The Stanley Milgram book, Obedience to Authority, which included an experiment conducted in which ordinary individuals are subjected to the authority of an experimenter and instructed to “shock” others, demonstrates the ability in which an authority figure can easily manipulate the compliant nature of human beings. This experiment demonstrates the manner in which humans are completely susceptible to the power and determination of an authority figure, and further more, speaks volumes to me on the question of whether or not authority is needed in society. There are numerous contexts in which I may react to this piece, but I will focus mainly on my support for the authoritarian typology and refute what Milgram has called the “failure” of authoritarianism.
First I think it’s imperative to understand what can be taken from this experiment. To me, it demonstrated the need of society for strong authority figures. If I might digress, I’d like to take this time to point out the difference between power and authority-as this experiment deals with the latter. Authority can be described as the legitimacy to use power; conversely, power is the ability (either by force, persuasion, etc.) to impose one’s will on another. Thus, we can conclude that authority gives an entity the appropriate legal status to utilize the essential functions of power on the public. The experimenter represented an authority figure with the power to instruct the “teacher” to continue on with the experiment.
I found nothing surprising about this experiment at all, as all authority figures are perceived as legitimate. When the subjects (who played the roles of the teacher) were brought into the study, they perceived the men conducting the experiment as the legitimate authority; thus giving them the power to overwhelm any moral constraints they might have with the given experiment. If we transfer this to a political state, we thus can see how states initiate policy (that might otherwise seem controversial or unethical) by having already sustained legitimacy and authority by some means or another. The Nazi “Final Solution” to the Jewish problem is the most apparent historical example of this, and Milgram makes note of that.
The question of authority and its legitimacy are the grounds in which one can expect obedience. This was indicated when the “teacher” was ordered to continue on with the shocks by the “learner.” Subsequently (when the experimenter was not in the room) the “teacher” did not obey the instructions given to him by an illegitimate authority figure: the “learner.” From this we can understand that it takes a legitimate authority to coerce an otherwise rational human being to perform an action that may conflict with his moral character. The argument then stands that in order for an authority to exercise its powers, it must first create a legitimate perception amongst its public.
The most interesting aspect of the experiment was the results. Milgram had expected most people to act on their initial conscience to reject the command to inflict pain and suffering on others. However, the results indicate a different phenomenon. In the first set of experiments, 65% of the subjects recruited administered the final 450-volt shock. This shouldn’t be taken lightly, as it gives us a direct look into the psychology of compliance and authority, particularly since the subjects displayed some level of resistance to the orders to continue past the 300-volt shocks. So what can we take from this? In my opinion, it demonstrates an innate human desire to act obediently towards an authority figure. This tendency can be broken by outside figures, but it would seem through the application of the Milgram experiment to otherwise normal citizens would indicate that it is the norm in human behavior.
Here is where I have to make a distinction in my argument. So far, I have demonstrated the key points of the essential legitimacy of any regime coupled with an innate characteristic of human psychology that forces one to act in compliance with a given authority. It’s here that I want to disassociate myself from arguing in favor of authoritarianism for the sake of tyrannical rule. There are certain aspects to authority that make it a requirement, and while acknowledging the difference in ideology and goals that I foster in contrast to the mainstream political discourse of this country, then it should be established that such authority is a means to an end, not an end in itself. From this point on, I want to counter an argument made by Milgram in regards to the present of strain.
Milgram defined the presence of strain (and the subsequent failure of the authority) as follows, “the experience of tension in our subjects shows not the power of authority, but its weakness.” His point afterwards concludes that the transformation to the agentic state was not complete. It would seem then this is where the context of the laboratory experiment may differ from the real world. He (Milgram) recognizes these key differences and notes that the system in which he had created was not an all-pervasive state. If every sign of tension/strain that exists within any given subject is a sign of the authority’s weakness, then it must become the burden of the authority to reassert its power in forcing its will upon the subject. There are a number of ways in which creating an “agentic public” may be achieved, and we need not discuss them here. The important fact of this argument is not the means in which this may be achieved, but IF this were to be achieved then it should result in a subject that demonstrates no moral strain or tension when given an order. The mere fact that strain exists is evidence that an authority is not doing its job effectively-from the perspective of the regime. Any regime’s goal must be to create a compliant public (this is not an endorsement for genocide); without compliance than the legitimacy of the authority subsequently comes into question. From a Machiavellian point of view, this could be disastrous.
The experiment, in my eyes, didn’t demonstrate the weakness of the authoritarian model-if anything; I liken it to Machiavelli’s The Prince. This speaks volumes to a Marxist-Leninist such as myself on the grounds that I recognize that all states exist as a means of class antagonisms and oppression. The state’s main function is to perpetuate the goals of whichever class it represents. In our society, we don’t have a fascist police state to contend with, but a liberal capitalist democracy that exploits workers for the good of an elite minority. The power of any regime rests in its ability to demonstrate a sense of superiority to the average person. This is demonstrated by the existence of an elite authority in the Milgram experiment. For instance, in the post-experiment testimony, one of the “teachers” expressed ignorance to the foundations of which the experiment was conducted, and confessed that the experimenter knew more about the nature of the subject than he. This is a submission that all members of the public make to elites and experts; we are insecure about our own inability to understand and comprehend, and we wish not to stake too much in the inevitable case we encounter someone whom knows more than we. The power that an intellectual authority holds over a layman gives him an inherent legitimacy that compels one to almost automatically obey.
The Stanley Milgram experiment has proven a plethora of vital evidence to support that humans are innately subordinate to a legitimate authority figure. In contrast to arguments that external forces can compel a conscious human being to perform dastardly acts, we can can conclude that there is an immediate sense of an essential need to submit oneself to the will of a powerful, charismatic authority. I do believe this to be true, and I find solace in observing these characteristics within the political realm. Basically, this is a concept that has been practice by any structured regime within any nation-state, city-state, or primitive tribal community. The power of an authority figure overwhelms the individual autonomy and may even counteract one’s own predisposed values and morals, and it’s this phenomenon that allows such atrocities as massive ethno-centric genocide to occur. However, the evidence shouldn’t irrationally associate authoritarian models to arbitrary human rights’ atrocities; or the racist assumptions and goals of the Nazi Germans. Authoritarianism has its definite benefits over a democratic society, and the ability to exert authority on a public is not a tool utilized only by authoritarian leaders, ut democracies and plutocratic republics as well. The point being, that all regimes do this, the only variance is the amplitude and degrees in which such systems vary in their pervasiveness and to what goals such exercising of authority seek to achieve. Authority can be a dangerous tool, and it is up to responsible leaders to manipulate and exploit this facet of human psychology in a manner which maximizes social utility, not inhibit it.