Obey -- But at What Cost?

SAUL JAY SINGER

July 17, 1991|By SAUL JAY SINGER

Obedience to authority is far more than merely one social valueamong many. Inculcated at the very earliest stages of our development by parents, teachers, clergymen and re-enforced throughout, obedience is a highly esteemed value. In fact, many ethicists believe obedience to be an impulse overriding training in ethics and morality. Sociologists generally support this line of argument by noting that a system of authority is a baseline requirement inherent in any scheme for communal living.

Many naturalists further subscribe to the theory that dissidence is actually genetically bred out of the species under a Darwinian ''survival of the fittest'' model; without some system of authority and a power to enforce authority, the community would cease to exist.

Yet, it is beyond question that some authority is ''evil'' and, by extension, obedience to that authority is evil. Despite the lamentable contemporary rise of that bastard among philosophical doctrines known as ''moral relativism.''

There is considerable risk in vesting within an individual the right to ''take the law into his own hands,'' particularly in wartime. In 1931, the Supreme Court in U.S. v. Macintosh, stated an intuitively obvious proposition: ''It is axiomatic that no military organization can continue to exist if each man in it free to decide which war he will participate in and which he will merely sit out.''

In the trial of Lieutenant William Calley in the My Lai massacre, however, a case which has become a metaphor for ''following orders'' second only to the Nuremberg trials, the court noted that ''the obedience of a soldier is not the obedience of an automation. A soldier is a reasoning agent, obliged to respond not as a machine but as a person.'' The same may well be said regarding the obedience of any member of society.

Somehow, a balance of sorts must be struck between the moral exercise of individual prerogative and the risk of total anarchy with each citizen a Quixote tilting at windmills, righting perceived wrongs, attacking those individuals and institutions he deems morally unfit and deciding for himself what the law ought to be. However, the deck would seem to be heavily stacked against resisting authority.

Sociologist Stanley Milgram has shown that otherwise repugnant acts are carried out with relative ease when authoritatively commanded. Mr. Milgram scientifically proved the proposition that a few changes in newspaper headlines or a call from a draft board are often all that is necessary to lead men to kill with little difficulty. Governmental institutions, via their increasingly powerful manipulation of the propaganda apparatus, encourage obedience to their goals, which are invariably portrayed as constituting ''the greater good.''

However, while a national leader fighting a ''moral war'' or enacting ''good laws'' will cite moral and ethical justifications, so too Hitler attempted to justify his program of extermination and Iraq's Saddam Hussein cited the greater good and the need for strict compliance. A reasonable citizen needs some framework within which to challenge authority when that authority has transcended what constitutes acceptable behavior. The problem, according to Mr. Milgram, is the total lack of any kind of systematized model for disobedience.

Mr. Milgram set up his experiment at Yale University in the early 1960s. Posing as a scientist attempting to quantify the correlation between punishment and effective learning, he advertised for volunteers to participate in an interesting study. Two volunteers at a time were paid a nominal sum for their participation; lots were drawn, and one volunteer was designated teacher and the other ''student.''

The two were ushered into a room dominated by a large, imposing machine on which was arrayed and labelled an impressive horizontal sequence of thirty electric switches ranging from 15 volts to 450 volts. A series of progressively more serious warnings advised: warning . . . danger . . . very high voltage . . . and, finally, ''XXX.''

The teacher was ordered to strap the ''student'' to the machine and to attach electrodes to him. The teacher had to read a sequence of words to the ''student''; each time the ''student'' failed to give the proper response, the teacher was to administer the next highest level of electric shock. In fact, the ''student'' was a collaborator with the experimenter, the drawing was rigged so that the true volunteer always became the teacher, and the machine did not administer any shock.

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