Stanley Milgram (1933-1984)
Born in New York
Doctor in Philosophy (Ph. D.) at Harvard University (Cambridge, Mass.)
Psychologist at Yale University (New Haven, Connecticut)
Professor of Psychology at New York City College
In years 50-60, Stanley Milgram carried out experiments to define where the obedience to authority finishes and where the individual's responsibility starts: how to reconcile the constraints of authority with the voice of conscience?
Milgram studied events where atrocities -rising from leading obedience to authority- occurred. He particularly investigated on ghastliness perpetrated by the Nazis during World War II. He disclosed these atrocities could be found in the everyday life in various ways.
Among every human being, there is a natural propensity to obey to authority and to discharge on it from his own responsibility. By writing this book, Milgram wished to incite readers to deeply understand the importance of authority in their lifes in order to ruin the notion of blind obedience.
He showed in particular:
- that the fading of the sense of individual responsibility is by far the most serious consequence of the obedience to authority;
- that justification of the actions by those who make them while obeying -named "rationalization"- does not matter. Only the action is a reality: "As long as they are converted into actions, personal feelings can change nothing to the moral quality of a destroying process".
Obedience is as basic an element in the structure of social life as one can point to. Some system of authority is a requirement of all communal living. Obedience is the cement which binds men to the system of authority. From their childhood, people are more or less conditioned to submit. For many people, obedience is a deeply ingrained behavior tendency, indeed a potent impulse overriding training in ethics, sympathy and moral conduct.
The extermination of Jews by Nazis remains the extreme example of horrible actions achieved by thousands of individuals in the name of obedience. But that recurs constantly with another degree.
The question of authority returns to the rebellion, the deviance, which is perceived as a danger to the social structure. The majority thinks "Better to submit to a bad decision taken in high places than to shake the social structure".
Dilemma about responsibility:
- some will rationalize by saying that the responsibility falls to the principal,
- the humanists advance the individual conscience and maintain that personal ethics must take precedence over the authority..
This problem can be considered under philosophical and legal aspects. Stanley Milgram based on the rigorous observation in concrete situations.
The experiment he carried out at Yale University was taken up in various universities with the participation of a thousand subjects. The starting experiment was simple
The characters are volunteers recruited in response to a newspaper, who receive an amount of money. They do not know what the experiment focuses on. They were told it was a simple experiment investigating memory and learning.
The aim is to know up at what precise point they will accept to follow the instructions given by the experimenter, whereas the actions to carry out gradually enter in conflict with their conscience.
The experimenter (E) ushers two people into a room: one volunteer would be assigned the role of "teacher"(S) and the other would become the "learner"(A). He precises it is just a matter of studying the effects of the punishment on the process of learning.
The learner is taken to a room, seated in an electric chair, his arms are strapped to prevent excessive movement and an electrode is attached to his wrist. Next, the teacher is taken to an adjoining room which contains a generator. The teacher is instructed to read a list of two word pairs and asks the learner to read them back. If the answer is incorrect, the teacher is supposed to punish the learner by electric shocks of increasing intensity.
The real focus of the experiment is the teacher. After watching the learner being strapped into place, he is seated before an impressive shock generator. The generator has 30 switches in 15 volt increments, each is labeled with a voltage ranging from 15 up to 450 volts. Each switch also has a rating, ranging from "Slight shock" to "Danger: Severe Shock".
The teacher is instructed to read the list of two word pairs to the learner in the other room. If the learner gets the answer correct, then they move on to the next word. Whenever the learner makes an error, he receives electric shocks starting with the lowest voltage and increasing gradually (by steps of 15 volts).
The teacher is a genuinely naive subject. He does not know that the learner is actually an actor who receives no shock at all.
. at 75 volts, he grunts,
. at 120 volts, he complains loudly,
. at 150 volts, he demands to be released,
. at 285 volts, his response can be described only as an agonized scream.
The subjects (who believe that suffering is real) have trouble telling how much the experiment was harrowing. Conflict is intense obvious among manifest suffering, supplications (up to howls and silences suggestive of fainting fits) and the experimenter's command which means a "rightful authority" and to which they feel committed. Each time a subject hesitates to administer a shock, the experimenter commands him to continue.
Stanley Milgram describes the results as "unexpected and worrying" because none of the attendees had the reflex to refuse to participate and leave. An important proportion among them carried on until the highest level of electric shock. Stanley Milgram brought to the conclusion that:
the evil could be perceived as something banal. Those who administered the highest shocks thought they were morally under constraint by THE IDEA THEY HAD ABOUT THEIR DUTY. He considered the aggressive drives were barely involved in this present case.
Stanley Milgram devotes some pages (205 to 208) to show that agression is not the key of the behaviors. The subjects have not taken profit of the experiment to appease sadistic drives. I personally think Milgram paid no enough heed to this element.
The conditioning, with all the inhibitions it entails, is opposed to the rebellion and succeeds in keeping everyone on assigned position. The built-up and the means were enough to efficiently neutralize the moral sides.2)
Raccourcits documentation :
Conscience et Ethique - Droits de l'homme - Edgar Morin : Ethique et Bibliographie - Michel Crozier : l'Acteur et le Système - Stanley Milgram : Soumission à l'Autorité - Obedience to Authority, Stanley Milgram - Manipulation Mentale - Harcèlement Moral et/ou harcèlement Sexuel - La stratégie du choc - Réseaux et/de pouvoir - Stratégie - Cinéma, Films, vidéos -
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