Resisting evil: Part 2

In Part 1 of this blog, I described the famous Milgram experiment that revealed the tendency of humans to obey authority, even when that obedience led to inflicting intense pain on others. The reactions to this apparently dour news ranged from hopeful denial (“It’s not true.”) to morbid acceptance (“Well, that’s human nature.”) None of the comments — at least none that I have seen — spotted the bright side.

There’s a bright side?

Yes, and here it is. If you are aware of this unfortunate human tendency, you can choose to disobey it.  This is immediately obvious if you imagine yourself a volunteer in a Milgram-like experiment, one in which the student is really being shocked. Now think. Knowing what you know now, would you obey the scientist and continue to increase the shocks?

I assume the answer is “no.”

Or imagine yourself as a prison guard, part of an army occupying a country whose customs and language are foreign and frightening to you. Would you you mistreat the prisoners? Would you be willing to torture them? Lots of soldiers under the Nazi regime seemed to have no problem. More recently, American guards at the Abu Ghraib prison  in Iraq happily abused prisoners.

But knowledge of the Milgram experiment gives you a choice. Admittedly this is possibly a hard choice if you are threatened when you refuse to play along, but at least you realize that you have the freedom to disobey. You do not have to follow your compulsion to obey.

So by revealing our tendency to obey authority, Milgram did us a favour — he  gave us choice.



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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