Column by tzo.
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Stanley Milgram was an American social psychologist best known for his Milgram Experiment, a study conducted in the 1960s.
Dr. Milgram wanted to research the relationship between obedience
and authority, and he was at least partly motivated to do so by the
events of the Nazi Holocaust. It greatly troubled him that so many
supposedly good people could participate in such atrocities. How was
In 1974, he published Obedience to Authority
in an attempt to explain his research and summarize his findings, but
the poor doctor was at a bit of a loss when he tried to analyze just
what his experiments had to say about human beings. The very first
chapter of the book is titled "The Dilemma of Obedience."
Now a dilemma is a problem offering at least two possibilities,
neither of which is practically acceptable. So it seems that whatever
conclusion he does eventually reach—considering the chosen title—it must
be an unsatisfactory one.
Let’s follow his line of reasoning in this, the summarizing chapter of his work. The opening sentence reads:
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, and it is only the man dwelling in isolation who is not
forced to respond, through defiance or submission, to the commands of
Consider his foundational assumption. Society requires obedience to
authority: Authority is apparently vested in certain individuals
through some mechanism, allowing them to wield power over and command
obedience from others.
I have written previously
about where just authority originates (I will drop the “just” qualifier
for the rest of this article, with the understanding that it is
redundant when the proper definition of authority is used), and that it
can only be bestowed from one individual to another on a voluntary
basis, and that anything else is thuggery.
Milgram actually is asserting that society can only exist through
thuggery, which he inaccurately conflates with authority, and this
centralized concentration of “authority” is the indispensable
government. By applying the label “authority,” a term associated with
justice, he disguises government’s true essence and confuses himself to
the point where he cannot come to a rational conclusion.
Now one of Dr. Milgram's motivations for conducting his experiment
was to explain how the Holocaust could have happened. He also
acknowledges in the following passage that in general, government
(obedience to thuggery) has always been the main perpetrator of violence
When you think of the long and gloomy history of man, you will
find more hideous crimes have been committed in the name of obedience
than have ever been committed in the name of rebellion.
It seems to me that he has struck gold right here. Governments,
operating under the guise of just authority, persuade good people to
make other good people suffer. Sure, the holocaust could be identified
as one of the more extreme examples of how this human suffering
manifests itself, but the same mechanism responsible for the holocaust
has been in place for centuries, churning out human misery and death,
year after year.
In other words, government is the root and source of the problems
that trouble human civilization. But Dr. Milgram could not see the
obvious because he believed that this very mechanism of misery and death
was absolutely essential—a vital good—to human society.
And so we have defined the dilemma according to Dr. Milgram. We
need obedience to thuggery in order to have society, but then the thugs
who wield the power rain down the most destruction upon society. But
without obedience to thuggery, we cannot arrange a society at all and
are doomed to live a solitary and brutishly miserable existence.
It seems we just can't win either way, and to this I wholeheartedly
agree. Maybe we could just—I don’t know—leave the thuggery out of the
Because otherwise, Dr. Milgram expected something good (society) to
be derived by instituting a bad idea (thuggery). Starting with such a
premise can only lead to a messy conclusion. He continues:
Thus, obedience to authority, long praised as a virtue, takes on
a new aspect when it serves a malevolent cause; far from appearing as a
virtue, it is transformed into a heinous sin. Or is it?
Bowing down to thugs should never have been confused with virtue,
because then it would have always been obvious that such behavior would
inevitably lead to serving malevolent causes.
If authority is granted—and it is—then obedience to authority is
merely obedience to self. Authority, a voluntarily granted power, can be
revoked at any time. Obeying authority against your will is not
possible. If you behave unethically, then you have chosen. The Nuremberg
Defense didn't work for the Nazis and it doesn't work for IRS agents,
soldiers, or any other human being.
And so, Stanley, what is the answer to the question you pose here?
Is obedience to authority a virtue or a sin? Well, as we have been
tipped off by the title of the chapter, we know that you believe that
the answer is both and/or neither. Obedience to authority is necessary,
hence good, but that authority can often be malevolent, and so one
should obey the authority unless the authority is evil, then it should
not be obeyed any longer. But who decides when the authority should not
be obeyed? The individual with his own intact moral compass? But then he
is the authority, no?
No, because society needs an authoritative structure that
supercedes the authority of the individual. Unless it goes bad. And
around and around we go.
If individual ethical behavior is intrinsically good and commands
from authority—even when they conflict with an individual’s ethical
training—are also intrinsically good, then what else but confusion can
be the end result of this type of thinking? Consider the following
question from the text that arises from this morass:
How does a man behave when he is told by a legitimate authority to act against a third individual?
Which just boils down to: How does a man behave when he tells
himself to act against a third individual? Well, that is up to him,
isn’t it? That would make it his responsibility, wouldn’t it? This is
not at all difficult to figure out if we define our terms in a rational
manner. And then:
Though such prescriptions as “Thou shalt not kill” occupy a
pre-eminent place in the moral order, they do not occupy a
correspondingly intractable position in human psychic structure. A few
changes in newspaper headlines, a call from the draft board, orders from
a man with epaulets, and men are led to kill with little difficulty.
Again, not seeing the obvious link between a coercive organization
and its violent ends renders this mysterious. Lose the idea that
authority exists outside of each individual and "Thou shalt not kill"
will suddenly occupy a pre-eminent place in the human psychic structure.
In fact, the phrase will become “I shalt not kill,” which is a much
more powerful statement, as self-responsibility and understanding for
the decision is being declared instead of some kind of mindless
Obedience is the psychological mechanism that links individual
action to political purpose. It is the dispositional cement that binds
men to systems of authority.
Is this not the description of brainwashing? Or perhaps even
lobotomization? Doesn’t this describe the psychological mechanism
utilized by cults? Especially when the system is thuggery masked as
virtuous authority? Blind obedience to authority is a mindless action
undertaken by dogs and other such non-rational creatures, not by
rational human beings who understand who they are as autonomous
Think back to the earlier quote about how most of the misery
suffered by the human race is due to obedience to government thugs. By
stating that obedience is the cement that binds good men to evil thugs,
shouldn’t the logical conclusion be that obedience is a very dangerous
and undesirable trait for humans to acquire? And yet we cannot exist in
any type of organized society without it?
He concludes the chapter with the idea that fragmentation and
dissipation of responsibility in modern society due to the increasingly
fine divisions of labor that distance people from the end results of
their actions can explain the phenomenon of good people doing bad
This is, perhaps, 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
...it is psychologically easy to ignore responsibility when one
is only an intermediate link in a chain of evil action but is far from
the final consequences of the action.
Thus there is a fragmentation of the total human act; no one man
decides to carry out the evil act and is confronted with its
consequences. The person who assumes full responsibility for the act has
evaporated. Perhaps this is the most common characteristic of socially
organized evil in modern society.
I agree with his assessment that evil is currently best organized
under the illusion of doing good, and by recruiting good and unwitting
people to the cause. This is indeed the modern way of slaughtering mass
quantities of human beings—they are being “helped” by the humanitarians
But who engineers these socially organized evil acts that have been
fragmented and distributed among society’s members so that
responsibility dissipates into vapor? There is only one answer to this
The problem has been defined and the cause has been identified. Any
rational man of science would have to conclude that the solution to the
problem is the removal of its cause. What else?
Now in the epilogue of the book, Dr. Milgram reaches some more
conclusions and comes agonizingly close to proposing voluntaryism. He
makes all the correct arguments that lead him right to the very
threshold, but then he simply cannot even see the door that is open
right in front of him.
He states, for example:
For the problem is not "authoritarianism" as a mode of political
organization or a set of psychological attitudes, but authority itself.
Let's remove all the extraneous verbiage, and we see the statement
quite literally says that "the problem is authority itself." So once
again, I contend that he has reached the logical conclusion with this
statement. But then this immediately follows:
... authority itself cannot be eliminated as long as society is to continue in the form we know.
Which of course provokes an obvious line of inquiry: So why can't we continue society in a different form? Without the thugs? But instead, he finds himself at an impasse. Authority has been
identified as the problem, but the solution cannot possibly be to remove
And he understands quite clearly that it matters not the form taken
by the government—the fact that government is necessarily authoritarian
(thuggish) is the central and inescapable matter of fact:
In democracies, men are placed in office through popular
elections. Yet, once installed, they are no less in authority than those
who get there by other means.
He so wants to be a voluntaryist, but refuses to follow the trail of breadcrumbs beyond a certain point.
Voluntaryist: OK, Stanley, what three numbers come next in this sequence: "1, 2, 3, 4, 5, ..."
Stanley: Umm, seven...
Voluntaryist: Excellent, Stanley. One more...
And he just can't do it. He trips on his shoelace and falls three
feet short of finishing the marathon and cannot get back up. He has all
the information he needs, but cannot put the pieces together. And any
other analogy you can think of to express vexation.
At the end of the epilogue, he shows his frustration by forcing
himself to conclude the worst possible forecast for a lamentably
defective human race:
... [It is ultimately revealed that] the capacity for man to
abandon his humanity, indeed, the inevitability that he does so, as he
merges his unique personality into larger institutional structures.
This is a fatal flaw nature has designed into us, and which in
the long run gives our species only a modest chance of survival. It is
ironic that the virtues of loyalty, discipline, and self-sacrifice that
we value so highly in the individual are the very properties that create
destructive organizational engines of war and bind men to malevolent
systems of authority.
Each individual possesses a conscience which to a greater or
lesser degree serves to restrain the unimpeded flow of impulses
destructive to others. But when he merges his person into an
organizational structure, a new creature replaces autonomous man,
unhindered by the limitations of individual morality, freed of humane
inhibition, mindful only of the sanctions of authority.
The results, as seen and felt in the laboratory, are to this
author disturbing. They raise the possibility that human nature, or—more
specifically—the kind of character produced in American democratic
society, cannot be counted on to insulate its citizens from brutality
and inhumane treatment at the direction of malevolent authority. A
substantial proportion of people do what they are told to do,
irrespective of the content of the act and without limitations of
conscience, so long as they perceive that the command comes from a
And again, he hits the nail on the head and does not realize it
because he holds on to contradictory ideas. One the one hand, he claims
that flawed human nature is to blame, but then he specifies that perhaps
not human nature itself but, in his own words, “more specifically the
kind of character produced in American society” is to blame. If
character is produced by society, then it is learned and is not innate.
Character flaws are therefore not birth defects and can be molded or
changed by proper education.
The proper conclusion to draw from all of this, it seems, is that
human beings must learn that they are each independent, sovereign moral
agents who are solely responsible for their own actions, and that there
are no exceptions to this golden rule. Done. That is merely education.
The chimera of obeying some font of just authority that descends
from the atmosphere and infuses itself into some group of transformed
superhumans never even comes into being. Government finds itself at the
Santa Claus level of existence.
A critical examination of Dr. Milgram’s assertions reveals that
government is thuggery and obedience is the mechanism that binds good
people to these thugs and their evil ends. The thugs develop ingenious
ways to perform evil under the guise of doing good, recruiting good
people to be obedient cogs in evil machinery that has caused most of the
human misery that has existed during the entire era of human
civilization. Understanding all this, shall government then be
categorized as good or evil?
Once government is correctly identified as evil instead of good and
necessary, the inevitability of the bad results from instituting it
becomes obvious. The only solution, then, if one wants a truly civil
society, is to remove government from the equation.
For Dr. Milgram, and all others who hold onto the idea that human
society cannot be organized without a coercive government at its core, I
contend that they must bear the burden of proof for such an assertion.
Where is the empirical grounding in fact that gives validity to this
Because if government is not in fact integral and vital to
civilized society, then all logical arguments point to its elimination
in order to improve the world, as it has been shown time and again to be
the main source of human suffering.
Dr. Milgram also worried that the prescription “Thou shalt not
kill” did not occupy an intractably high position in the human psychic
structure. He then argued that this was an innate flaw in human design,
but also hinted that society’s influence may cause such ideas to be
undervalued and subordinated to obedience. I strongly believe that the
latter explanation is the truth, and also that this unfortunate
condition can be remedied.
When enough people understand that “I shalt not kill”—a principle
that comes from the authority of self—must take up a prominent spot
right behind “I must eat and have shelter in order to survive” because
“we must all voluntarily cooperate together in order to have a society,”
then the problem resolves itself.
And since I possess the ultimate authority over my actions, and
since I am ultimately obedient only to myself, “I shalt not kill”
implies that I cannot grant any “Thou shalt kill” power to others. “I
shalt not steal” implies that I cannot grant any “Thou shalt steal”
power to others.
And since government is defined by “We shalt kill and steal,” it
necessarily disappears in a puff of logic in such an ethical and
Dr. Milgram was convinced that human society could only exist if it
had some group of humans with superhuman authority to organize and
control it. What he failed to recognize, just as many, many people today
fail to recognize, is that no human being can possess superhuman
authority, and that those who do claim to have such power are merely
thugs and nothing more.
When humanity begins to understand that authority is an inalienable
individual attribute—as is the self-responsibility that is the natural
result of possessing such a natural endowment—only then will we finally
emerge from the long dark age of government and begin the renaissance of
Teach your children well.