Obedience to Authority

Charles Manson (born 12 November 1934) founded a quasi-commune in California, in the late 1960s (CNN Library, 2013). From the beginning of his notoriety, a pop culture arose around him in which he ultimately became an emblem of insanity, violence and the macabre. He also believed these massacres would help precipitate the race war. Manson was found guilty of conspiracy to commit murders of Sharon Tate and Leno and Rosemary LaBianca which was carried out by members of the Family per his instruction (CNN Library, 2013). Manson was convicted of the murders through the joint-responsibility rule, which makes each member of a conspiracy guilty of crimes his fellow conspirators commit in the furtherance of the conspiracy objective (CNN Library, 2013).  Although he did not commit the murders himself, as an external influence over his cult members, he drove them to do his bidding; were it not for the change in the law, Manson would be free today.  Interestingly, the members followed with blind obedience. He kept telling them that he was Satan incarnated. This leads to the question, where can we draw the line between blind, dangerous obedience, and proper, acceptable obedience? First, we have to define what or where the line is. The “line” could be limited by sanctions that are placed on society that help with social control. Second, it is important to look at three articles that discuss blind obedience to authority.

A noted cultural critic, Crispin Sartwell brings together the disciplines of political science and political philosophy in his essay called “The Genocidal Killer in the Mirror.” Sartwell states that the history of mass death goes back as far as 500 years ago. Historical events cited by Sartwell include the Cambodian Killing Field, Nazi Holocaust, Cultural Revolution, Belgians vs. Congolese and the African Slave Trade. There are two things one can learn from history: “No problem is as profound and no evil as prevalent as state power: The rise of genocide coincides with rise of the modern political state, and every single one of these events is inconceivable without the bland bureaucracy of death” (Sartwell, 2004, p. 362).  Sartwell also states that all humans “are evil” (p. 362), but then ask if evil is a learned behavior through institutional means, for example through media and bureaucracy. So can leaders and government accomplish genocidal purposes, and have they already?  The Iraq War and the War on Terrorism show that they have, by sending troops into an area to find a “terrorist,” but then creates genocide on the Iraqi people to eliminate the said “terrorist.” Innocent civilian bystanders are killed even if they have no connection to the “terrorist.” A good example of this is the Abu Ghraib Prison Scandal. Some of the jailed “terrorists” were innocent people, yet they were tortured, maimed, and sometimes killed, all in the name of war. War is a genocide of the innocent and murder of the inflictors (terrorist). It shows that politics can and do play into human beings’ evil side.

Sartwell states: “No problem is as profound and no evil as prevalent as state power” (p. 362). First, let’s define “state power,” as the capacity of a state to regulate behaviors and enforce order within its territory through police (local, state, community watch groups, etc.). If we define state power as local, then I would seek to enhance that by disagreeing that state power is evil, because we need laws and regulations to maintain civilization. I would agree, though, sometimes legislation and regulations can be burdensome.  Sometimes, police feel that they are above the law because of their stature in society.  Overall, it depends on the temperament of the officer and the society as a whole.

Sartwell then asks, “Are you a moral hero?” (Sartwell, 2004, p. 363). He then points out four areas that support his question. The first point is, “Difference to authority.  This would be the state, the experts under normal conditions” (p. 363).  He then asks the reader, “Do you often believe what the authorities tell you just because they are authorities?” (p. 363). One can try to see the authorities’ side before he or she does what the authorities tell them to do, even though it may lead to discord. The second point Sartwell makes is “Response to social consensus. People are herd animals; they seek to associate themselves with a consensus of their acquaintances” (p. 363). Strong individuals tend to balk at social norms; if a male wants to wear a European men’s skirt, he should be allowed to without judgments. If a man wants to dress slightly differently, but not inappropriately, then why can’t he? The third point is, “Willingness to respond to people as members of groups, and to expect groups, overall, to display certain qualities” (p. 363). A person can belong to a “clique,” but they don’t have to identify with everything that the group does. People do not need to be “boxed” into a group.

Sartwell’s last major point is “Desire for your own security and that of your family and friends, to the extent, you are willing to make a moral compromise to preserve it” (p. 363).  Sartwell shows that goodness is not an innate quality; it is socially learned quality. On the one hand, it is taught by our parents and/or guardians. One will do what one believes, whether the belief is right or wrong, but if one is to “fend” for ourselves, then we could become rabid. One could agree that it is a learned aspect of life, but it can also be self-taught through preserving “goodness” and to establish mores (môrāz)  and norms to guide and protect. Goodness is not absolute because it is relative to society and authority as a whole. In opposition, Theodore Dalrymple states “it’s difficult to see how someone might draw anarchist or anti-authority conclusions from Milgram’s horrifying experimental results” (Dalrymple, 1999, p. 365). To conclude, some people think goodness is an absolute, but there are others that believe that it depends on the authority that is given through training.

In Theodore Dalrymple’s article, “Just Do What the Pilot Tells You,” he continues the argument of blind obedience to authority. Dalrymple states, “Some people think a determined opposition to authority is principled and romantic” (Dalrymple, 1999, p. 364). This is an interesting point because some are brought up that authority is wrong and over controlling, while others are brought up that authority is there to keep social control and to protect the individual. Dalrymple then looks at Stanley Milgram’s experiment, “Obedience to Authority.” Stanley Milgram conducted an experiment to determine the effects of punishment on learning. The “teacher” was told to deliver electric shocks whenever the “student” made a mistake. Milgram proved that it was obedience to authority that led the “teacher” to continue with the shock treatment. Milgram had a “lab coat” saying to the “teacher” that it was all right and to continue, and the controller (“lab coat”) would be responsible for any harm to the “student.” “It’s difficult to see how someone might draw anarchist or anti-authority conclusions from Milgram’s horrifying experimental results” (p. 365), this quote shows that Dalrymple does not agree with Milgram’s experiment because authority is the root of the problem. He then asks a lady on an airplane if she believed in authority. She states that she does not, and that authority is over controlling. Dalrymple then challenges her by asking if it would be all right if he went to the pilot and asked if he (Dalrymple) could fly the airplane. The lady balks and says no way that he does not have the training to fly the aircraft. At this point, Dalrymple states that we gave the pilot authority to fly the airplane through his training. We provide pilots, medics, teachers, etc. the authority to perform their tasks and duties, through their training and education. These types of authority tend to be the norm, but the one who receives this authority can and might abuse it.

Dalrymple gives an official declaration that “obedience to authority is no more than that of blind obedience” (p. 367). It is true that people tend to give a “blanket opposition” (p. 365) of authority and they tend to romanticize their moral stance.  Finally, Dalrymple states: “obedience to authority has its danger—as this century above all others testifies – disobedience to authority likewise has its dangers” (p. 367). This can be a seen in “The Abu Ghraib Prison Scandal: Sources of Sadism,” by Marianne Szegedy-Maszak.

Marianne Szegedy-Maszak (2004) opens her article with “hoping to see a flicker of anger or remorse or conscience of the faces of the American soldiers photographed tormenting Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib are likely to be disappointed” (Szegedy-Maszak, p. 303). It is a shame that human beings can take pleasure in hurting someone in the name of authority. The human race has seen this trend since the beginning of time (Battle of Jericho, Battle of Uns, civil wars, the genocide of innocents, to the prisoners of war, etc.). Szegedy-Maszak states that the abuse at Abu Ghraib was due to “inadequate training, overzealous intelligence gathering, failure of leadership – none can adequately account for the hardening of heart for such sadism” (p. 303). She then goes on to talk about Dr. Philip G. Zimbardo’s “Prison Experiment of 1971,” in which Zimbardo created a simulated prison and randomly selected students to be either “guards” or “prisoners.” It is amazing that the “Prison Experiment” only lasted a week and the “guards” abused the “prisoners” with humiliation through sex, verbal commands, and stripped the “prisoners” of their identity by giving them numbers to recite. In Abu Ghraib, the punishment lasted for nearly three plus months; it is hard to imagine the level of sadism the guards reached.

Szegedy-Maszak then provides details of about the Stanley Milgram experiment, “Obedience to Authority.” Milgram recruited volunteers to participate in a study of learning—the volunteers, “teacher,” would administer a shock to the “learner” if he got it wrong. Milgram’s goal was to show the obedience of authority or the blame lies with the one giving the command to continue. The “teacher” would look to the “controller” (lab coat) for permission to continue, knowing that the shocks could kill the “learner.”

In Abu Ghraib Prison, Army Reservist Lynndie England was one of eleven military personnel convicted in 2005 for the abuse and torture of the Iraqi prisoners. England made several statements that it was the commanding officer who told her to get the necessary information from the prisoners. She passed the blame to a higher authority, just like the Milgram “teachers” did. They cannot be blamed for what authority tells them. To argue this point, yes, absolutely yes, the person who is giving the punishment is ultimately responsible; then the “authority” above should also be just as responsible as in the Charles Manson case. Szegedy-Maszak then points out that it starts with authorization, this leads into routinization, and finally to dehumanization. The authority gives the commands that result in a routine.  This is seen in the military through the boot camp progress and to giving orders to go to war.

Comparison of the articles above shows that each is right in their own way and yet wrong.  Szegedy-Maszak article looks at how one will blame the “authority” that issued the command and that the humans try not to accept the responsibility for their actions. In reality, we are all responsible for the actions we do, whether given or not. In Dalrymple article, it demonstrates that blind disobedience is neither principled nor romantic, but very dangerous. Dalrymple states that we need to realize authority is given through training and to be aware of the control that this authority provides. Sartwell article illustrates how media can give authority to the mass and genocide of innocents, which makes all human beings “profoundly evil.” Charles Manson was given authority to his followers; he convinced them to commit murder in his name. In the end, though, they all are serving time through the joint-responsibility rule. In conclusion, choices are already made, and freedom is strangled by this. In respect to the above topic of authority, the choice of obedience to authority that was given should be scrutinized.

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