The Perils of Obedience
Religion & Liberty Online

The Perils of Obedience

On his blog, Marginal Revolution, Tyler Cowan links to an article about game show, The Game Of Death, that was recently broadcast on French television. According to the article (“Torture ‘Game Show’ Draws Nazi Comparison“) the program, “had all the trappings of a traditional television quiz show, with a roaring crowd and a glamorous and well-known hostess.”

For all that it appeared to be a typical game show, what “contestants . . . did not realise [was that] they were taking part in an experiment to find out whether television could push them to outrageous lengths.” As describe by SkyNews:

The game involved contestants posing questions to another “player”, who was actually an actor, and punishing him with 460 volts of electricity when he answered incorrectly.

Eventually the man’s cries of “Let me go” fell silent, and he appeared to have died.

Not knowing that their screaming victim was an actor, the apparently reluctant contestants followed the orders of the presenter, as well as chants of “Punishment” from a studio audience who also believed the game was real.

According to the article, some “80% of contestants went all the way, shocking the victim with the maximum 460 volts until he appeared to die” with “just 16 refus[ing] to shock the victim and walk[ing] out.”

Putting aside the morality of the project, the program parallels the study done in the 1960’s by Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram. Milgram’s “experiment measured the willingness of study participants to obey an authority figure who instructed them to perform acts that conflicted with their personal conscience.” As with the television program, Milgram found that the majority of participants in his study (A Peer Administers Shocks), 25 out of 40, were willing to follow orders and administer a fatal electric shock (and again, as with the TV program, in Milgram’s experiment, the “victim” was a confederate of the researcher and did not actually suffer any harm much less die).

As Milgram wrote in a 1974 article for Harper’s Magazine (“The Perils of Obedience“) based on his experiment:

[The] most fundamental lesson of our study: ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.

And this happened even when the subjects “were totally convinced of the wrongness of their actions.” The most of the subjects simply “could not bring themselves to make an open break with authority.”

The unwillingness to disobey an authority figure is only part of the story. While not taking any “satisfaction from inflicting pain” the subjects also reported they got felt satisfaction in “doing a good job” and “obeying the experimenter under difficult circumstances.”

Milgram argues that 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.” With this “critical shift of viewpoint” there is also a shift in how the person understands himself as a moral agent.

The most far-reaching consequence is that the person feels responsible to the authority directing him but feels no responsibility for the content of the actions that the authority prescribes. Morality does not disappear — it acquires a radically different focus: the subordinate person feels shame or pride depending on how adequately he has performed the actions called for by authority.

Rightly, I think, Milgram posits that the problem his research highlights is “not wholly psychological” but also social. While I am not certain that we can ascribe his findings simply to the contemporary “division of labor,” he is think correct when a “person does not get to see the whole situation but only a small part of it,” he becomes increasingly dependent on an authority figure to provide him “some kind of overall direction.” Consequently, the person must yield “to authority” but does so at the cost of being increasingly “alienated from his own actions.”

Psychologically, more responsibility requires that “a person . . . sense that the behavior has flowed from ‘the self.'” Obedience, “loyalty, duty, discipline are all terms heavily saturated with moral meaning and refer to the degree to which a person fulfills his obligations to authority. They refer not to the ‘goodness’ of the person per se but to the adequacy with which a subordinate fulfills his socially defined role.” As a result, what we see in such a moral framework “is a fragmentation of the total human act; no one is confronted with the consequences of his decision to carry out the evil act. The person who assumes responsibility has evaporated.”

He concludes by observing that this fragmentation of the person into — at best — a series of loosely related social roles is perhaps “the most common characteristic of socially organized evil in modern society.”

While it can be uncomfortable to acknowledge, we can’t afford to lose sight of the fact that Christians are as prone to the “perils of obedience” as Yale undergraduates and French game show contestants. Something that concerns me is the ease with which we can make misuse of Church’s tradition to foster the fragmentation that makes abuse possible.
What are we to make of all this? Does this mean that we must do away with obedience in the Church? No, I don’t think so. But it does suggests, to me at least, that we need to understand obedience (both in Church and in the society) not as an end in itself but in the service of the wholeness of the person. Though comical, the illustration at right is a good example of what I’m getting at here; obedience–like love–must be freely given, it must affirm the person’s freedom as a moral agent, and it must be mutual.

A concern for personal wholeness in community (love) is one of the hallmarks of the Gospel. Within the pastoral life of the Church, this means the restoration of the person to wholeness in his or her uniqueness. Wholeness, in other words, must be concrete and not merely theoretical. The question of obedience is not about conformity to the tradition as such but how is it that this person can be brought to wholeness of being? How can this person find integration of the disparate qualities of his or her life?

These, and related questions, are the one’s we must ask ourselves.

As always, your questions, comments and criticisms are most welcome.

In Christ,
+Fr Gregory

Rev. Gregory Jensen

Rev. Gregory Jensen is the pastor of Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church and Orthodox chaplain at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is also a professor at St Sophia Ukranian Orthodox Theological Seminary where he teaches classes in ethics and young adult faith development. Fr Gregory is the author of The Cure for Consumerism published by the Acton Institute.