As members of an organization, obedience is expected from us. Agreeing to certain principles and practices ensure order. At an early age, humans are taught to follow their parents’ rules: where one must eat, where one must sleep, where one must move one’s bowels. The compliance with these rules spells the difference between a stable family life, and a rowdy one. In school, humans are expected to abide by the school’s rules, and the teacher’s rules.
Along with A-B-Cs and 1-2-3s, they are taught to obey, or to suffer the consequences. Even in religion, they are expected to abide by conventions enforced by a spiritual leader, which may or may not be set by a higher being. Obedience, in a vacuum, is not a bad thing at all. The philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, subscribed to what he called a “social contract,” or a manner by which an agreement among “suitably situated rational, free, and equal persons.” Using this principle, he justified the need for an existence of an absolute government, to which citizens will submit themselves willingly. Humans without a governing body suffer, according to him, from a “dissolute condition of masterlesse men, without subjection to Lawes, and a coercive Power to tye their hands from rapine, and revenge” (Lloyd, 2002).
Obedience in concrete situations, however? That is a different matter.Articles written by Solomon Asch, Stanley Milgram, and Philip Zimbardo on various experiments involving obedience to an authoritative power reported disturbing results. Asch’s article (Opinions and Social Pressure) revolved around an individual’s response when the person is caught between what his senses are saying, and what other people, or the majority, are saying.
Milgram’s article (The Perils of Obedience) discussed an exercise on how far a person is going to comply to apply sadistic measures upon another person when ordered to do so by authority.And Zimbardo’s essay (A Pirandellian Prison) tackled the behavior of prisoners and prison guards alike in a mock prison setting. In each of these experiments (and their variations), more often than not, the subjects let themselves be swayed by the decision of the majority (Asch), the orders of the authority (Milgram), or the role assigned to them and the pervasity of the environment (Zimbardo).The subjects dismissed their own judgment, and instead followed others, even if in retrospect, they knew their own judgment was better or more righteous than everyone else’s. All three papers discuss the different aspects of the dangers of absolute obedience. According to Asch, danger comes when individuals allow external factors to cloud their decisions, even if their decisions are based on solid, objective facts they have verified through their own senses.With Milgram, absolute obedience is pernicious when individuals follow authority without seeing the bigger picture or knowing the impact of their actions, or not being held responsible.
Paper-shuffler Eichmann during Hitler’s reign exemplifies this. Zimbardo points out that when individuals subject themselves fully to the external environment and roles given to them, the thin line between role-playing and real life portrayal is blurred, and subjects assume behavior (and developed neuroses) considered normal in that setting.