In the post-war era, barbarities such as the Soviet Gulags fascinated scientists. With the Nuremberg claim that the SS was “just following orders,” the entire question of authority and obedience naturally suggested itself. The US, for better or worse, was in a battle against totalitarian systems. Whether it be Hitler’s Reich or Stalin’s “worker’s paradise,” it was imperative that those supporting these regimes be understood.
More recently, the mass murder at Jonestown and the torture policy at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba have intensified science’s interests in power and its effects. The research question was fairly simple, but difficult to replicate due to ethical issues. The question concerned the person’s ability to overcome instinctive or socially generated aversions to pain in the interest of following authority figures. This was an empirical study based on experimental data. Due to the fact of the mental anguish inflicted on the person allegedly giving the pain, it would not be permitted in today’s university climate.
The findings were surprising: subjects were willing to inflict pain in far greater doses than they would in day to day life. The causal mechanism was a sort of fear of disobeying authority figures. In this case, the figure was the scientist, or even “science” per se (Milgram, 1974, esp 44-48).
One of Milgram’s purposes was to analyze obedience, but the nature of the experiment was to see it under specific conditions where a respected person or institution was in charge. The research project was fairly cruel, though it is to the subject rather than the purported “victim.” The researcher would be in a room with the subject. The subject was told that he possessed a buzzer that will send an electric shock to a third person. This person was working wit the scientist and was only a decoy. The subject was not told that.
The researcher would then tell the subject to press the button over and over again, each time with greater electric current. Clearly, the subject through that she was inflicting pain on someone else – of course, the decoy had to only mimic the sounds of one in severe pain. There was no real electric current tormenting the decoy, as the decoy was in on the design. The main question relative to this method was to what extent does the fear of disobedience override the limits that a normal person would be willing to inflict pain. Further, it is plain what the ethical issues might be. It is conceivable that some subjects would be scarred with guilt by the experience, even after they were told it was not real (Brysbaert and Rastle, 2012: 218).
Using the Jonestown example, the authority of Jones that led to the famed poison Kool Aid was the issue. In his case, there was an additional ideological motive, as he was mixing religion and Marxism to create a “new Eden” that would be a paradise for its members.
Milgram’s methods could be replicated in that the design mentioned can be set up, and sufficient subjects found that had not heard of the study before. Looking back on World War II or Korea, pain was something that preoccupied psychology. This was a cognitive question, since it concerned the nature of the subject’s justifications for inflicting pain (Eysenck, 2002: 28).
The question of justification is essential. There was a conscious decision to inflict pain. Milgram fully accepted the idea that these subjects made decisions, decisions with palpable effects:
Many subjects showed signs of nervousness in the experimental situation, and especially upon administering the more powerful shocks. In a large number of cases the degree of tension reached extremes that are rarely seen in sociopsychological laboratory studies. Subjects were observed to sweat, tremble, stutter, bite their lips, groan, and dig their fingernails into their flesh. These were characteristic rather than exceptional responses to the experiment (Milgram, 1963: 375).
SC Patten rejected Milgram’s approach in 1977, saying that the specialized knowledge of the researcher produces a different pattern of obedience than one’s boss at work. The scientist implied expertise, which is more narrow than “authority” (Patten, 1977: 361). It is tough to see the real upshot of Milgram, since the context of obedience measured there is rarely to be experienced in daily life.
The additional problem raised by Patten concerns the sources of this obedience. It is possible, he reasoned, that the subject is willing to inflict greater pain than normal because it furthers “man’s progress.” If authority was the real causal nexus, then the belief that scientific progress is a good thing is not an analogous measure (Patten 1977: 361).
The reason that Jonestown is so important is that the coming “paradise” and “new Eden” that the People’s Temple would usher in gave an additional incentive in addition to Jones clearly personal power. Given that Jones was leading them to the end of history, it is this ideological commitment, rather than any merit of Jones as a man, that gave the incentive to obey the orders to drink.
This is underscored by the fact that Jones had said to members: “you can go down in history, saying you chose your own way to go, and it is your commitment to refuse capitalism and in support of socialism.” It is clear that Jones is removing the causal agent from himself and placing it on the free choice of an ideology. It is important that the communist states he was emulating were also “cults of personality” that almost deified the revolutionary leader as a world historical figure.
Milgram could easily respond to these criticisms of this kind. The idea of the leader (that is, the one doing the commanding) are both charismatic and institutional. Regardless of which variable was thought to be the causal one, the experiment works. It is implied in Milgram’s design that it was not the personal power of the scientist that mattered, but that it was in the confines of a university and hence, legitimate and beneficial.
The Guantanamo Bay torture scandal is different only in that the military structure of command does add disincentives for disobedience. There too, it was not the soldiers and sailors that tortured these men as people, but as office holders. They were tortured because they were “terrorists.” Thus, any sort of pain deliberately inflicted is morally trouble free.
Milgram is defensible in that expertise and institutional authority is met with on a daily basis. It is rare that the mere existence of a person commanding is sufficient to ensure compliance. There is always a reason behind it. A child being scolded will respond properly because it’s the father doing the scolding. So the “faceless” nature of modern power is what is being tested. So for the US torture scandal, apart from a court martial, that the men being tortured were not persons, but living symbols of this shadowy terror network. That was the incentive. On both sides then, two institutions were being weighed: that of the United States using soldiers as a synecdoche , and the terror cells themselves. The incentive of the “war on terror” was pitted against the human desire to avoid pain.
Jim Jones sought the destruction of societies opposed to the USSR. When Leo Ryan – a member of the US Congress – arrived at Guyana, two of Jones’ members shot him as he disembarked. In that case, Milgram could not be more perfect: they inflicted great pain due to Jones’ representation of the socialist future. Note that to say “because of Jones’ command” is false, since his command is prefaced on many others commitments independent of Jones himself.
Damico’s study takes this connection seriously. Citing the Milgram study, he argues that it is very difficult to tell which level of analysis is doing the work. The levels are, of course, the person doing the commanding and the institution that he represents. In Milgram’s example, the scientist represented both the university and “science.” This already implies multiple layers, making it more difficult. In science there is progress, knowledge, technology, power, standards of living and so on. Which one of these is the main incentivizing factor? (Damico, 1982: 419).
Scientific methods only work if the terms used are unambiguous. Terms such as power, authority, coercion, incentives and even “choice” are not cut and dry. At the same time, this problem of language is so common that hardly any study can avoid it.
For Milgram, the real actor was science itself. The work of Helm and Morelli argue that any hierarchical society will internalized relations of active and passive. Hierarchy in this case is the superiority of science over other forms of knowing, the privilege of empirical expertise rather than another, less tangible form of knowing. Given that, Milgram’s prediction of a great degree of cooperation makes perfect sense. If this is the case, then the only thing he proved was that, when it comes to relationships of a privileged epistemology, obedience is almost limitless (Helm and Morelli, 1979: 342).