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5 July 1999

Just do what the pilot tells you

Some people think a determined opposition to authority is principled and romantic. Theodore Dalrympl

By Theodore Dalrymple

It is a quarter of a century since the psychologist Stanley Milgram published his masterpiece, Obedience to Authority. It is one of the few books of academic psychological research that can be read with as much pleasure as a novel and which suggest almost as much about the human condition as great literature. Only someone who had no interest whatever in the genocidal upheavals of our century could fail to be gripped, and horrified, by it.

Milgram asked ordinary people to come to the psychology laboratories of Yale University to take part in an experiment to determine the effects of punishment on learning. The subjects were told to deliver electric shocks of increasing severity, from 15 to 450 volts, whenever a man who was supposed to learn pairs of words made a mistake. In fact the man was an actor who received no shocks at all, but who simply acted as if he had.

Milgram discovered that about two-thirds of his subjects (who were probably representative of the population as a whole) were quite prepared to give a complete stranger electric shocks that they believed to be painful, dangerous and even possibly fatal, despite the stranger’s screams of protest, simply because they were told by someone apparently in authority – the psychologist overseeing the experiment – that the test had to go on.

By a series of clever manipulations, Milgram proved that it was obedience to authority that led people to behave in this fashion, rather than, say, the unleashing of a latent sadistic urge to inflict pain on people. Although Milgram was restrained in his discussion of the significance of his findings, he nevertheless suggested that they helped to explain how, in certain circumstances, even decent people might become torturers and killers.

It is not difficult to see how someone might draw anarchist or anti-authority conclusions from Milgram’s horrifying experimental results. Indeed the title alone sometimes seems to produce this effect. As I was re-reading it, after an interval of 20 years, on a plane to Dublin, the woman next to me – a social worker in a Dublin hospital – said: “I’ve always been against all authority.”

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“All?” I asked.

“All,” she replied. “We’ve suffered a lot in Ireland from the authority of the Catholic Church.”

“What about the pilot of this aircraft?” I asked. “I assume you would prefer him to continue to fly it, rather than, say, for me to take over, and that were I to attempt to do so, he should exert his authority over me as captain?”

She readily agreed that in this instance his authority was necessary, though only for a short time, and was legitimate because she had granted it to him. I pointed out that even the brief authority that she had been so kind as to bestow upon him actually depended upon a whole chain, or network, of other authority, such as licensing boards, medical examiners and so forth, upon whose competence, honesty and diligence she could not possibly pronounce. She was not against all authority, therefore: on the contrary, she trusted much of it implicitly, even blindly. And necessarily so in a complex, technologically advanced society.

But her initial response to the question of obedience to authority was far from unusual. She probably thought a blanket opposition to authority was a heroic moral stance, indeed the only possible decent attitude towards it. To oppose authority is always romantic and principled, to uphold it prosaic and cowardly.

Yet civilisation requires a delicate balance between stability and change. Neither mulish support for what exists simply because it already exists nor Bukharinite opposition to it for much the same reason is a sufficient guide to action. Disobedience to authority is not inherently more glorious than obedience. It rather depends on the nature of the orders given or the behaviour demanded. As Milgram himself wrote, “Some system of authority is a requirement of all communal living . . .”

The psychological advantage to a person of decrying authority altogether and of adopting a mental attitude of invariant opposition is that it allows him to think himself virtuous without having to engage with the necessary, messy compromises of real life.

Like many another young doctor, I came across the problem of authority early in my career. I worked for a physician who was far more dedicated to the welfare of her patients than I knew that I should ever be, and whom I esteemed greatly both as a doctor and as a person; yet it seemed to me that in her zeal to help her patients, to leave no stone unturned on their behalf, she often carried the investigation and treatment of moribund patients far beyond what common sense dictated. Alas, this entailed suffering, for medical investigations are often uncomfortable or painful. In my opinion, unnecessary and fruitless hardship was inflicted upon patients in their last days of life; and it fell to my lot to inflict it.

I was, of course, only obeying orders. I sometimes questioned those orders, but in the end I obeyed them. I was a young and inexperienced man; I knew a fiftieth as much medicine as my superior and had a thousandth of her experience. She was haunted by the fear of not doing all that could be done to save a life, while I was haunted by the unpleasantness of taking another useless blood test from a dying patient. I was never sure in any individual case that she, not I, was right.

Besides, I believed that the interests of patients were served by the existence of a hierarchy among doctors. Someone had to take ultimate responsibility for the care of patients, and if junior doctors were to disobey their superiors every time they disagreed with them, the system would fall apart. Clearly a point might be reached in which it was a junior doctor’s duty to disobey, but there was no general rule to guide him in the estimation of when that point had come. The exercise of judgement was, and will always remain, necessary.

The social worker’s attitude towards authority was, in practice, far more nuanced than she admitted, but there is nevertheless a danger in the disjunction between her attitude in theory and her attitude in practice. For the idea that revolt against authority is everywhere and always a noble stance is one that can soon be communicated to people who are prepared to take it literally.

For example, teachers tell me that if they mention to parents that their children are misbehaving, sometimes in grotesquely anti-social ways, the parents will turn unpleasant – towards the teachers, who in this instance represent authority. Recently I met a stepfather who was sent to prison for attacking a teacher who complained about his stepson. The security men in my hospital tell me that when they catch a boy stealing a car in the hospital grounds and return him to his parents, the parents start shouting – at the security men, who again represent authority. Indeed some security men now refuse to take the car thieves home, for fear of parental violence directed at them.

Blind disobedience to authority is no more to be encouraged than blind obedience. It is far from pleasant when encountered. Among my patients are quite a number who admit to having always had “a problem with authority”. They confess it coyly, as if it were a sign of spiritual election, when it is no such thing: it is, rather, a sign of unbridled egotism. Unable to apply themselves at school, they are unable to take orders at work, and their personal relationships are almost always stormy and violent. They accept no rules, not even the informal ones that grow up between people who live closely together. For people who have a problem with authority, their whim is law. The only consideration that moderates their conduct is the threat of superior, but essentially arbitrary, violence by others.

It is not difficult to guess the kind of parental upbringing that results in a problem with authority. Discipline in the home is without principle or consistency, but is rather experienced by the child as the arbitrary expression of the brute power of others over himself. The conduct that on one occasion results in a slap results on another occasion in a Mars bar. The child therefore learns that discipline is an expression not of a rule that has a social purpose, but of a stronger person’s momentary emotional state. He therefore comes to the conclusion that the important determinants of a relationship with others are first how you feel, and second what you can get away with by virtue of your comparative strength. Nothing else is involved.

To such a person, all human relationships are essentially expressions of power. An order given by another person is thus a threat to his ego, because following orders is submission to power and nothing else: there can be no other reason for it. The distinction between service and slavery collapses. To obey is to extinguish your existence as an autonomous being.

While obedience to authority has its dangers – as this century above all others testifies – disobedience to authority likewise has its dangers. There are hidden ironies in Milgram’s great work, a work that has generally been taken as a tract against obedience to authority.

His experimental design depended upon deceiving his experimental subjects, upon his not asking for their informed consent to take part in his experiments. Had Milgram applied modern ethical standards to the conduct of his experiments, they could never have been performed at all, and we should never have been horrified by their results.

Against this, Milgram might urge two considerations. First, that the experimental subjects retrospectively approved of their participation, once they had been fully informed of the experiment’s purpose and design. But this does not in the least answer the ethical objection.

Second, that the knowledge gained from the experiments was so important that it was worth a little light deception of the subjects to obtain it. This argument turns upon the estimation by somebody – in this case, Milgram himself – that the light was worth the candle: in short, it depends upon our old friend, authority.

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