Experiments with People: Revelations from Social Psychology

By Robert P. Abelson; Kurt P. Frey et al. | Go to book overview

21
Just Following Orders:
A Shocking
Demonstration of
Obedience to Authority

“Obedience, bane of all genius, virtue, freedom, truth, makes slaves of men, and, of the human frame, a mechanized automaton.

—Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822), English poet


BACKGROUND

Whenever you do something because someone tells you to do it, that is obedience. Obedience is often a good thing. It permits society to function smoothly and to accomplish large-scale goals that require hierarchical coordination. The ancient Greek philosopher, Socrates, extolled the importance of obedience to the state, even stoically accepting his society's order to drink poisonous hemlock. Yet obedience is not always a good thing. Indeed, Plato questioned the wisdom of obeying unjust laws (mindful of his mentor's sad fate). History since has been replete with poignant examples of obedience-turned-tragedy, leaving the enlightenati of our day wary of all forms of submissiveness to authority.

During the height of the Vietnam War, an American Bravo company swept through a defenseless hamlet, My Lai, slaughtering everyone in sight, because they were suspected of siding with the enemy. One of the invading soldiers admitted in a sobering testimony to pushing men, women, and children into a ravine and shooting them, simply because he was ordered to do so by the officer in charge (Milgram, 1974). That officer, Lieutenant Benjamin Galley, defended his own actions—he too was

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