18 September 2009

What is the price of your freedom?

What would you do for £1 million? Would you bully someone, or cheat them? Hurt them a little? Hurt them a lot? Would you kill them? If you were out of the room, and administering pain by remote control, would that make it easier? Were you to look into their eyes while you were injuring them, would that make it harder? What would you do for £100,000? Or £10,000? Or £1,000? What would you do just because someone in authority told you to? How much does your personal morality cost? What is the price of your freedom?

A reminder of how far people will go was published for the first time in this country in October. The great and terrifying study of obedience by the American sociologist Stanley Milgram, whose experiments in the early Sixties look back to Nazi Germany and forward to today, tomorrow, horribly always. Milgram's Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View (published by Pinter and Martin at £12.99) is an explanation of history and a continuing metaphor for human behaviour. It all too clearly answers the question: what would you do, not for £1m, but simply because you were told to?

C.P. Snow wrote that 'more hideous crimes have been committed in the name of obedience than have ever been committed in the name of rebellion'. Looking back at the war, Milgram also felt that: 'The person who with inner conviction loathes stealing, killing and assault may find himself performing these acts with relative ease when commanded to by authority'. He wanted to see how an individual conscience fitted into a structure of authority, and devised a stunning series of experiments that would not be deemed ethical today, yet which hold a mirror up to our ethical dilemmas in a way few other experiments have ever managed to do.

Milgram advertised in a local university for subjects to take part in an experiment at Yale. In spite of being offered only $4, hundreds of people (postmen, professors, salesmen, housewives, students) responded. On arriving at the laboratory, they were told that they were to take part in a study investigating the effects of punishment on learning. In fact, they were the subjects of a very different experiment. Each subject was introduced to a stooge, and told that one of them would be asked to teach the other a simple task. They both pulled lots from a box containing two slips of paper. 'Teacher' was written on both slips, so that the volunteer wrongly believed he had been only randomly assigned the teaching role. The experiment was, apparently, to test whether the 'pupil' - who was, in fact, a carefully trained actor - could learn to associate one word with another. The teacher had to administer electric shocks when the pupil failed to perform the task correctly (which, of course, he regularly did). An 'experimenter' - the figure of recognised authority, the scientist - stood by and instructed the teacher.

The pupil-actor, watched by the teacher, was strapped into a chair in order to prevent him from moving when shocks were administered. The teacher could give shocks ranging from mild (15 volts) to the most severe (labeled as 450, intense and dangerous). The teacher-subject was instructed to give a shock every time the pupil made a mistake, and to increase the shock level by level, moving up to the possibly fatal 450 volts. If he demurred, the experimenter had a set number of phrases to utter in order to persuade him: 'Continue, please.' 'The experiment requires that you go on.' Etc. If the teacher still refused, the experiment would be halted. Of course, no shocks were actually delivered; it was all a surrealist charade, a grim theatrical jest.

But the results were astonishing and horrifying. The pupil-actor protested verbally at the low level of volts, cried out in pain as the shock was increased, whimpered and howled as it moved to the 150 level; desperately appealed to be let out of the chair; shrieked with unendurable pain and, at 330 volts, slumped in the chair and did not respond further. During the first series of experiments, there were 40 volunteers, all male. None of them refused to administer shock treatment. A horrifying 26 went all the way, sending intense and possibly fatal shocks into the apparently comatose body of the pupil. The rest also went to high levels, apparently causing severe pain and distress. The experiment was repeated with variations by Milgram, and then tied in other universities in other countries, and the results were always about the same. When women volunteers were used instead of men, it made little or no difference. Social class, age and culture made no difference either. Most people did what they were told to do.

In his account, Milgram describes different responses: some of the volunteers were distressed and hesitant about performing the task, but did it on the prodding of the authority; others performed the task with alacrity, their faces impassive. Some giggled and were embarrassed. Some even became annoyed with the pupil and seemed to think that they 'deserved' the shock if they could not perform the task. Almost all of Milgram's unfortunate, deluded volunteers are 'obedient subjects'. This, says Milgram - who had thought a tiny percentage would go all the way - is terrifying.

Everyone who hears the account of Milgram's experiments agrees that disobedience is the correct course in this particular case; people who have not taken part in the study assume that of course they would refuse. Not so, responds Milgram: internal values seem to have little correlation with actual behaviour. In his book, Milgram tries to untangle the reasons for our murderous inclination towards obedience to authority, no matter what is required of us.

We are necessarily, bred into obedience the moment we are born. How else does a society operate? Obedience becomes part of our make-up, an acquired instinct. Politeness and embarrassment are important factors (Milgram elsewhere has done work on the power of social embarrassment), as is the unwillingness to let someone down. The absorption in the technical aspects of the task makes us lose our sense of what we are doing (we will think about pushing a button, rather than what pushing a button will do). We easily fool ourselves that we are not to blame - divesting ourselves of our authority and attributing it to a legitimate authority, so that we become a simple agent: 'I was just doing my job; I just did what I was told...' We try to live up to the expectations that the person in authority has of us, and not disappointing that person becomes our moral focus. We allow 'The Experiment' to take on an impersonal momentum of its own, divorced from human control. We devalue and dehumanise the victim (a sense of guilt about someone does not make us feel kinder towards them; rather it makes us dislike them or be repulsed by them).
There is, says Milgram finally, the presumption that we are, mostly, decent individuals who will behave properly unless coerced. This is wrong. 'With alarming regularity, good people ... performed acts that were callous and severe.'

'Tyrannies,' he concludes sombrely, are perpetuated by diffident men who do not possess the courage to act out their beliefs.' He is not talking about the monster inside us all; he is talking about the human instinct for compliance, obedience, group action, the need for an instructing authority; about our fragile consciences and the indomitable outside forces.