Early bird tickets for Baltimore’s BEST party on sale now!

Obey -- But at What Cost?


Obedience to authority is far more than merely one social valueamong many. Inculcated at the very earliest stages of our development by parents, teachers, clergymen and re-enforced throughout, obedience is a highly esteemed value. In fact, many ethicists believe obedience to be an impulse overriding training in ethics and morality. Sociologists generally support this line of argument by noting that a system of authority is a baseline requirement inherent in any scheme for communal living.

Many naturalists further subscribe to the theory that dissidence is actually genetically bred out of the species under a Darwinian "survival of the fittest" model; without some system of authority and a power to enforce authority, the community would cease to exist.

Yet, it is beyond question that some authority is "evil" and, by extension, obedience to that authority is evil. Despite the lamentable contemporary rise of that bastard among philosophical doctrines known as "moral relativism."

There is considerable risk in vesting within an individual the right to "take the law into his own hands," particularly in wartime. In 1931, the Supreme Court in U.S. v. Macintosh, stated an intuitively obvious proposition: "It is axiomatic that no military organization can continue to exist if each man in it free to decide which war he will participate in and which he will merely sit out."

In the trial of Lieutenant William Calley in the My Lai massacre, however, a case which has become a metaphor for "following orders" second only to the Nuremberg trials, the court noted that "the obedience of a soldier is not the obedience of an automation. A soldier is a reasoning agent, obliged to respond not as a machine but as a person." The same may well be said regarding the obedience of any member of society.

Somehow, a balance of sorts must be struck between the moral exercise of individual prerogative and the risk of total anarchy with each citizen a Quixote tilting at windmills, righting perceived wrongs, attacking those individuals and institutions he deems morally unfit and deciding for himself what the law ought to be. However, the deck would seem to be heavily stacked against resisting authority.

Sociologist Stanley Milgram has shown that otherwise repugnant acts are carried out with relative ease when authoritatively commanded. Mr. Milgram scientifically proved the proposition that a few changes in newspaper headlines or a call from a draft board are often all that is necessary to lead men to kill with little difficulty. Governmental institutions, via their increasingly powerful manipulation of the propaganda apparatus, encourage obedience to their goals, which are invariably portrayed as constituting "the greater good."

However, while a national leader fighting a "moral war" or enacting "good laws" will cite moral and ethical justifications, so too Hitler attempted to justify his program of extermination and Iraq's Saddam Hussein cited the greater good and the need for strict compliance. A reasonable citizen needs some framework within which to challenge authority when that authority has transcended what constitutes acceptable behavior. The problem, according to Mr. Milgram, is the total lack of any kind of systematized model for disobedience.

Mr. Milgram set up his experiment at Yale University in the early 1960s. Posing as a scientist attempting to quantify the correlation between punishment and effective learning, he advertised for volunteers to participate in an interesting study. Two volunteers at a time were paid a nominal sum for their participation; lots were drawn, and one volunteer was designated teacher and the other "student."

The two were ushered into a room dominated by a large, imposing machine on which was arrayed and labelled an impressive horizontal sequence of thirty electric switches ranging from 15 volts to 450 volts. A series of progressively more serious warnings advised: warning . . . danger . . . very high voltage . . . and, finally, "XXX."

The teacher was ordered to strap the "student" to the machine and to attach electrodes to him. The teacher had to read a sequence of words to the "student"; each time the "student" failed to give the proper response, the teacher was to administer the next highest level of electric shock. In fact, the "student" was a collaborator with the experimenter, the drawing was rigged so that the true volunteer always became the teacher, and the machine did not administer any shock.

Nonetheless, the "student" put on quite a performance. At 75 volts, he would grunt; at 120 volts he'd complain profusely; at 150 volts, he'd demand release; and at 200 volts, he'd render a sustained, agonized, piercing scream. At higher levels, he'd feign panic, extreme pain and moments of unconsciousness. Mr. Milgram wanted to discover how far people would go in inflicting serious pain upon a complete stranger merely by dint of being told to do so by some experimenter in a white coat in a university setting.

The frightening results showed that more than half the teacher-volunteers essentially executed innocent, unknown third parties. Often, those teachers who voiced protest along the way had their moral concerns easily allayed by a mere formalistic chanting and encouragement by the experimenter of pre-ordained platitudes such as "please go on," "you must continue," and "you have no other choice but to continue." Other studies support these shocking findings. For example, in 1972, shortly after the Calley case, a study by Kelman and Lawrence found that more than half the American population asserted that they would follow orders if commanded to shoot all the inhabitants of a Vietnamese village.

What are the ramifications for a legal system which denies criminal defendants the defense of "following orders" when the "ordinary, reasonable man," that oft-cited legal hypothetical construct, is so well programmed to simply obey? For example, should Americans have prosecuted the Iraqi military for obeying Saddam Hussein's order to rape Kuwait? And what of President Bush's willingness not to prosecute Saddam Hussein as a war criminal if Mr. Hussein should have left Iraq?

The 1949 Geneva Convention obligates all nations to pursue, capture and try any person alleged to have committed grave breaches of humanitarian law. Yet, there can be no doubt that had Iraq prevailed, President Bush would have been quickly convicted of war crimes, as would American soldiers who obeyed their president's orders. "The ghost of Milgram" casts a long shadow indeed on discussions of these issues, particularly for an American society that subscribes to the twin Western gods of democracy and humanitarianism.

Samuel Jay Singer is an attorney with the Baltimore law firm of Frank, Bernstein, Conaway & Goldman.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad