IF HITLER ASKED YOU TO ELECTROCUTE A STRANGER,
WOULD YOU? PROBABLY
In the beginning, Stanley Milgram was worried about the Nazi
problem. He doesn't worry much about the Nazis anymore. He
worries about you and me, and, perhaps, himself a little bit too.
Stanley Milgram is a social psychologist, and when he began
his career at Yale University in 1960 he had a plan to prove,
scientifically, that Germans are different. The Germans-are-
different hypothesis has been used by historians, such as William
L. Shirer, to explain the systematic destruction of the Jews by
the Third Reich. One madman could decide to destroy the Jews and
even create a master plan for getting it done. But to implement
it on the scale that Hitler did meant that thousands of other
people had to go along with the scheme and help to do the work.
The Shirer thesis, which Milgram set out to test, is that Germans
have a basic character flaw which explains the whole thing, and
this flaw is a readiness to obey authority without question, no
matter what outrageous acts the authority commands.
The appealing thing about this theory is that it makes those
of us who are not Germans feel better about the whole business.
Obviously, you and I are not Hitler, and it seems equally obvious
that we would never do Hitler's dirty work for him. But now,
because of Stanley Milgram, we are compelled to wonder. Milgram
developed a laboratory experiment which provided a systematic way
to measure obedience. His plan was to try it out in New Haven on
Americans and then go to Germany and try it out on Germans. he
was strongly motivated by scientific curiosity, but there was
also some moral content in his decision to pursue this line of
research, which was in turn colored by his own Jewish background.
If he could show that Germans are more obedient than Americans,
he could then vary the conditions of the experiment and try to
find out just what it is that makes some people more obedient
than others. With this understanding, the world might,
conceivably, be just a little bit better.
But he never took his experiment to Germany. He never took
it any farther than Bridgeport. The first finding, also the most
unexpected and disturbing finding, was that we Americans are an
obedient people: not blindly obedient, and not blissfully
obedient, just obedient. "I found so much obedience," says
Milgram softly, a little sadly, "I hardly saw the need for taking
the experiment to Germany."
There is something of the theater director in Milgram, and
his technique, which he learned from one of the old masters in
experimental psychology, Solomon Asch, is to stage a play with
every line rehearsed, every prop carefully selected, and
everybody an actor except one person. That one person is the
subject of the experiment. The subject, of course, does not know
he is in a play. he thinks he is in real life. The value of
this technique is that the experimenter, as though he were God,
can change a prop here, vary a line there, and see how the
subject responds. Milgram eventually had to change a lot of the
script just to get people to stop obeying. They were obeying so
much, the experiment wasn't working--it was like trying to
measure oven temperature with a freezer thermometer.
The experiment worked like this: If you were an innocent
subject in Milgram's melodrama, you read an ad in the newspaper
or received one in the mail asking for volunteers for an
educational experiment. The job would take about an hour and pay
$4.50. So you make an appointment and go to an old Romanesque
stone structure on High Street with the imposing name of the Yale
Interaction Laboratory. It looks something like a broadcasting
studio. Inside, you meet a young, crew-cut man in a laboratory
coat who says he is Jack Williams, the experimenter. There is
another citizen, fiftyish, Irish face, an accountant, a little
overweight, and very mild and harmless looking. This other
citizen seems nervous and plays with his hat while the two of you
sit in chairs side by side and are told that the $4.50 checks are
yours no matter what happens. Then you listen to Jack Williams
explain the experiment.
It is about learning, says Jack Williams in a quiet,
knowledgeable way. Science does not know much about the
conditions under which people learn and this experiment is to
find out about negative reinforcement. Negative reinforcement is
getting punished when you do something wrong, as opposed to
positive reinforcement which is getting rewarded when you do
something right. The negative reinforcement in this case is
electric shock. You notice a book on the table, titled, The
Teaching-Learning Process, and you assume that this has something
to do with the experiment.
Then Jack Williams takes two pieces of paper, puts them in a
hat, and shakes them up. One piece of paper is supposed to say,
"Teacher" and the other, "Learner." Draw one and you will see
which you will be. The milder looking accountant draws one,
holds it close to his vest like a poker player, looks at it, and
says, "Learner." You look at yours. It says, "Teacher." You do
not know hat the drawing is rigged, and both slips say "Teacher."
The experimenter beckons to the mild-mannered "learner."
"Want to step right in here and have a seat, please?" he
says. "You can leave your coat on the back of that chair...roll
up your right sleeve, please. Now what I want to do is strap
down your arms to avoid excessive movement on your part during
the experiment. This electrode is connected to the shock
generator in the next room.
"And this electrode paste," he says, squeezing some stuff
out of a plastic bottle and putting it on the man's arm, "is to
provide a good contact and to avoid a blister or burn. Are there
any questions now before we go into the next room?"
You don't have any, but the strapped-in "learner" does.
"I do think I should say this," says the learner. "About
two years ago, I was in the veterans' hospital...they detected a
heart condition. Nothing serious, but as long as I'm having
these shocks, how strong are they--how dangerous are they?"
Williams, the experimenter, shakes his head casually. "Oh,
no," he says. "Although they may be painful, they're not
dangerous. Anything else?"
Nothing else. And so you play the game. The game is for
you to read a series of word pairs: for example, blue-girl, nice-
day, fat-neck. When you finish the list, you read just the first
word in each pair and then a multiple-choice list of four other
words, including the second word of the pair. The learner, from
his remote, strapped-in position, pushes one of four switches to
indicate which of the four answers he thinks is the right one.
If he gets it right, nothing happens and you go on to the next
one. If he gets it wrong, you push a switch that buzzes and
gives him an electric shock. And then you go on to the next
word. You start with 15 volts and increase the number of volts
by 15 for each wrong answer. The control board goes from 15
volts on one end to 450 volts on the other. So that you know
what you are doing, you get a test shock yourself, at 45 volts.
It hurts. To further keep you aware of what you are doing to
that man in there, the board has verbal descriptions of the shock
levels, ranging from "Slight Shock" at the left-hand side,
through "Intense Shock" in the middle to "Danger: Severe Shock"
toward the far right. Finally, at the very end, under 435- and
450-volt switches, there are three ambiguous X's. If, at any
point, you hesitate, Mr. Williams calmly tells you to go on. If
you still hesitate, he tells you again.
Except for some terrifying details, which will be explained
in a moment, this is the experiment. The object is to find the
shock level at which you disobey the experimenter and refuse to
pull the switch.
When Stanley Milgram first wrote this script, he took it to
14 Yale psychology majors and asked them what they thought would
happen. He put it this way: Out of one hundred persons in the
teacher's predicament, how would their break-off points be
distributed along the 15- to 450-volt scale? They thought a few
would break off very early, most would quit someplace in the
middle, and a few would go all the way to the end. The highest
estimate of the number out of 100 who would go all the way to the
end was three. Milgram then informally polled some of his fellow
scholars in the psychology department. They agreed that very few
would go to the end. Milgram thought so too.
"I'll tell you quite frankly," he says, "before I began this
experiment, before any shock generator was built, I thought that
most people would break off at 'Strong Shock' or 'Very Strong
Shock.' You would get only a very, very small proportion of
people going out to the end of the shock generator, and they
would constitute a pathological fringe."
In his pilot experiments, Milgram used Yale students as
subjects. Each of them pushed the shock switches, one by one,
all the way to the end of the board.
So he rewrote the script to include some protests from the
learner. At first, they were mild, gentlemanly, Yalie protests,
but "it didn't seem to have as much effect as I thought it would
or should," Milgram recalls. "So we had more violent
protestation on the part of the person getting the shock. All of
the time, of course, what we were trying to do was not to create
a macabre situation, but simply to generate disobedience. And
that was one of the first findings. This was not only a
technical deficiency of the experiment, that we didn't get
disobedience. It really was the first finding: that obedience
would be much greater than we had assumed it would be and
disobedience would be much more difficult than we had assumed."
As it turned out, the situation did become rather macabre.
The only meaningful way to generate disobedience was to have the
victim protest with great anguish, noise, and vehemence. The
protests were tape-recorded so that all the teachers ordinarily
would hear the same sounds and nuances, and they started with a
grunt at 75 volts, proceeded through a "Hey, that really hurts,"
at 125 volts, got desperate with, "I can't stand the pain, don't
do that," at 180 volts, reached complaints of heart trouble at
195, an agonized scream at 285, a refusal to answer at 315, and
only heart-rending, ominous silence after that.
Still, 65 percent of the subjects, 20- to 50-year-old
American males, everyday, ordinary people, like you and me,
obediently kept pushing those levers in the belief that they were
shocking the mild-mannered learner, whose name was Mr. Wallace,
and who was chosen for the role because of his innocent
appearance, all the way up to 450 volts.
Milgram was now getting enough disobedience so that he had
something he could measure. The next step was to vary the
circumstances to see what would encourage or discourage
obedience. There seemed very little left in the way of
discouragement. The victim was already screaming at the top of
his lungs and feigning a heart attack. So whatever new
impediment to obedience reached the brain of the subject had to
travel by some route other than the ear. Milgram thought of one.
He put the learner in the same room with the teacher. He
stopped strapping the learner's hand down. He rewrote the script
so that at 150 volts the learner took his hand off the shock
plate and declared that he wanted out of the experiment. He
rewrote the script some more so that the experimenter then told
the teacher to grasp the learner's hand and physically force it
down on the plate to give Mr. Wallace his unwanted electric
"I had the feeling that very few people would go on a t that
point, if any," Milgram says. "I thought that would be the limit
of obedience that you would find in the laboratory."
Although seven years have now gone by, Milgram still
remembers the first person to walk into the laboratory in the
newly rewritten script. He was a construction worker, a very
short man. "He was so small," says Milgram, "that when he sat on
the chair in front of the shock generator, his feet didn't reach
the floor. When the experimenter told him to push the victim's
hand down and give the shock, he turned to the experimenter, and
he turned to the victim, his elbow went up, he fell down on the
hand of the victim, his feet kind of tugged to one side, and he
said, 'Like this, boss?' Zzumph!"
The experiment was played out to its bitter end. Milgram
tried it with 40 different subjects. And 30 percent of them
obeyed the experimenter and kept on obeying.
"The protests of the victim were strong and vehement, he was
screaming his guts out, he refused to participate, and you had to
physically struggle with him in order to get his hand down on the
shock generator," Milgram remembers. But 12 our of 40 did it.
Milgram took his experiment out of New Haven. Not to
Germany, just 20 miles down the road to Bridgeport. Maybe, he
reasoned, the people obeyed because of the prestigious setting of
Yale University. If they couldn't trust a learning center that
had been there for two centuries, whom could they trust? So he
moved the experiment to an untrustworthy setting.
The new setting was a suite of three rooms in a run-down
office building in Bridgeport. The only identification was a
sign with a fictitious name: "Research Associates of Bridgeport."
Questions about professional connections got only vague answers
about "research for industry."
Obedience was less in Bridgeport. Forty-eight percent of
the subjects stayed for the maximum shock, compared to 65 percent
at Yale. But this was enough to prove that far more than Yale's
prestige was behind the obedient behavior.
For more than seven years now, Stanley Milgram has been
trying to figure out what makes ordinary American citizens so
obedient. The most obvious answer--that people are mean, nasty,
brutish, and sadistic--won't do. The subjects who gave the
shocks to Mr. Wallace to the end of the board did not enjoy it.
They groaned, protested, fidgeted, argued, and in some cases,
were seized by fits of nervous, agitated giggling.
"They even try to get out of it," says Milgram, "but they
are somehow engaged in something from which they cannot liberate
themselves. They are locked into a structure, and they do not
have the skills or inner resources to disengage themselves."
Milgram, because he mistakenly had assumed that he would
have trouble getting people to obey the orders to shock Mr.
Wallace, went to a lot of trouble to create a realistic
There was crew-cut Jack Williams and his gray laboratory
coat. Not white, which might denote a medical technician, but
ambiguously authoritative gray. Then there was the book on the
table, and the other appurtenances of the laboratory which
emitted the silent message that things were being performed here
in the name of science, and were therefore great and good.
But the nicest touch of all was the shock generator. When
Milgram started out, he had only a $300 grant from the Higging
Fund of Yale University. Later he got more ample support from
the National Science Foundation, but in the beginning he had to
create this authentic-looking machine with very scarce resources
except for his own imagination. So he went to New York and
roamed around the electronic shops until he found some little
black switches at Lafayette Radio for a dollar apiece. He bought
30 of them. The generator was a metal box, about the size of a
small footlocker, and he drilled the 30 holes for the 30 switches
himself in a Yale machine shop. But the fine detail was left to
professional industrial engravers. So he ended up with a
splendid-looking control panel dominated by the row of switches,
each labeled with its voltage, and each having its own red light
that flashed on when the switch was pulled. Other things
happened when a switch was pulled. Besides the zzumphing noise,
a blue light labeled "voltage energizer" went on, and a needle on
a dial labeled "voltage" flicked from left to right. Relays
inside the box clicked. Finally, in the upper left-hand corner
of the control panel was this inscription, engraved in precise
SHOCK GENERATOR TYPE ZLB
DYSON INSTRUMENT COMPANY
OUTPUT: 15 VOLTS - 450 VOLTS
One day a man from the Lehigh Valley Electronics Company of
Pennsylvania was passing through the laboratory, and he stopped
to admire the shock generator.
"This is a very fine shock generator," he said. "But who is
this Dyson Instrument Company?" Milgram felt proud at that, since
Dyson Instrument Company existed only in the recesses of his
When you consider the seeming authenticity of the situation,
you can appreciate the agony some of the subjects went through.
It was pure conflict. As Milgram, explains to his students,
"When a parent says, 'Don't strike old ladies,' you are learning
two things: the content and also to obey authority. This
experiment creates conflict between the two elements.
Here is a partial transcription from one of the experiments.
The naive "teacher is a heavyset, worried-looking man with prema-
turely gray hair. He is wearing a polo shirt. He is very po-
lite. He has just pushed the 180-volt lever. A hidden camera is
recording the performance.
Learner (who, from the teacher's point of view is heard but
not seen, an offstage voice): Ow, I can't stand the pain. Don't
Teacher (pivoting around in his chair and shaking his head):
I can't stand it. I'm not going to kill that man in there. You
hear him hollering?
Experimenter: As I told you before, the shocks may be
Teacher: But he's hollering. He can't stand it. What's
going to happen to him?
Experimenter (his voice is patient, matter-of-fact): The
experiment requires that you continue, Teacher.
Teacher: Aaah, but, uh, I'm not going to get that man sick
in there...know what I mean?
Experimenter: Whether the learner likes it or not, we must
go on, through all the word pairs.
Teacher: I refuse to take the responsibility. He's in there
Experimenter: It's absolutely essential that you continue,
Teacher (indicating the unused question): There's too many
left here, I mean, Geez, if he gets them wrong, there's too many
of them left. I mean who's going to take the responsibility if
anything happens to that gentleman?
Experimenter: I'm responsible for anything that happens to
him. Continue please.
Teacher: All right. (Consults list of words.) The next
one's "Slow--walk, truck, dance, music." Answer, please. (A
buzzing sound indicates the learner has signaled his answer.)
Wrong. A hundred and ninety-five volts. "Dance." (Zzumph!)
Learner: Let me out of here. My heart's bothering me!
(Teacher looks at experimenter.)
Experimenter: Continue, please.
Learner (screaming): Let me out of here, you have no right
to keep me here. Let me out of here, let me out, my heart's
bothering me, let me out! (Teacher shakes head, pats the table
Teacher: You see, he's hollering. Hear that? Gee, I don't
Experimenter: The experiment requires...
Teacher (interrupting): I know it does, sir, but I
mean--huuh! He don't know what he's getting in for. He's up to
195 volts! (Experiment continues through 210 volts, 225 volts,
240 volts, 255 volts, 270 volts, delivered to the man in the
electric chair, at which point the teacher, with evident relief,
runs out of the word-pair questions.)
Experimenter: You'll have to go back to the beginning of
that page and go through them again until he's learned them all
Teacher: Aw, no. I'm not going to kill that man. You mean
I've got to keep going up with the scale. No, sir. He's
hollering in there. I'm not going to give him 450 volts.
Experimenter: The experiment requires that you go on.
Teacher: I know it does, but that man is hollering in there,
Experimenter (same matter-of-fact tone): As I said before,
although the shocks may be painful...
Teacher (interrupting): Awwww. He--he--he's yelling in
Experimenter: Start with "Blue," please, at the top of the
page. Continue, please, Teacher. Just go ahead.
Teacher (concentrating intently on list of words in front of
him, as if to shut everything else out): "Blue--boy, girl, grass,
hat." (Buzz indicates answer.) Correct. "Night--day, sky, job,
chair." (Buzz) Wrong. The answer is "day." Two hundred and
eighty-five volts. (Zzumph!)
Experimenter: Continue, please.
Teacher: "Fat--man, lady, tub, neck." Answer, please.
(Buzz) Wrong. The answer is "neck." Three hundred volts.
Learner: Ohhh. I absolutely refuse to answer any more.
(Shouting urgently, now) Let me out of here. You can't hold me
here. Get me out. Get--me--out--of--here.
Experimenter: Continue. The next word is "green," please.
Teacher: "Green--grass, hat, ink, apple." (Nothing happens.
No answering buzz. Just gloomy silence.)
Teacher: I don't think he is going to answer.
Experimenter: If the learner doesn't answer in a reasonable
time, about four or five seconds, consider the answer wrong. And
follow the same procedures you have been doing for wrong answers.
Say "Wrong," tell him the number of volts, give him the
punishment, read him the correct answer. Continue, please.
Teacher: "Green--grass, hat, ink, apple." Answer, please.
(More silence. Teacher just sits there.)
Experimenter: Go on with the procedure, please, Teacher.
Teacher: Three hundred and fifteen volts. The answer is
Learner: Ohh. Ooohh.
Teacher (relieved to hear response): Next one....
Learner: I absolutely refuse to answer.
Teacher: You got to. You get a shock if you don't answer.
(Experiment continues with learner refusing to answer, and
finally, failing even to grunt or groan. At 375 volts, the
teacher stands up. Has he had enough? Will he break off the
experiment? Will he disobey?)
Teacher: I think something's happened to that fellow in
there. I don't get no answer. He was hollering at less voltage.
Can't you check in and see if he's all right, please?
Experimenter (same detached calm): Not once we've started.
Please continue, Teacher.
Teacher (sits down, sighs deeply): "Cool--day, shade, water,
paint." Answer, please. Are you all right in there? Are you
Experimenter: Please continue, Teacher. Continue, please.
(Teacher pushes lever. Zzumph!)
Teacher (swiveling around in his chair): Something's
happened to that man in there. (Swiveling back) Next one.
"Low--dollar, necklace, moon, paint." (Turning around again)
Something's happened to that man in there. You better check in
on him, sir. He won't answer or nothing.
Experimenter: Continue. Go on, please.
Teacher: You accept all responsibility.
Experimenter: The responsibility is mine. Correct. Please
go on. (Teacher returns to his list, starts running through
words as rapidly as he can read them, works through to 450
Teacher: That's that.
Experimenter: Continue using the last switch on the board,
please. The 450 switch for each wrong answer. Continue please.
Teacher: But I don't get no anything!
Experimenter: Please continue. The next word is "white."
Teacher: Don't you think you should look in on him, please.
Experimenter: Not once we've started the experiment.
Teacher: But what if something has happened to the man?
Experimenter: The experiment requires that you continue. Go
Teacher: Don't the man's health mean anything?
Experimenter: Whether the learner likes it or not...
Teacher: What if he's dead in there? (Gestures toward the
room with the electric chair.) I mean, he told me he can't stand
the shock, sir. I don't mean to be rude, but I think you should
look in on him. All you have to do is look in the door. I don't
get no answer, no noise. Something might have happened to the
gentleman in there, sir.
Experimenter: We must continue. Go on, please.
Teacher: You mean keep giving him what? Four hundred fifty
volts, what he's got now?
Experimenter: That's correct. Continue. The next word is
Teacher (now at a furious pace): "White--cloud, horse, rock,
house." Answer please. The answer is "horse." Four hundred and
fifty volts. (Zzumph!) Next word, "Bag--paint, music, clown,
girl." The answer is "paint." Four hundred and fifty volts.
(Zzumph!) Next work is "Short--sentence, movie..."
Experimenter: Excuse me, Teacher. We'll have to discontinue
(Enter Milgram from camera's left. He has been watching from
behind on-way glass.)
Milgram: I'd like to ask you a few questions. (Slowly,
patiently, he dehoaxes the teacher, telling him that the shocks
and screams were not real.)
Teacher: You mean he wasn't getting nothing? Well, I'm glad
to hear that. I was getting upset there. I was getting ready to
(Finally, to make sure there are no hard feelings, friendly,
harmless Mr. Wallace comes out in coat and tie. Gives jovial
greeting. Friendly reconciliation takes place. Experiment
Subjects in the experiment were not asked to give the 450-
volt shock more than three times. By that time, it seemed
evident that they would go on indefinitely. "No one," says
Milgram, "who got within five shocks of the end ever broke off.
By that point, he has resolved the conflict."
Why do so many people resolve the conflict in favor of
Milgram's theory assumes that people behave in two different
operating modes as different as ice and water. He does not rely
on Freud or sex or toilet-training hang-ups for this theory. All
he says is that ordinarily we operate in a state of autonomy,
which means we pretty much have and assert control over what we
do. But in certain circumstances, we operate under what Milgram
calls a state of agency (after agent, n... one who acts for or in
the place of another by authority from him; a substitute; a
deputy.--Webster's Collegiate Dictionary). A state of agency,
to Milgram, is nothing more than a frame of mind.
"There's nothing bad about it, there's nothing good about
it," he says. "It's a natural circumstance of living with other
people. I think of a state of agency as a real transformation of
a person; if a person has different properties when he's in that
state, just as water can turn to ice under certain conditions of
temperature, a person can move to the state of mind that I call
agency--the critical thing is that you see yourself as the
instrument of the execution of another person's wishes. You do
not see yourself as acting on your own. And there's a real
transformation, a real change of properties of the person."
To achieve this change you have to be in a situation where
there seems to be a ruling authority whose commands are relevant
to some legitimate purpose; the authority's power is not
But situations can be and have been structured to make
people do unusual things, and not just in Milgram's laboratory.
The reason, says Milgram, is that no action, in and of itself,
"The meaning always depends on your definition of the
situation. Take an action like killing another person. It
"But then we say the other person was about to destroy a
hundred children, and the only way to stop him was to kill him.
Well, that sounds good.
"Or, you take destroying your own life. It sounds very bad.
Yet, in the Second World War, thousands of persons thought it was
a good thing to destroy your own life. It was set in the proper
context. You sipped some saki from a whistling cup, recited a
few haiku. You said, 'May my death be as clean and as quick as
the shattering of crystal.' And it almost seemed like a good,
noble thing to do, to crash your kamikaze plane into an aircraft
carrier. But the main thing was, the definition of what a
kamikaze pilot was doing had been determined by the relevant
authority. Now once you are in a state of agency, you allow the
authority to determine, to define what the situation is. The
meaning of your action is altered."
So for most subjects in Milgrim's laboratory experiments,
the act of giving Mr. Wallace his painful shock was necessary,
even though unpleasant, and besides they were doing it on behalf
of somebody else and it was for science. There was still strain
and conflict, of course. Most people resolved it by grimly
sticking to their task and obeying. But some broke out. Milgram
tried varying the conditions of the experiment to see what would
help break people out of their state of agency.
"The results, as seen and felt in the laboratory," he has
written, "are 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 limitation of conscience, so long as they perceive
that the command comes from a legitimate authority. If, in this
study, an anonymous experimenter can successfully command adults
to subdue a 50-year-old man and force on him painful electric
shocks against his protest, one can only wonder what government,
with its vastly greater authority and prestige, can command of
This is a nice statement, but it falls short of summing up
the full meaning of Milgram's work. It leaves some questions
The first question is this: Should we really be surprised
and alarmed that people obey? Wouldn't it be even more alarming
if they all refused to obey? Without obedience to a relevant
ruling authority there could not be a civil society. An without
a civil society, as Thomas Hobbes pointed out in the seventeenth
century, we would live in a condition of war, "of every man
against every other man," and life would be "solitary, poor,
nasty, brutish and short."
In the middle of one of Stanley Milgram's lectures at CUNY
recently, some miniskirted undergraduates started whispering and
giggling in the back of the room. He told them to cut it out.
Since he was the relevant authority in that time and that place,
they obeyed, and most people in the room were glad that they had
This was not, of course, a conflict situation. Nothing in
the coeds' social upbringing made it a matter of conscience for
them to whisper and giggle. But a case can be made that in a
conflict situation it is all the more important to obey. Take
the case of war, for example. Would we really want a situation
in which every participant in a war, direct or indirect--from
front-line soldiers to the people who sell coffee and cigarettes
to employees at the Concertina barbed-wire factory in
Kansas--stops and consults his conscience before each action? It
is asking for an awful lot of mental strain and anguish from an
awful lot of people. The value of having civil order is that one
can do his duty, or whatever interests him, or whatever seems to
benefit him at the moment, and leave the agonizing to others.
When Francis Gary Powers was being tried by a Soviet military
tribunal after his U-2 spy plane was shot down, the presiding
judge asked if he had thought about the possibility that his
flight might have provoked a war. Powers replied with Hobbesian
clarity: "The people who sent me should think of these things.
My job was to carry out orders. I do not think it was my
responsibility to make such decisions."
It was not his responsibility. And it is quite possible
that if everyone felt responsible for each of the ultimate
consequences of his own tiny contribution to complex chains of
events, then society simply would not work. Milgram, fully
conscious of the moral and social implications of his research,
believes that people should feel responsible for their actions.
If someone else had invented the experiment, and if he had been
the naive subject, he feels certain that he would have been among
the disobedient minority.
"There is no very good solution to this," he admits,
thoughtfully. "To simply and categorically say that you won't
obey authority may resolve your personal conflict, but it creates
more problems for society which may be more serious in the long
run. But I have no doubt that to disobey is the proper thing to
do in this [the laboratory] situation. It is the only reasonable
value judgment to make."
The conflict between the need to obey the relevant ruling
authority and the need to follow your conscience becomes sharpest
if you insist on living by an ethical system based on a rigid
code--a code that seeks to answer all questions in advance of
their being raised. Code ethics cannot solve the obedience
problem. Stanley Milgram seems to be a situation ethicist, and
situation ethics does offer a way out: When you feel conflict,
you examine the situation and then make a choice among the
competing evils. You may act with a presumption in favor of
obedience, but reserve the possibility that you will disobey
whenever obedience demands a flagrant and outrageous affront to
conscience. This, by the way, is the philosophical position of
many who resist the draft. In World War II, they would have
fought. Vietnam is a different, an outrageously different,
Life can be difficult for the situation ethicist, because he
does not see the world in straight lines, while the social system
too often assumes such a God-given, squared-off structure. If
your moral code includes an injunction against all war, you may
be deferred as a conscientious objector. If you merely oppose
this particular war, you may not be deferred.
Stanley Milgram has his problems, too. He believes that
in the laboratory situation, he would not have shocked Mr.
Wallace. His professional critics reply that in his real-life
situation he has done the equivalent. he has placed innocent and
naive subjects under great emotional strain and pressure in
selfish obedience to his quest for knowledge. When you raise
this issue with Milgram, he has an answer ready. There is, he
explains patiently, a critical difference between his naive
subjects and the man in the electric chair. The man in the
electric chair (in the mind of the naive subject) is helpless,
strapped in. But the naive subject is free to go at any time.
Immediately after he offers this distinction, Milgram
anticipates the objection.
"It's quite true," he says, "that this is almost a
philosophic position, because we have learned that some people
are psychologically incapable of disengaging themselves. But
that doesn't relieve them of the moral responsibility."
The parallel is exquisite. "The tension problem was
unexpected," says Milgram in his defense. But he went on anyway.
The naive subjects didn't expect the screaming protests from the
strapped-in learner. But they went on.
"I had to make a judgment," says Milgram. "I had to ask
myself, was this harming the person or not? My judgment is that
it was not. Even in the extreme cases, I wouldn't say that
permanent damage results."
Sound familiar? "The shocks may be painful," the
experimenter kept saying, "but they're not dangerous."
After the series of experiments was completed, Milgram sent
a report of the results to his subjects and a questionnaire,
asking whether they were glad or sorry to have been in the
experiment. Eighty-three and seven-tenths percent said they were
glad and only 1.3 percent were sorry; 15 percent were neither
sorry nor glad. However, Milgram could not be sure at the time
of the experiment that only 1.3 percent would be sorry.
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., put one paragraph in the preface to
Mother Night, in 1966, which pretty much says it for the people
with their fingers on the shock-generator switches, for you and
me, and maybe even for Milgram. "If I'd been born in Germany,"
Vonnegut said, "I suppose I would have been a Nazi, bopping Jews
and gypsies and Poles around, leaving boots sticking out of
snowbanks, warming myself with my sweetly virtuous insides. So
Just so. One thing happened to Milgram back in New Haven
during the days of the experiment was that he kept running into
people he'd watched from behind the one-way glass. It gave him a
funny feeling, seeing those people going about their everyday
business in New Haven and knowing what they would do to Mr.
Wallace if ordered to. Now that his research results are in and
you've thought about it, you can get this funny feeling too. You
don't need one-way glass. A glance in your own mirror may serve
just as well.
"If Hitler Asked You to Electrocute a Stranger, Would You?
Probably" by Philip Meyer, from Esquire magazine. Copyright 1970
by Esquire, Inc.