Can Obedience Lead to Corruption and Evil Actions?

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Obedience, the idea that one should comply to the rules or wishes of another person or idea, along with its counterpart discipline, has been thought of throughout history to be the foundation of harmony and cooperation between individuals and society. According to Erich Fromm, a psychoanalyst and philosopher who studied Freud and Marx, “obedience is a virtue, while disobedience is a vice” (Behrens & Rosen, 574). In more recent times, psychologists have been asking if obedience can lead to corruption and evil doing, rather than the ideas established in history. Why and how does obedience lead to corrupt and unethical actions? Does this only apply to people who are predisposed to aggression and immoral wrongdoings? Or is this something deeper, that perhaps all humans can fall prey to?

One of the most famous, yet controversial, studies conducted based on the idea of obedience was done by Stanley Milgram in 1961 at Yale and Harvard Universities (Behrens & Rosen, 583-4). Milgram wanted to better understand the reason behind the massacre of the Jews during World War II, and if the German Nazi’s were really being obedient and ‘just following orders’. During these tests, Milgram tested whether individuals would violate their conscience by obeying immoral demands and inflict harm on another human being because they were ordered to do so by a figure of authority. Throughout this experiment, participants were tasked with being a ‘teacher’ and delivering an electric shock to the ‘student’, if they answered any questions wrong, increasing the shock from minor shock to dangerous and life threatening. After conducting his experiments, Milgram found that 65% of participants continued to maximum shock level and concluded that when tasked with an immoral order by an authority figure, everyday people were more inclined to obey and complete a heinous act, regardless of the pain they were causing someone else (Behrens & Rosen, 583-88).

An important thing to clarify, Fromm explained, is the distinction between the different types of obedience (Behrens & Rosen, 576). First, there is ‘heteronomous obedience’, which is being submitting to a person or sovereignty’s will, ideas, or orders. Fromm states that this form of obedience makes one disregard their independence and conform to the ideologies of another. Additionally, ‘autonomous obedience’ is the act of obeying one’s own beliefs and ideas. Another important distinction, according to Fromm, is the concept of rational and irrational authority, in which the former commands with common reason that others can accept, while the latter uses force or motivation in order to convince others to obey. Finally, there is the difference between the ‘authoritarian conscious’, obeying an internalized power, and ‘humanistic conscious’, which allows people to discern from right and wrong, what is destructive and productive of life, and what constitutes us as human beings (Behrens & Rosen, 576-77). Throughout history, all over the world, individuals have proven consistently, that ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process.

Milgram’s experiment found that ordinary people were inclined to follow the orders of those in power, even if the order harmed or potentially killed another person. This experiment targeted normal, everyday men in the community that were simply answering an ad in the paper. These individuals, according to a recount of Milgram’s experiment by Saul McLeod from Wigan and Leigh College, were all males in the New Haven area between the ages of twenty and fifty and ranged in skills from no skills to professional skills. Milgram’s experiment showed how everyday people can make horrendous decisions when ordered to, even if that authoritative figure is irrational. Even though participants were concerned about the person they were inflicting pain on while they shocked them after being given a wrong answer, the scientist, who was an accomplice of Milgram, urged and manipulated them using forceful suggestions such as: “It is absolutely essential that you continue. You have no other choice”.

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While Milgram’s experiment found that typical individuals were affected by the concept of obedience, he also found that this applied simply because they were performing a job. To illustrate how this affects people in another situation, between 2003 and 2006, American soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq became victims of ‘heteronomous obedience’, when their superiors ordered them to extract information from prisoners by whatever means necessary, resulting in the torture of prisoners. According to Jerrold Post and Lara Panis of George Washington University, the guards at Abu Ghraib explained that the physical abuse they inflicted upon prisoners was because they were following orders ‘to set the conditions’ to enhance the interrogation” and that they assumed they were following orders correctly because their superiors never told them otherwise (Post & Panis, 5). These individuals felt that they were simply doing their jobs, and that meant to be obedient to their superiors wishes. This desire to follow orders obediently ultimately led to the prison guards to ignore their ‘humanistic conscious’ and disregard what they knew to be right and wrong, as well as partake in activities that were ‘destructive of life’, as Fromm explained (Behrens & Rosen, 576). This lack of ‘humanistic conscious’ and obedience in authority resulted in the guards in Abu Ghraib to treat the prisoners as if they were inhuman, lack empathy for them, and become amused by the degradation that they inflicted..

Together with doing their jobs, Milgram also stated that obedience can occur and result in a devastating act, even when the individual had no hostility towards the person or situation. During Milgram’s experiment, participants frequently expressed that they were concerned about the man in the other room, indicating that they had no ill-will towards the man. In the face of authority, however, these individuals were able to continuously administer stronger shocks each time because they were able to push the responsibility and consequences of their actions on the person in power. This can also be seen in another example from the television show ‘The Push’ by Derren Brown’. Like the focus of Milgram’s experiment, ‘The Push’, by mentalist and illusionist Derren Brown, wanted to find if someone could be convinced to follow the orders to push someone off a building and to their death. During the show, Brown created a series of scenarios for the unassuming contestant that continued to intensify, resulting in the contestant being told by the charity board to push the main investor off the roof, lest they all go to jail. Brown conducted this with four different contestants, resulting in three out of the four following orders and pushing the man to his death (Raeside, par. 9). These contestants had no animosity towards the investor and went to the event with no heinous intentions in mind. However, when faced with a situation where someone in power, or in this case multiple people in power, ordered them to hurt another human being, they followed orders almost every time.

Despite the fact that Milgram expressed these individuals had no hostility, the end result was them becoming agents in a terrible destructive process. First, it is imperative to point out the importance of social psychologist Solomon E. Asch’s study on group pressure. In this study, he found that people were more likely to forfeit their own judgement in order to side with a group of peers, even if they were wrong. Together with the Sandford Prison Experiment by psychology professor Phillip Zimbardo in 1973, these studies help illuminate Milgram’s findings. Zimbardo’s experiment’s purpose was to study the concept of compliance and authority in guards and prisoners and they came to behave in those manners. The Stanford Prison Experiment involved placing college males into the role of either prisoner or guard in a fake prison, where they would assume their assigned roles and act accordingly. This experiment put these students in a situation where they responded to their ‘authoritarian conscious’, responding and treating their peers in ways that they perceived a prison guard to act like, one student even claiming they used the main character of ‘Cool Hand Luke’ as a reference. In an interview, one participant expressed that when they put on the guard’s uniform, it was like they became that entity. Obeying this conscious resulted in the students acting as guards humiliating, ridiculing, and harassing their peers in ways that was affecting both roles’ psyche. Additionally, while these young men were following a ‘rational authority’ that acted with justification-the police-they did so in a convoluted way. Asch’s experiment on group pressure aides to the explanation of why so many of the fake guards began acting in such a manner. One student, who deemed himself as the ringleader of the intense and cruel treatment of their peers, stated that even when he was crossing the line and being aggressive, no one questioned his authority. Because of this, students behaved more ‘sadistic’ as the days progressed. Ultimately, after six days the experiment had to be terminated due to the harm that was being inflicted on all the participants’ mental health. Being obedient to an authority figure, even an internal figure, combined with following a groups judgement rather than their own, resulted in these young men being “agents in a . . . destructive process” (Behrens & Rosen, 606).

The act of being obedient is one that has been valued throughout history as a virtue, but has a hidden, sinister side. Following his 1961 experiment, Milgram believed that obedience to authority could cause people, who may not normally act in these ways, to partake in inhuman actions. Throughout history, scientists, researchers and the everyday person has proven that given the encouragement, anyone is capable of abandoning their own judgement and critical thinking skills and act out an indescribable order in order to please or portray the ideas of someone in power. Because of the works of these researchers, along with Fromm, we will be able to better understand and recognize the different ways we obey authority and gives us the power to use our own judgments and values to act in ways that will preserve humankind. We are given the chance to prevent the “termination of the world by an act of obedience” by being disobedient (Behrens & Rosen, 574).

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Can Obedience Lead to Corruption and Evil Actions? (2023, January 31). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 22, 2024, from
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