Obedience to Authority?
By Steve Gillman
The famous experiments on obedience to authority, carried
out by Stanley Milgram in the early 1960s, showed that ordinary
people will do awful things if told to do so by authority figures.
Volunteers in the experiments gave increasingly stronger electric
shocks to a subject when he answered a question incorrectly.
Many continued to do so even when the subject complained of heart
trouble, begged them to stop, and then went unconscious. Why?
Simply because someone in a lab coat told them to.
Such is our reflexive "respect" for authority. Of
course, we like to think that we would be different. We like
to think that we would have just said no to authorities like
Hitler or Stalin. But then, if as a daily matter of life, you
reflexively respect the law without considering whether it is
right or not, you are likely as "normal" as the subjects
in Milgram's experiments, or as "normal" as the millions
who participated in what the Nazis did in the 30s and 40s.
Now, I am not saying that people who did these horrible things
are horrible people. Nor am I saying that those with the potential
to do such things (most of humanity) are horrible people. We
are what we are, and this includes the good and the not-so-good.
Whether we are put in a position to demonstrate it or not, almost
all of us have the capacity to do great evil - especially when
we reflexively obey authority.
Just Say No to Obedience to Authority
I am not advocating disobeying authority for its own sake.
I'm not saying you should break every law you feel is unjust.
What I am proposing is that we each use the mind we have, and
that we respect no authority more than that. We should say no
to any automatic obedience to authority.
I have no respect for the law in the sense that most
people do. I obey most laws, including many laws that I think
are unjust. The just laws I obey because I want to do what is
just. I follow unjust laws because I am not willing to pay the
price of breaking them. But if the cost is low enough or the
issue important enough, I will break the laws I think are unfair.
I would hope that if I were an escaped slave seeking shelter
in this country 150 years ago, someone would have felt the same.
Let me be very clear: We have no duty to obey the law.
I have none and you have none. No such duty exists. All of us
with the slightest bit of imagination can think of a scenario
where we would gladly break the law, demonstrating that we value
our own moral values above any "duty" to obey laws.
Of course, many who think they know when to follow and when
to break the law want others to believe in obedience nonetheless.
In fact, I'll bet that those who are offended when reading this
aren't really offended by the suggestion that they would break
the law. They are more likely just angry that I would point out
the nature of the game. They want others to believe in
There is a whole lot of hypocrisy involved here. For example,
how many good citizens out there have used an illegal drug sometime
in their lives, and yet are still in favor of laws which imprison
drug users? These hypocrites aren't planning to turn themselves
in to the police, of course. They almost certainly feel that
they were capable of making such a decision for themselves, but
that others need to be stopped from pursuing such "dangerous"
Such feelings of being "above the law" are not what
I am advocating. In fact, those who have broken what they truly
believe is a just law should turn themselves in and face the
consequences. It's the noble thing to do, after all.
On the other hand, if you believe a law is unjust, you still
better not think you are above it. I am above all advocating
being practical. Go ahead and break unfair laws, if your reasons
are good enough. But then be prepared to either avoid detection
or and/or pay the consequences.
Laws are made for various reasons, many having nothing to
do with protecting people's rights. Sometimes we should break
them. But when and why should we obey them? Here are some good
1. Because we want to avoid trouble.
2. Because we agree with them.
3. Because in the case of unimportant laws we feel it's better
to maintain order in society with our obedience to authority
(perhaps while trying to change the law).
But contrary to what many believe, we never need unthinking
obedience to authority, or even respect for the law to have a
good and peaceful society. This is a lie perpetuated by those
in power and those who are afraid of other people thinking for
themselves. It is better that we cultivate respect for moral
law and individual rights, rather than obedience to the often
arbitrary laws of governments.
In fact it has often been disrespect for the law that has
brought about a better society. For example, consider the civil
disobedience that lead to changes in racist laws in the 60s.
That was a triumph of respect for moral law over government law.
Just say no to any unthinking obedience to authority.