Man, since the beginning of the Age of Reason, has continued to consider himself above the rest of all creatures and in fact apart from them because of one thing: the capability to reason. That all men were born with an innate capability to make truthful judgments. Though this has been argued by many philosophers, psychologists and sociologists alike, the fundamental problem lies in how human action is justified, given a set of prescribed principles. These principles can vary from ethical and moral considerations to religious, political and professional considerations.
However, there’s no denying that whatever our actions maybe, they cannot escape the connection and interaction with fellow human beings, a phenomenon which this paper seeks to unravel by looking at how other people can influence our decisions and actions and further answer questions like ; are we really capable of giving our opinion even amidst opposing pressure? Are we able to take action that is equal to the way we feel or reason out things? Though it sounds implausible, a civilized human being who obeys the laws of the land could just be as culpable as a cynical criminal.
“Perhaps the most fundamental lesson of our study [is that] ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. ” Obedience and conscience, which is supreme? Milgram (1973) begins his argument with the statement that a social psychologist’s experiment showed … ” that most people will hurt their fellows rather than disobey authority. ” This is a strong statement that suggests that human beings would perform any action imaginable as long as they are able to put their conscience at ease.
The process of subjugating the conscience happens when authority figures are introduced. He further explains how legal, philosophical and psychological outlooks stress the significance of individual conscience and (dis)obedience; they fail to give a clear account of what actually happens when “people behave in concrete situations” The experiment conducted to show how people would behave when faced with a difficult situation of choosing between what they thought was right and disobeying the authority. In the teacher-learner experiment, the teacher is actually the subject of the experiment.
The teacher taking instructions from the experimenter (authority) is supposed to read allowed a list of paired words which the learner (who is actually an actor in the experiment) is supposed to give correct answers to each of the questions asked, failure to which according to the arrangement, the teacher is supposed to administer shocks that range from 15-450 volts. The teacher (subject) is first made to have faith in the authenticity of the instruments of punishment by testing (here real voltage is used) and the also why the experiment cannot be interrupted till the end.
The teacher is therefore required to read the words aloud to the learner and wait for the correct answer which when not given, should be punished by administering shocks to the learner by pressing a designated button. The shocks level rise as the learner begs for mercy. The experimenter is there acting like a commander giving orders which the teacher must obey. In this situation, Milgram is able to show how the mind, faced with a dilemma, will give in to authority than to help another human being.
In fact in this situation, the teacher is not just a by-stander but the one who is, in the physical sense, responsible for every action that he takes. As the experiment progresses, it becomes increasingly hard for the teacher to perform his duties because his conscience interferes with the commanding authority. In this confusion, the teacher struggles to “… make a clear break with authority” but he is prompted and reminded of his obligation and forced to continue administering punishment, which he does.
Milgram shows how when the man is faced with an ethical (or other) dilemma; the conscience naturally raises doubt and seeks out what is morally acceptable. However, when the experimenter insists, being an authority figure, the teacher is able to continue with the experiment. Ethical considerations, actions and responsibility The ethical responsibility and psychological responsibility are pitied against each other. Here there seems to develop a clear demarcation between the two though critically the two are flip sides of each other.
When the teacher is administering the punishments (shocks), at the beginning he is fully aware that he is in complete control of a process that is being overseen by someone in authority though when things start to move a notch higher and the learner is screaming for mercy, he begins to hesitate. This doubt brings him to the reality that every single human being does like to face; that in performing your duties you are causing harm to someone. The choice to let go is tempting but the fear of disobeying authority is even greater.
Is morality valid without responsibility? Today this classic argument is still used in practicing law where a criminal is has a case to answer once it is established that he/she has a culpable mind. Milgran also using Arendt in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem explains how the man who was considered brutal and inhuman for presiding over deaths of millions of people in detention camps, is actually not responsible for those deaths because he was only performing his duties like any one of us.
Looking at this analogy between the experiment and Eichmann, it is would appear that Eichmann was not guilty of the crimes as much as the teacher is of simply following instructions by the experimenter. Like the teacher, Eichmann was also following instructions from an authority figure. It therefore makes perfect sense when Milgram deduces that an “… ordinary person who shocked the victim did so out of a sense of obligation…and not from any peculiarly aggressive tendencies. ” The sense of obligation seems to be the one that weighs heaviest when it comes to our conscience.
He further explains how obedience is first a psychological action which occurs when “…. a person comes to view himself as the instrument for carrying out another person’s wishes, and he therefore no longer regards himself as responsible for his actions. “ The aftermath is a simple chain of physical events which are performed with less regard to how far the consequences may reach. However, morality does not disappear but merely takes another form such as shame or pride depending on how one feels they performed to the satisfy the authority..
The reverse of this experiment when performed without the authority figure physically present but communicating through the phone, the teacher feels less compelled to finish the experiment and his compassion for the learner leads him to halt the experiment and completely disregard the authority. In other variations, when the authority figure is the one pushing the buttons while the teacher only reads, the teacher is shown to be much more likely to continue with the experiment to the end.
Therefore other aspects such as the physical presence of the authority also help to compel someone to act contrary to his conscience, a sad realization that social problems are a child of an” organized modern society. ” Does opinion matter? In comparison, Asch (1987) looks at how opinions yield to social pressure. He explains how our attitudes change after being exposed to certain conditions or views that are averse to our own and the resulting actions.
The experiment, designed to check how people react to pressure to conform to the society revealed that many people easily cower when faced with a situation where the majority seem to be on one side and they on the other side. He shows how social forces limit the expression of freedom of choice and alters personal opinions. In the experiment, the subject is given a set of cards showing some straight lines in which he is supposed to identify one that is identical in height with another. Two other subjects (actors) are given a similar set of cards with the same lines and asked to identify the lines identical.
In the cards, only one line identical to the other. The subject is able to easily identify the line, something which many people can do. However, when the two actors deliberately start to disagree with the subject, the confidence of the subject is shaken because the wrong majority is against him. This demonstrates how in similar situations people, even though they know the truth, will doubt themselves and go with the opinion of a the majority to avoid embarrassment . Today public opinion is said to a matter of consensus but the underlying blocks are usually based on the grounds of the “suggestibility” method.
The suggestion demonstration that was popular with the 19th century scientists, Asch explains, evolved from the French physician Jean Martin Charcot who taught renowned scientists such as Sigmund Freud. The experiment psychologically detaches the subject from the group when the majority suddenly takes a different opinion. The subject, left with two options;” could act independently, repudiating the majority, or could go along with the majority, repudiating the evidence of his senses”.
Out of the people who were put to test, many yielded to the pressure from the majority who were wrong. Is freedom relative or is it a choice? Asch, explains further how in normal conditions people make less mistakes, while “…. under group pressure the minority subjects “… shifted their support to the majority which had wrong judgment. He also revealed the extremes cases where some of the “…subjects were completely independent and never agreed with the erroneous view of the majority. On the other hand, some of the people usually go with the majority all the time.
Those who demonstrate a level of independence in most cases do not give in to the power of the majority while the others who choose to go with the majority are often imprisoned in following them to the end. Many stood their ground because they felt confident of their own judgment. However the some resist the pressure to conform not because they think they are right but only because they valued consistency. Asch reveals that the more the size of the majority, the easier it is for an individual to get swayed though this was only up to a point.
It is important for the subject to recover from the doubt and re-establish their own independence. Support from another individual, against the majority, revealed that the majority group lost most of its power and confidence. A person feels confident when backed by someone else as opposed to being alone. This feeling, however, quickly diminishes once the parson leaves or withdraws his support. Interestingly, the individual is able to weather the opposition from the majority better when the support person switches sides, than when they actually leave completely.
The independence of the majority is usually seen when they are challenged with a simple minority doubt is created in the majority who finally gain some independence by either breaking away from the group, or become dissenters. Asch shows how we succumb to pressure from the society given the different conditions discussed, though he warns that a lot still needs to be investigated such as personality and character which might influence our freedom of action.
He reiterates the importance of independence as opposed to simply following the majority, something which is common with youth. References Milgram, Stanley: The Perils of Obedience Harper’s Magazine, December 1973 http://lniland. com/AP%20Psych%20Documents/Ch%2013%20- 0Milgram%20Study. pdf [Accessed 7th April 2009] Asch, E. Solomon opinions and social pressure, 1987 http://cooley. libarts. wsu. edu/soc522/Asch%20Experiments. pdf [accessed 7th April 2009]
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