The Ordeal of Disobedience

Obedient dog

The fifty year old Milgram experiment demonstrated the “psychic cost” of disobedience. Participants who resisted orders to inflict pain were troubled by a sense of disrupting the social order. Obedience, in contrast, was buttressed by feelings of compassion and a desire not to undermine authority figures. Desires so strong that some people would prefer to kill rather than disobey.

When, in 1961, the Milgram experiment was first conducted, it produced findings few predicted or wanted to accept. Ordinary people, when instructed to do so, obediently gave what they believed to be excruciatingly painful, possibly lethal, electric shocks to strangers.

In his 1974 book, Obedience to Authority, Stanley Milgram, the Yale University professor who conceived the experiment, attempted to explain these uncomfortable results. He showed that the explanation conventionally resorted to – that the experiment enabled a repressed pleasure in inflicting pain to come to the surface – did not make sense. “Men do become angry,” he said. “They do act hatefully and explode in rage against others. But not here.” 

But the alternative, the only explanation left, was no less disturbing. On reflection it was probably more so. Most people weren’t well-camouflaged sadists. The experiment did not dredge up a primal destructive instinct. On the contrary, what lay behind the capacity to inflict immense pain was a passive attitude: a willingness to be transformed into an instrument in the hands of others. People could easily be persuaded to commit destructive acts at the behest of a “legitimate authority”. And in doing so lost all sense of responsibility, and felt no guilt.

However, there was a chink of light. Although most did what they were told, around a third of people resisted. They defied authority and refused to deliver electric shocks. 

The conclusion Milgram came to through observing hundreds of people was that while obedience was straight-forward, although unpleasant, disobedience was hard. It involved transforming the feeling that something was wrong, first into dissent, and then into action.

“The psychic cost was considerable” writes Milgram. The price of disobedience was a gnawing sense of faithlessness. Subjects who disobeyed were troubled that they had “disrupted the social order”.

Milgram took pains to list the different stages leading to disobedience – strain, inner doubt, externalisation of doubt, dissent and finally action. The journey from doubt to acting against authority was long and tortuous and most people did not make it to the end.

The Left, anti-capitalism, depends upon the spreading of disobedience. By definition, it involves disrupting the social order. Understanding why disrupting the social order is hard, the deep, psychological pull of conservatism, is essential. What Milgram shows is that circumstances by themselves, no matter how terrible, don’t produce disobedience. In fact, some people would rather kill than disobey authority.

The idea of disobedience

The basic Milgram experiment underwent several variations. But the most effective change in bringing about disobedience was quite simple – other people disobeying.

Two actors, posing as other subjects to shock the victim, were introduced. They refused to continue when told to give electric shocks to the learner when he gave a wrong answer.

No variation was so effective in getting the real subject to disobey the experimenter. Under this condition of peer rebellion, only 10% of subjects went on to deliver the highest electric shock. In the basic experiment, 63% of subjects did.

Part of the reason was ideological. “The peers instil in the subject the idea of defying the experimenter,” says Milgram. “It may not have occurred to some subjects as a possibility.” 

With peer rebellion comes the acceptance of rebellion as natural, as something valid because other people are doing it. There is, in a way, a battle between obedience and conformity. Between doing what you are told and doing what other people are doing. Strange as it may sound, conformity is a significant element in disobedience.

Conformity, to Milgram, is very different to obedience. Conformity is where a person imitates what his or her peers are doing. Obedience is following an explicit set of demands. When obedience is threatened and rebellion appears to be catching on, the forces of authority will appeal to conformity, a fear of being branded an outsider, engaging in behaviour or thought which places a person beyond the realm of the normal. When Greek left-wing grouping Syriza threatened to win the country’s general election in June, UK Conservative Cabinet minister Kenneth Clarke, described them as “cranky extremists”. It is a significant adjective. Nobody likes a crank.

Avoiding awkwardness

Most of Milgram’s subjects did not have option of joining in a mini-rebellion. In the basic experiment, they were isolated and thus more easily turned into instruments of authority.

Becoming an instrument was to be transformed into an amoral state, where the pangs of conscience didn’t affect behaviour. But, ironically, what kept people in that state, (what Milgram calls the agentic state) what stopped people disobeying, were feelings and moral reactions.

Rebellion means disrupting the social order, in a minor way, and, in order to avoid that embarrassing situation, most people went on giving electric shocks. The wish to avoid awkwardness was so strong that, in many cases, it proved stronger than the feeling that it was wrong to give possibly lethal electric shocks to another person.

Overcoming that awkwardness would mean putting the authority-figure, in this case the experimenter, in a difficult situation, completely undermining him. A great many obedient subjects recoiled at doing that.

“It is a curious thing that a measure of compassion on the part of the subject, an unwillingness to ‘hurt’ the experimenter’s feelings, are part of those binding forces inhibiting disobedience,” writes Milgram.

No debate occurred about what was happening, no weighing up of the ethics of what was being proposed. “Obedience,” says Milgram “does not take the form of a dramatic confrontation of opposed wills or philosophies but is embedded in a larger atmosphere where social relationships, career aspirations and technical routines set the dominant tone.”

In everyday life hierarchical institutions – companies, bureaucratic agencies – are always protected by a human shield. In order to change or rebel against institutional behaviour, individuals must confront and make life difficult for other people working in that hierarchy. Often people who, quite legitimately, are not responsible for the results of institutional behaviour. This human shield is a great weapon in maintaining the status quo.

What is exploited is a common desire to avoid conflict. But conflict is absolutely essential if progress is to be made. It has to happen. There is an ongoing contest between the efforts of institutions to submerge conflict in “social relationships, career aspirations and technical routines” and the desire of revolutionary movements to bring that hidden conflict out into the open, and to depersonalise it.

A responsible society

The question ultimately posed by the Milgram experiment is what constitutes an ethically responsible society, or whether a responsible society is even possible. If people are able to perpetrate horrific acts but don’t feel responsible for them, and in a real sense, aren’t responsible for them, is genuine responsibility an unreachable goal? 

Milgram first thought of the experiment while observing the Nazi Adolf Eichmann, on trial in Jerusalem, protest his innocence on the grounds that he was only following orders. But he soon realised that to view Nazi atrocities through a lens of knowing superiority was a false security. People raised in an ostensibly democratic society were not immune from the crimes of obedience. 

"[The results of the experiment] raise the possibility that human nature,” writes Milgram in Obedience to Authority, “or - more specifically – the kind of character produced in American democratic society, cannot be counted on to insulate its citizens from brutality and inhumane treatment at the direction of malevolent authority.”

One pessimistic interpretation of the experiment – that it revealed people to be sadists at heart – Milgram dismissed as untenable. But he settled on an equally pessimistic conclusion himself. Obedience, not sadism, was humanity’s fatal flaw. Society was so saturated with obedience, Milgram concluded, that the only check on ethical degeneration was constant vigilance. He ends Obedience to Authority with a quote from the 1930/40s British socialist Harold Laski: “the condition of freedom is any state is always a widespread and consistent scepticism of the canons upon which power insists.” 

The Pessimism of the Experimenter

But I believe this pessimism – the assumption that power will always bend towards malevolence and all a decent society can do is try to mitigate its effects – is unjustified. It is possible to imagine a society, one permeated with institutions which rest upon the implementation of agreed decisions, that does not rely on obedience. The path to a non-obedient society is through radical democratisation.

The Milgram experiment is a microcosm. It replicates, Milgram said, a common situation in the real world. A situation in institutions composed subordinates and superiors, of order-takers and order-givers. In these situations, “relationship overwhelms content.” What matters is not what people desire themselves, but their capacity to carry out what is required of them by superiors. And these superiors are merely implementing the policies of “superordinates”, above them in the hierarchy. In this way, policy travels downwards through institutions. An institutional policy is implemented that is beyond, and often in conflict with, the personal motives of the people who make up the institution. “That is what is meant by the importance of social structure,” says Milgram, “and that is what is demonstrated in the present experiment.”

The assumption is that “social structure” will inevitably overwhelm the content of human desires. Hierarchy is paramount. But this overpowering is not inevitable. As an example, consider the growth of economic inequality in western capitalist countries such as Britain and the US. In FTSE 100 companies, the pay of the lowest earners is one-third of one per cent that of the highest. This mammoth inequality is produced by authoritarian, hierarchical institutions, corporations, operating in a competitive market.  It is not the result of human desires but is “embedded,” to use Milgram’s words, “in a larger atmosphere where social relationships, career aspirations and technical routines set the dominant tone.” It happens but it is not willed.

Not only does this inequality not stem from conscious desires but, the evidence suggests, institutions which make the attempt to reflect conscious desires produce dramatically different outcomes. The Mondragon collective of cooperative enterprises in the Basque region of Spain, has a pay ratio of, not 300-1, but 6.5-1. Managing directors are chosen by a general assembly of workers, and their lower level of inequality is the result of a democratically chosen rule. Mondragon has its limitations, but it does provide living proof that large institutions (Mondragon has 85,000 members) need not follow Milgram’s iron rule that “relationship overwhelms content”. Democracy, the collective expression of human desires and institutions, the collective reshaping of the world, are not incompatible.

Milgram’s famous experiment demonstrated the immense power of institutions, their ability to produce acts which bore no relation to the desires of the perpetrators. But this power can be turned around. Society can be organised differently. A non-obedient society, one that doesn’t degenerate into chaos, is possible. Power cannot be abolished but it can be changed.

Most importantly, if the power of institutions is not democratised, they will continue to dominate human society with baleful consequences. An attitude of vigilance and scepticism is not sufficient. Economically and ecologically, the capitalist society we inhabit requires conscious, democratic transformation. To leave it, institutionally, to its own devices is to invite disaster.

Though he believed that obedience was inherent in human nature, Milgram’s fatalism was not total. He likens the obedient person’s state to dozing. But they can be woken up. Obedience, like sleep, can be disturbed.

Editorial Comment

This is the sequel of The Lure of Obedience, on the Milgram experiment, that was published by New Compass.