Authority over Empathy
Despite the optimistic belief that most people are naturally good and will refuse to do bad things to others if not needed, Milgram’s experiment demonstrates that many human beings are more than willing to hurt other people if it means respecting the wishes of an authority figure. People are often so easily turned to evil acts because it is significantly easier to blindly listen to and follow the orders of an authority figure than to have your own independent thought. This choice is made even easier by the fact that those who defy the wishes of authority figures are often punished. The circumstances of Milgram’s experiments show that many people are willing to go through with killing another person even if there is no threat of punishment. The only thing that would happen if the teachers didn’t continue, according to the researcher present, is that the experiment wouldn’t work. The choice between ruining a science experiment and killing another person should be an easy one, but it is clear that most people would actually choose to kill another person because they were told to.
If we were to examine the perspective of people who did terrible things by order of authority figures, such as in the Holocaust, one potential reason why is self preservation. Many soldiers probably believed that if they refused to comply with their orders, they themselves would be killed. The problem with such individual logic is that you forget about the feelings of others. If enough Germans refused to round up and kill Jewish people, it is possible that the Nazis would have never been able to kill Jewish people in such massive numbers. Rebellion in such a form is rarely successful when done individually, so those refusing to listen to authority should do it as one united group, not just many individuals.
As Dolphin48 said, the participants in Milgram’s experiments were informed that they would not be held responsible if the learner was seriously injured or killed, which probably led to many participants thinking that they themselves weren’t killing the learner, the researcher was. This fact brings up the possibility that many people don’t actually have a serious problem with doing a bad thing, but they do fear the consequences of their actions. If there isn’t the threat of repercussions, many people will commit terrible acts with only some hesitation.
Unfortunately, I believe that many people in America would willingly work in death camps, and that these people could be found in most towns in America. Combining the information gained from Milgram’s studies with the fact that so many people in America actively threaten others with violence and derogatory language, it is more than reasonable to assume that many Americans would kill other Americans, both willingly and enthusiastically. If such camps were created by the government, even more people would participate because they would most likely not have to face any individual blame.
Do address ilikekiwis’s question, I do not believe that people are inherently bad or inherently good, but humans are willing to comply with authority because they are doing what they believe is best for their own wellbeing, rather than the wellbeing of many others. Most people don’t want to do bad things, but they will do it rather easily if someone with authority is telling them to do it.
My question is, why are some people more inclined than others to obey authority? Why are some people less inclined to do so?