Obedience to Authority
Chaos would be the order of the day, if our society’s level of obedience to the authority was based on willingness and personal opinions. Disorder and every day mayhem would lead to the destruction of our society. Therefore, through well-structured government departments, order has been established which has been led to the creation of civilized societies. However, obedience to authority has been questioned due to extreme cases that have involved individuals in authority abusing their power through issuing orders that have led to the harm of other citizens. A critical analysis of the four experiments studied have without doubt changed my views on the power of the human common sense which has proven to be rather weak in some situations. The human nature has been revealed to be one that can be easily altered by situations and conditions surrounding an individual. It is unbelievable how people are made to obey brutal instructions which involve inflicting harm to another person in spite of prior knowledge on their health condition. These findings on the experiments are not only upsetting but have created a state of confusion on the knowledge I had on obedience, moral values, human conscience and ethics. However, I have no right to judge since I have never encountered a situation where I was instructed to perform an inhumane act against another person either by an authority figure, a relative, friend or a stranger. This leads us to the question of when one ought to obey or disobey an authority figure.
While growing up, obedience was instilled in us by our parents and teachers where punishment was a consequence for disobedience. This kind of obedience was however the kind where as a young person your parent gave you sensible instructions such as house hold chores you ought to undertake after school or moral values which were instilled through being informed of an action being right or wrong. However, the experiments conducted by various psychologist contradict all this knowledge. One of the most startling experiment was conducted by Milgram to study the degree individuals would obey a person in authority. It is surprising how the participants who played the teacher role would punish a ‘student’ through delivering shock waves after receiving the instruction from an authority figure. This implies that people tend to comply and obey instructions from a person with authority despite the nature of the instruction. As Doris Lenning argued that most people are likely to carry out orders regardless of how brutal the orders are. In the experiment a majority of the ‘teachers’ even had the audacity to deliver the maximum shock in spite of them knowing that the ‘student’ had a heart condition. This behaviour shows that obedience is not determined by one’s upbringing or state of mind on the situation at hand but rather by the person issuing instructions. As Milgram argued that the the problem of obedience is not psychological but out of an individual yielding to authority while at the same time alienating himself from his actions. True, to Milgram’s claims, we find many people defending their actions by merely stating they were only following orders.
A similar situation was found in the mock-prison experiments, where a number of students participated in the experiment with some playing the role of guards, while the others played the role of prisoners. The experimenter played the role of a superintendent though he did not actively participate and neither did he interfere with the actions of the guards. Surprisingly, the guards adopted to their roles quickly by employing intimidating tactics to instill a sense of fear and powerlessness to the prisoners. The tactics worked on the prisoners who would obey the guards to avoid punishment. Through their actions, the guards succeeded in making the prisoners accept their new identities, which the prison adopted to an extent of refusing parole since the idea of being a prisoner had been internalized in them. This experiment is also a case of individuals obeying superiors regardless of having knowledge that their superiors are students like them and that what they were taking part in was just an experiment. In this regard, people often choose whom to obey due to circumstances at hand. In this experiment, though the prisoners were aware that the guards were also students, the prisoners had no choice but to obey due to their isolation and powerless state.
The greatest dilemma inherent in obeying authority is whether one should or should not abide by the given orders in spite of them being wrong. In such a situation, an individual in most cases abides to the orders with the view that the person in authority will be responsible incase harm occurs. Ethics and morality however remains in the individual though their conscience seems blurred in such a situation due to the assurance given by the person in authority.
Such cases are rarely heard of in our current society unlike in the past. In our society today, the authorities would be taking risks if such cases came to the attention of the public since people have become more knowledgeable and aware of their rights. However, obedience to wrong orders are likely to happen in cases where a person in authority orders a criminal to harm another in exchange of concealing his crime. Our authority have displayed some qualities of being just through establishing systems that work towards protecting citizens and providing justice to people who have been wronged. Moreover, the authorities have established institutions that ensure the rights of individuals are upheld. As such, a just authority must display fairness to all people regardless of their gender, age and race. Additionally, a just authority must protect an individual not only form physical harm but also from psychological harm.
An authority figure that does not display just qualities is likely to use threats, power, intimidation and manipulation to achieve what they want. As revealed in the mock-prison case, people in authority are likely to misuse their power through using it to making others feel powerless. However, in spite of an authority figure making wrong orders, some individuals may have the ability to disobey. We all have different backgrounds that have impacted and built our personalities to whom we are now. These backgrounds include our upbringing, the schools we attended, the community we grew up in, our friends among others. Through our backgrounds, certain ethics, which include morals, beliefs and values were instilled in us which may affect an individual’s reaction to a wrong order. As Lessing states, there are people with original minds, who always take their own lines and never fall victim to the need of following wrong orders. These individuals have strong personalities and are deeply rooted to their morals. However, such kinds of people are very few. As such, a person’s ability to either comply or not to comply with certain orders depends on elements such as their inner state of mind, morals, confidence and ethics. However, the person in authority may also influence an individual of strong character through extreme threats such as weapons.
Disobedience is a real threat to social order. Our own society has been built through the principle of obedience to the rules and laws governing the land, in addition to those in authority. However, some requirements to the rule of obedience have gone to the extreme with some authority figures abusing their power through giving orders that are wrong. This has been revealed through various experiments conducted by psychologists, in an attempt to investigate the extent to which individuals would obey wrong orders such as orders requiring them to cause harm to others. Amazingly, most individuals complied with the wrong orders which brings us to the dilemma inherent to obedience. Though obedience has created our civilized society, I believe it is in order to state that obedience to wrong orders is unrealistic. Moreover, people in authority ought to utilize their power in the right manner, since as we all know, they are the servants of the people. However, their status seems to have changed since we appear to be their servants. Conclusively, authority is essential for the proper functioning of a society just as obedience is essential in creating social organization. However, though obedience to authority is a duty to every citizen, an individual is justified to disobey wrong orders likely to cause harm to others.