Resisting evil: Part 1

Early in the morning of June 1, 1962, in the Israeli town of Ramla, prison officials executed Adolf Eichmann. It had been just over two years since Israeli agents had kidnapped the war criminal and smuggled him from Argentina to Israel, where he had stood trial for his part in sending thousands of Jews to their deaths during the Nazi regime in Germany. And one of the striking characteristics of that trial was Eichmann’s defence. Far from desperately trying to distance himself from his part in the mass slaughter, Eichmann presented himself as a powerless bureaucrat who was merely a cog in a greater machine. It was his placidity that led author and social critic Hannah Arendt to coin the phrase “the banality of evil”.

While Eichmann was awaiting execution, Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram was designing an experiment that cut right to the heart of Eichmann’s actions. You may have heard of Milgram’s studies of obedience, but in case you haven’t or in case you have the details wrong, here is how it went.

A male staff member posing as chief investigator informs the subject, along with another subject (who is in fact a collaborator), that the purpose of the test is to estimate the effectiveness of punishment on learning. The investigator then explains that one of the pair of subjects will be assigned the role of of teacher, the other the role  of student. The student is to learn a list of word associations; the teacher will administer an electrical shock to punish the student if s/he fails to recall the correct association. By an (apparently) random process, the real subject is then assigned the teacher role and the collaborator the student role. The “student” is then sealed in a separate room, strapped in a chair wearing an arm band that would carry the electric shock. The teacher can hear, but not see the “student”.  Meanwhile the teacher learns the controls that will determine the strength of the shock.

To begin with, the student does well, but as the test becomes harder, s/he gets more items wrong. The investigator insists that the teacher increase the shock, the more the student gives the wrong answers. Soon, the student begins to complain. The teacher hesitates, but the investigator insists he increase the shocks. Then the complaints turn to screams. Still the investigator demands an increase in the strength of the shock. The teacher reluctantly  obeys. Increases in shock are eventually met by silence. Has the student fainted from pain? The investigator states that the rules of the experiment state that the shocks be administered until the maximum level is reached. The teacher is now in a quandary. Should he obey or resist?

Before he launched the experiment, Milgram described the experiment to his students and fellow faculty members and asked them to estimate the percentage of “teachers” who would continue the shocks to the maximum voltage. The students and professors guessed that fewer than five percent would allow this level of punishment.

They were wrong. Most of the teachers (26 out of 40 in the original experiment) obeyed and went all the way. Many of the others tolerated the screams before resisting. You can read the results in detail by following this link — Milgram experiment  — or googling the phrase.

(It might be needless to say — but I will say it anyway — that the “student” never actually got shocked. He just put on a good act.)

That’s rather a long introduction (570 words) to my main point. What should be our reaction to the Milgram experiment?

You can read some of the reactions of more modern university students (who in 2000 were shown a film of the experiment) here. So far as I can see, the students reported the following emotions.

  • Embarrassment. The first few shocks were greeted with nervous laughter, laughter that tended to fade as the shocks got worse.
  • Denial. Some students averred that they would never have gone to the same lengths as the teachers. Others claimed that things have changed and that the experiment would get quite different results if done today. For example, “anc1626”  says, “People these days do not obey higher authorities as well as they used to and there would have been plenty of complaints about the experiment. I think its weird that they even decided to come up with that type of experiment and test people.”
  • Hope. Others merely hoped that they would never have administered extreme shocks.

None of the students seemed to have fallen into the trap of simply assigning the results to an ineluctable tendency of human beings to act in an evil way. Though I have heard such sentiments from religious people who cling to the belief that we are all evil at heart.

Another reaction, quite common among academics, was that the experiment itself was unethical: when informed about the real purpose of the experiment, many “teachers” had deep feelings of guilt and helplessness. This criticism, although it has merit, can be viewed as an avoidance.

But seeing the film Experimenter at the Vancouver International Film Festival recently led me to a quite different, and more optimistic, reaction. More tomorrow.


About aharmlessdrudge

Way back during the late Bronze age -- actually it was the 1950s -- all of us in high school had to take a vocational test to determine our interests and, supposedly, our future careers. I cannot remember the outcome, but I do recall one question that gave me pause. "If you were to win a Nobel prize, would it be in literature or in physics?" I hesitated over the question: although I enjoyed mathematics and science more than English class, I did have a couple of unfinished (and very bad) novels hidden away at home. I cannot remember what I chose back then, but the dilemma followed me to university, where I switched from mathematics to English and -- after a five-year stint in journalism -- back to mathematics. I recently retired as a professor of statistics. Retirement. What a good chance to revive my literary ambitions. I have finished a novel -- more about that in good time -- and a rubble of drafts of articles about mathematics and statistics is taking up space on my hard disk.
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