05 January 2011

Inescapable Conclusions

Though the whole article is worth a read, this bit really stands out:

Important and worthy libertarian commentaries on Milgram's obedience study have suggested that Milgram's work is a powerful demonstration of a dark conclusion — people are willingly and uncritically subservient to the state. Indeed, it is true that Milgram's work explains situational accounts of obedience, but subservience to authority appears quite weak when it is seen in the greater context of Milgram's programmatic study of obedience and the larger body of work on social influence.

There are two inescapable conclusions to be drawn from this.

First, given people’s tendency to yield to social pressure, even when evil is being pressed for, it is unwise to put too much power into the hand of one person, even if voluntarily given.  The potential scale of evil that can be perpetrated should cause people to think carefully about whom to entrust with large amounts of power.  As Theodore Dalrymple has demonstrated in Life at the Bottom, ceding moral authority to intellectuals can be a very destructive decision.

Second, given people’s willingness/tendency to yield to others, it seems unlikely that a truly anarchist society will ever exist.  I suspect the reason for this mindset stems from, in part, people’s general desire to avoid responsibility for their own actions.  If someone else makes the decisions, than whatever happens is their fault.  I would bet that many people support the existence of the state because it provides a convenient scapegoat.  I would also bet that scapegoating is the main way participants in Milgram’s study justified their own behavior.

1 comment:

  1. You make a good point. There is some interesting data on your point. Milgram asked his participants at the end of the study who was responsible for what occured. When you compare their proportions of responsiblity assigned between the obedient (went all the way) and disobedient (stopped at some point) participants, you find that there was no difference in responsibility assigned to the experimenter. This is where most people think the difference will be --that is, the obedient participants placed the blame on the experimenter (I'm just following orders). Where you see the difference though, is that the disobedient participants placed more of the responsibilty on themselves than the obedient participants (It's my decision, and therefore, I'm not going to do this). However, the obedient participants--distrubingly--placed more responsibility on the victim than the disobedient participants. They thought, in other words, that it was the victim's fault. In their mind, they transformed the helpless victim into someone who deserved it (e.g., "he shouldn't have agreed to this study if he didn't want to get shocked").

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