Obedience and Responsibility In Stanley Milgram’s, “The Perils of Obedience”, Milgram states “The essence of obedience is that a person comes to view himself as the instrument for carrying out another person’s wishes, and he therefore no longer regards himself as responsible for his actions. ” (Milgram 6) Through his experiments he shows how we obey commands against our better judgment. It my belief that we are generally obedient as long as someone else assumes responsibility for the outcome. Therefore, this poses the question; would we be fully obedient if we were held responsible for the outcome?
Milgram’s experiment consists of three roles: the experimenter, the teacher, and the learner. The learner, who is actually an actor, is strapped to an electrocution device is tested on his ability to remember a word of a pair when he hears the first one again. The teacher, the actual test subject, asks the questions and administers a shock ranging from fifteen volts to four hundred fifty volts for incorrect answers. The experimenter is simply there to guide the teacher and record the findings.
The experiment begins by the teacher asking the learner questions. When the learner answers incorrectly, the teacher must correct him and administer a shock starting at the lowest voltage. As the experiment continues the voltages increase and so does the reaction from the learner. What begins as minor discomfort on the learner quickly turns into screams of pain and pleas to be released. The experimenter’s job is to record the reactions of the teacher based on learner’s reactions and how long the teacher will continue to go on with the experiment.
The results of the first experiment conducted on a group of Yale undergraduates, showed that about sixty percent of them were fully obedient, even to the maximum voltage. (Milgram 2) A colleague of Milgram’s dismissed the findings stating, “Yale undergraduates are a highly aggressive bunch who steps on each other’s neck on the slightest provocation. ” (Milgram 2) He believed that when the experiment was carried out on “ordinary” people the results would be much different.
The second experiment was conducted on professionals, white-collar workers, unemployed persons, and industrial workers. The results were very much the same as those of the Yale students. One specific experiment involving Fred Prozi, a good natured unemployed fifty year old, shows that once responsibility is placed on someone else we are content with following demands that are given. At one point in the experiment Prozi turns to the experimenter and says, “You accept all responsibility? (Milgram 4) Once the experimenter agrees Prozi continues and inflicts a 450 volt shock numerous times despite hearing the learners scream of agony and pleas to be released. This shows that once we detach ourselves from the responsibility of the outcome, we will comply with the demands given even if the effects of the demands are harmful, destructive and blatantly clear. In a variation of the experiment, the teacher was not required to pull the lever that shocked the learner; rather they just had to administer the word pair test.
This removed even more of the responsibility of the teacher, since they were not actually inflicting pain on the victim. The result of the result of this experiment showed that 37 out of 40 adults continued to the highest level on the shock generator. (Milgram 7) We see this type of behavior in everyday society. People are willing to carry out the demands of others if they feel the demands are not neccassarily their views or actions. An example of this could be someone dismissing someone from a job because their senior boss ordered them to.
They may not feel the same way about the employee or the descision to fire them, but they remove any emotional responsibility because they were just following orders. An even better example of this would be that of war in modern society. Since soldiers are given orders to kill by their superiors, they can remove any emotional responsibility because they were simply following orders. Likewise, the person odering the soldier to kill someone removes the responsibility on the superior because they are actually committing the act of murder.
Also, many Americans can justify was because we as individuals aren’t actually fighting the war and do not see the effects of the war daily. In conclusion, it is my belief that if we were held personally responsible for the demands ordered by another most people would not comply with those demands. It is easy to put our conscience at ease when we are not responsible for the actions ordered by another, it is not as easy if we were to be held responsible. I believe that Milgram’s article proves this to be true, not just in the experiments he conducted in the article but in modern society as well.