Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Authority Problem

Hi sweeties! Pretty Lady has not, you will be pleased to know, immolated herself upon the pyre of her darling Alpha Cat. She has a sense, rather, that the spirit of the Alpha has integrated within her being for all eternity--his serenity, his poise, his generosity of spirit, his ability to box lesser creatures into submission with nonchalant ease. Lesser creatures, beware of Pretty Lady.

No, whilst jetting thither and yon, Pretty Lady has been loitering with her Gentleman Friend amongst the shocking works of Stanley Milgram. And she is here to tell you a painful truth: the vast majority of persons who believe themselves Moral are Just Following Orders.

Milgram summed up his findings in relation to the main experiment in "The Perils of Obedience" (1974):-

"The legal and philosophic aspects of obedience are of enormous import, but they say very little about how most people behave in concrete situations. I set up a simple experiment at Yale University to test how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to by an experimental scientist. Stark authority was pitted against the subjects' strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects' ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not. The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation."
Pretty Lady asks you.
First, despite his numerous, agitated objections, his continuous and persistent dissent, he continues to administer the shocks as ordered by the experimenter. There is, thus, a dissociation between words and action. Second, by no stretch of the imagination can it be said that this man wanted to administer shocks to the learner. To the contrary, it was a painful act for him, one which came about because of his relationship to the experimenter. Third, we note that "responsibility" is an issue important to the subject, and it is only when the experimenter explicitly accepts responsibility that, after several seconds of hesitation, the subject is able to continue. Finally, the language employed by the participant is revealing. Despite the considerable tension of the situation, a tone of courtesy and deference is meticulously maintained. The subject's objections strike us as inordinately weak and inappropriate in view of the events in which he is immersed. He thinks he is killing someone, yet he uses the language of the tea table.

--'Obedience to Authority,' Stanley Milgram, HarperCollins, 1976, pp. 76-77.
Pretty Lady begs to differ. She has no personal objection to using the language of the tea table in dire situations; however the phrase she prefers is, "No, sir, I am sorry, but I cannot in good conscience carry out your orders." How difficult is that?

Evidently, for the vast majority of persons, it is well-nigh impossible. For the vast majority of persons, it appears, the Spirit of the Law is as nothing compared to the status of the lawmaker. And that is a very great pity.

Pretty Lady recalls, during the months preceding the late, unfortunate adventure of the current adminstration in attempting to 'democratize' the Middle East, receiving a great number of anti-war Internet petitions in her mailbox. Upon receipt of one such petition, addressed to the U.N., she had the temerity to reply with the information that: 1) Internet petitions carry no political clout, since the signatures are unverifiable; 2) the U.N. is an impotent and bureaucratic organization with an illustrious track record of gleefully permitting global acts of atrocity; 3) the address to which these petitions are sent is disconnected within an hour or so of receiving one; thus, signing an anti-war Internet petition is precisely the same as doing nothing at all.

Her friend replied, "Well, it's better than doing nothing at all."

Do any of Pretty Lady's friends believe her yet when she states that Better and Worse, and Good and Bad, have no moral authority as concepts, because they are relative? It quite shocked Pretty Lady, the way so many of her friends could not seem to see that impotent dissent is no dissent at all; that in the grand scheme of things, it does not matter if one small ego-self comes out Against The War. One either keeps pressing the button, or declines to do so. All else is trash.

Pretty Lady also begs to disagree with Mr. Milgram, when he states that persons who divest themselves of responsibility for atrocity, upon the say-so of an authority figure, are divesting themselves of ego. On the contrary--they are preserving the image of their ego-selves by dumping guilt onto another. A person who transcends his ego takes full responsibility for his actions, and submits to the Integral Standard of loving his brothers--all his brothers--as himself. Thus he categorically declines to torture them.


k said...

I remember this study very well.

Your last paragraph makes the one point that people miss. Over and over and over, they walk right by it.

Those who don't consider that distinction haven't even begun to understand the nature of morality.

Pretty Lady said...

Thank you, k, my transpersonal friend.

I was going to go into a long riff about legalistic quibbling being the opposite of morality, but my scribbling skills seem to have genuinely rusted over my vacation.

The Aardvark said...


I was just Following Orders!!!

Anonymous said...

I must ask: are you referring to ego in the Buddhist sense or in the Freudian sense? Your statement can be read either way with vastly differing results.

BTW, if ego = sense of self, then I must disagree with you. It is my understanding of who I truly am and my place in the universe as God's child that anchors my morality. In that sense my ego is what keeps me from submitting to immoral orders from authority.


Anonymous said...

Clarification: if you are using ego = atman, as my college philosophy teacher (erroneously in my opinion) did, then the Buddhist vs. Freudian use of ego leads to differing results.


Pretty Lady said...

are you referring to ego in the Buddhist sense or in the Freudian sense?

I have no use at all for that bastard Freud. He is a classic example of clinging to ego, in the non-atman, mystical sense (your philosophy professor was indeed an idiot. Ego =\ atman, at all, at all) in the sense that he doggedly continued to attach his self-identity to a ridiculous theory, in the face of overwhelming evidence of its ridiculousness. 'Penis envy' indeed. Hmph.

I am using 'ego,' as I said, in the mystical sense, as in 'the illusion that one's identity is separate from, and in competition with, the whole.' The Buddhist notion of 'atman' defines the True Self, or soul, as unified with the whole, and is thus the opposite of ego.

Your sense of self as a child of God is precisely what I am talking about, as a non-egoic perspective. People who truly understand their nature as children of God have no need to identify themselves with human authority, in opposition to other children of God.

Pretty Lady said...

P.S. The Course in Miracles defines 'ego' as the false, separate sense of self which imagines it is in competition with God.

Chris Rywalt said...

Robert Anton Wilson, as you might imagine, was very fond of referring to the Milgram experiment. Also he liked the results of the Stanford Prison Experiment, carried out a round the same time as Milgram's work (and headed by a high school classmate of Milgram's).

Wilson's conclusions are somewhat different from yours, though. Rather than being somewhat confused and horrified at how difficult most people find disobedience, he found it quite natural and understandable. More importantly, he recognized -- which you, Pretty Lady, apparently do not -- the potential within himself -- within all of us humans -- to do the same.

To me, too, that's the most important lesson of the Milgram and Stanford Prison experiments: Almost everyone, given the chance, would be a concentration camp guard. Maybe we all wouldn't be the most sadistic guard at Treblinka; but neither would most of us be the most compassionate, either.

A small example from my own life. I believe, and will quite passionately argue (with very little provocation), that the so-called security routine Americans submit to when traveling by airplane is not only not helpful but actively harmful. I believe that the humiliation of taking off our shoes and belts, and forcing people to carry liquids in quart-sized (not gallon or pint) clear plastic bags, is at least a waste of effort and at most designed to soften American citizens up for the next assault on privacy and freedom.

I further believe -- cribbing again from Robert Anton Wilson -- that the only truly inalienable human right is the right to say no and take the consequences. I believe that the only way to stop the nonsense of so-called airport security is for us, the people, to stand up and say no. To refuse to submit to it.

I almost never take an airplane anyway, so this is an easy stand for me to make. Except just last week my wife and I traveled to Las Vegas so she could receive a prestigious award. I agonized over how I would handle the security issue. And when the time finally came...I took off my shoes. Because...

Because. I can invent a lot of reasons. But, ultimately, there are always reasons. The human brain is absolutely unparalleled in inventing reasons for the things it does. Why sit idly by as your Jewish neighbors are arrested and sent away in cattle cars? Why administer deadly electric shocks on the orders of a man in a white coat? Why pile up naked prisoners and take a picture? Why take off your shoes at an airport checkpoint?

To me, enlightenment -- wisdom, whatever you choose to call it -- is understanding, truly understanding, that you yourself are not above this. Yes, there are always times and places where some individuals find the courage to stand up, and we'd all like to hope that we'd be like those people. But that's just hope.

It's the hope that keeps me going, but that's all it is: Hope.