedience follows and the individuals don’t regard themselves as being responsible for their own actions. The individuals feel responsible to the authority that’s directing them but not responsible for their actions done in return to the command of the authority.
An example in Milgram’s experiment was a woman, Gretchen Brandt, who refused to continue on with the experiment after she administered 210 volts. “We came here of our free will. If he wants to continue I’ll go ahead…I’m sorry. I don’t want to be responsible for anything happening to him. I wouldn’t like it for me either.” (Milgram 223). She kept proceeding at the experimenters’ command until she realized that she had the freedom and right to refuse. She did not want to be held responsible for the harm of the learner so she implicitly tried to leave the blame on the experimenter. In Zimbardo’s experiment, a prison guard gave his perspective on what it felt like to be a guard in the experiment:
“What made this experiment most depressing for me was the fact that we were continually called upon to act in a way that was contrary to what I really felt inside. I don’t feel like I’m the type of person that would be a guard…-it just didn’t seem like me, and to continually keep up and put on a face like that is just really one of the most oppressive things you can do. It’s almost like a prison that you create yourself-you get into it, and it becomes almost the definition you make of yourself.” (261) The guard implies that you become a prisoner of your own obedience. He treated the prisoners unfairly because he wanted to be seen as a “good” prison guard.
As a result, at the end of the experiments, the teachers and prison guards don’t see themselves as being responsible for their actions; they hold others responsible for their actions. The teacher’s implicitly blame the experimenter and the prison guards implicitly blame the higher authority. In order to be obedient, individuals must be provoked by some sort of authority for the shift of viewpoint to prevail and become successful. Milgram implies that, “[obedience is] socially organized evil in modern society” (233). Therefore, in conclusion, obedience is a vice because it is an immoral practice, which causes human beings to play the blame-game in life.