Negative and Positive Obedience in Society: The Power to Corrupt or Change
Obedience is required for our society to function, yet, because of the power of authority, individuals may obey in ways which are destructive and against their personal, moral values. Through extensive research and analysis on the subject, Stanley Milgram proves that when someone is following orders with negative, immoral consequences, the blame gets placed on the authority; because the individual is simply following orders, they do not accept the responsibility of their own actions. Our military system, acts of genocide and the inequalities of women are all negative products of mass obedience to authority. Within his piece, Obedience to Authority, Milgram explains the negative effects of obedience, which challenge our society’s stability. We have been trained to practice obedience, but the majority is far more likely to obey for a bad cause (run by a specific power/authority), rather than use it to make a positive difference. To have a civil society, we must take full responsibility for our own actions and attempt to use our obedient behavior toward a positive and progressive cause.
Trained to Obey
Within Kurt Vonnegut’s captivating novel, Sirens of Titan, one man has created an army on Mars. Each soldier is taken from Earth, has their memory erased, and an antenna is installed into their brain. The higher-ranking soldiers control the others by pressing buttons on a remote in their pocket which signals the commands to the antennas. Similar to our own military system, the soldiers on Mars do not know they are being controlled and lose all connection to their pasts and former personalities. Milgram writes:
“The military training area is spatially segregated from the larger community to assure the absence of competing authorities. Rewards and punishments are meted out according to how well one obeys. A period of several weeks is spent in basic training. Although its ostensible purpose is to provide the recruit with military skills, its fundamental aim is to break down any residues of individuality and selfhood” (Milgram, 8).
Because the authority can make an individual commit terrible acts without question, it must train its soldiers to obey and abandon any personal morals which may interfere with the completion of task at hand.
The terrible and inhumane acts carried out by the German soldiers in World War II was the agenda of a single individual, Adolf Hitler. Though many soldiers regret their actions, when in war, obedient behavior becomes a matter of life and death. The choice to disobey could lead to imprisonment or execution, because disobedience weakens the troop; “thus, they maintenance of discipline becomes an element of survival, and the soldier is left with little choice but to obey” (Milgram, 8). Those who chose to disobey Hitler’s orders during WWII were either arrested or executed.
Bryan Singer’s recent film, Valkyrie , illustrates the difficulty to take down the powerful authority. Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (played by Tom Cruise) attempts to put an end to Hitler’s rule. Milgram states, “the only danger to military functioning resides in the possibility that a lone defector will stimulate others. Therefore, he must be isolated, or severely punished to discourage imitation” (Milgram, 8). Unfortunately, because of the army’s obedience to Hitler and the constant fear of execution, many individuals involved in Stauffenberg’s plan didn’t follow through with their orders.
Why is it easier to obey an authority which is ordering you to kill thousands of human beings, rather than obeying an individual who is working for peace and social stability? People are able to commit heinous crimes when they are ordered to do so, not only because it is their duty, but because of the lack of consequences. If an action is considered immoral, there are usually negative consequences determined by an authority. In war, there are only consequences for disobedience to the authority—not for committing immoral and inhumane acts.
A friend of mine is currently enlisted in the military. When I hesitantly, but curiously asked my friend if he had killed a person, he paused for a while and finally said, “Well, it’s different to kill someone out here than it is to kill someone back home.” He knows that what he is doing is wrong, but he ignores the immorality; not only is there no consequence for his actions, but it is his duty. Similarly, Milgram writes, “Though such prescriptions as “Thou shalt not kill” occupy a pre-eminent place in the moral order, they do not occupy a correspondingly intractable position in the human psychic structure.…Moral factors can be shunted aside with relative ease by a calculated restructuring of the informational and social field” (Milgram, 4). My enlisted friend has been trained to obey orders without question, and consequentially, he has forgotten his morals.
Once shocked by the crimes he committed, my friend now calls me to describe “the rush he gets” from jumping out of planes and leading his armed troops into homes of people he is about to mindlessly murder:
“Each individual possesses a conscience which to a greater or lesser degree serves to restrain the unimpeded flow of impulses destructive to others. But when he merges his person into an organizational structure, a new creature replaces autonomous man, unhindered by the limitations of individual morality, freed of humane inhibition, mindful only of the sanctions of authority” (Milgram, 12).
Unfortunately, because my friend has been in the military for so long, his conscience is corrupted—or ignored—by the obligation to obey the authority.
Daily, thousands of people are being killed over phenotypes. Acts of genocide exist in many parts of the world, damaging the stability of society. In A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, Samantha Power analyses and makes public the terrors of genocide and how the obedience of one group to their race/tribe can effect many innocent people. “Citizens victimized by genocide or abandoned by the international community do not make good neighbors, as their thirst for vengeance, their irredentism, and their acceptance of violence as a means of generating change can turn them into future threats” (Power, 513). Genocide is not something to be ignored. We have to take action in order to stop this corrupt system. Although “genocide did undermine regional stability,…the destabilized areas tended to lie outside the U.S. sphere of concern” (Power, 512). If we do not make the lives and stability of others a priority, we are simply contributing to the issue itself—by not choosing to obey our moral standards.
“The number of victims of this routine “gendercide” far exceeds the number of people who were slaughtered in all genocides of the 20th century” (Kristof and WuDunn, 3). This quote is from the essay, “The Women’s Crusade,” by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, in which the authors explore the issues of gender inequality and sexual victimization of women in the world. Similarly, Catharine A. MacKinnon writes about gender inequalities: “To see if a woman was discriminated against on the basis of sex, ask whether a similarly situated man would be or was so treated. Relevant difference supports different treatment, no matter how categorical, disadvantageous, or cumulative” (MacKinnon, 217). Women have been placed on a lower level than men in our society. In order to strip ourselves of the gender bias, we should first work to destroy the numerous practices which devalue women and femininity.
Siddharth Kara explores the grotesque world of prostitution within his book, Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery. He described the terrors of the sex-slave industry and its negative effects on women. The lack of law enforcement (and laws themselves) to protect women is damaging to gender equality. Kara describes police officers who do not help the victims, but only use them to get bribes from the brothel. The victims are then left hopeless, which builds trust between the victims and their oppressors, the slaveholders. Their obedience to their oppressors is shocking, but because they have broken the spirits of their employees and committed them to paying back a large debt, their business is thriving through obedience. These operations do not require their employees to earn a certain wage or pay them directly for their time/labor; the employees themselves are treated as slaves in order to maximize profit (Kara, 33).
The sex trafficking industry is perpetuated not only by lack of law enforcement, but also the sexual demand and large profit that comes from oppressing women; when women and children are used in such a degrading and sexual way, they are perceived as weak, therefore stimulating the gender bias. Even when women do escape the business of prostitution, they often return to their pimps or maliks for more money; “a simple lack of shelter and a wage-paying job had consigned her to repeated counts of slavery for the majority of her adult life” (Kara, 16). Some women return to their hometowns to recruit new members after years of their own exploitation. Obedience to the system and the victim’s authority only perpetuates this disgusting industry.
Erika Wood’s article, “Restoring the Right to Vote,” analyses the issues surrounding the loss of a US felon’s right to vote. She writes:
“Our country is not one in which people are continually punished for mistakes in their past. We believe that people deserve a second chance. In his 2004 Sate of the Union address, President George W. Bush said, ‘America is the land of second chances and when the gates of the prison open, the path ahead should lead to a better life.’ A better life includes the opportunity to participate in our democracy” (Wood, 9).
Felons are citizens who disobeyed the laws of our society, yet, they have repaid their debt by completing their sentence. If these individuals are not entitled to vote after their sentence, they may resort to recidivism. This is damaging to our society in ways which result in more crime and deviance. Because the felon has paid their debt to society, they should be entitled to vote, regardless of their past disobedience. The alienation of a single individual who has lost their voice in shaping society is as destructive as following orders from a corrupt authority.
Although felons are people who have disobeyed, the fact that they are relieved of their rights to vote after they have paid back their debt, can only cause more instability and disobedience. “Restoring the right to vote sends the message that people are welcomed back as integral members of their home communities” (Wood, 12). People are more inclined to respect the norms and laws of society if they feel like they are a part of it. If we continue to alienate felons after release, we are not making them feel like they are respected in our society. This threatens the stability that is caused by obedience; to avoid this, we cannot disadvantage those who once decided to sway from the norms of society, or they may never choose to become an essential part of it.
Most felons are African-American citizens. Unfortunately, this shows that the amount of voters in a certain area will not be heard. Wood writes, “The disproportionate impact of felony disenfranchisement laws on people of color continues to this day. Nationwide, 13 percent of African-American men have lost the right to vote, a rate that is seven times the national average” (Wood, 8). By obeying to these laws, we are disadvantaging other individuals from having a voice in our society. This creates “social distance,” a phrase used by Sandra S. Smith and Mignon R. Moore in their essay, “Intraracial Diversity and Relations among African-Americans: Closeness among Black Students at a Predominantly White University.” They write, “Socially distant black students participate in fewer informal activities with other black students and take part in significantly fewer minority-oriented and black-specified student activities compared to close-feeling students” (Smith and Moore, 16). We must not allow ourselves or others to feel distant from society, otherwise, we discourage the voices of less integrated individuals and stem further away from a democracy. We should listen to our morals, despite the urge to standby quietly.
Not every immoral action is illegal. Everyday, many animals die for mass food production. This issue is widely ignored as many people continue to consume meat from farm-factories. Within his article, “Fear Factories,” Matthew Scully describes the issues behind the mass-production of meat. He writes, “We are trying to hold people to their obligations, people who could spare the trouble is only they would recognize a few limits on their own conduct” (Scully, 8). With obedient behavior, we can stop the negative effects that result from the mass production of animals. Peter Singer states, “There are many areas in which the superior mental powers of normal adult human beings make a difference: anticipation, more detailed memory, greater knowledge of what is happening, and so on” (Singer 1985, 5). Many people see the concerns of animal liberation to be unimportant—that there are greater and more pressing issues in society today. But just because we are more intelligent beings than the animals we eat, we cannot expect them to obey our norms resulting in the cruelty of mass-production.
The first step to finding a solution is spreading intelligence and knowledge to others about the terrible acts of mass-murder. Scully writes, “A certain moral relativism runs through the arguments of those hostile or indifferent to animal welfare—as if animals can be of values only for our sake, as a utility or preference decrees. In practice, this outlook leaves each person to decide for himself when animals rate moral concern” (Scully, 9). We must allow our moral concerns to lead our actions regardless of what the majority is participating in. We have to obey our morals and commit to bettering society, despite the many opportunities to ignore our obligations as global citizens.
Redirecting our Obedience
As members of a capitalist society, we must not only fend for ourselves, but also tend to the needs and disadvantages of others. Michael Foley and Bob Edwards wrote their essay, “The Paradox of Civil Society,” to illustrate that society needs individuals who want to make a difference to take action. They write, “If civil society is to be ‘strong,’ it must be strong in defense of citizens’ interests, whether those spring from ‘salient social cleavages’ or mere personal taste” (Foley and Edwards, 5). If we can channel our obedience and use it to correct the problems in society, we will have the power to make positive change.
In general, people distaste animal cruelty, gender inequality, genocide and other important issues in our world, yet, the majority obeys the mass-production of animals by eating at fast food restaurants; they obey gender roles and ignore advertisements to save Darfur. Within “A Singer Solution to World Poverty,” Peter Singer boldly persuades the reader to give to less fortunate. He puts our morals on the line and asks us to rid ourselves of luxuries. He writes, “If we don’t do it, then we should at least know that we are failing to live a morally decent life—not because it is good to wallow in guilt but because knowing where we should be going is the first step toward heading in that direction” (Singer 1999, 7). We can pretend to ignore our morals, but not for long. Sooner or later, we have to realize that our morals can change the world, even if those actions may contradict with our current authority.
If it is so easy to rid ourselves of our morals and obey an authority, it should be simple to create our own authority through our morals, which has positive effects on society. Although Milgram gives us a very negative view on the destructive effects of obedience, he states, “but between thoughts, words, and the critical step of disobeying a malevolent authority lies another ingredient, the capacity for transforming beliefs and values into action (Milgram, 6). We have the power to obey our morals and use our obedience toward positive causes like Colonel Stauffenberg.
Within “A Meaningful Life,” Stanley Milgram describes the life of a committed and honorable man, Henry Spira, who, up until his death, was fighting for animal rights. “If you see something wrong, you have to think: ‘Can I put it right?’” (Singer 1998, 1). Our morals should become our obligations. In order to live a life “a meaningful life,” one must think with his mind and his conscience—creating positive change which work to better society.
Although it seems challenging to change a person’s lifestyle, there are simple ways to make a difference. Singer writes,
“It came from applying insights gained over four decades spent working on the side of the weak and oppressed, learning from others what strategies are likely to succeed and trying them out. Knowledge of that kind is empowering. It can be passed on to others who will use it in the same way, adding to it and adapting it to the circumstances they face” (Singer 1998, 2).
If our minds are so quick to obey an authority, we should channel our obedience toward our knowledge. Transform morals into authority; make decisions and carry out actions which effect our society in a positive and effective way. If we can accomplish this, our morals, values and critical discourse will determine our contribution to society.
Foley, Michael W. Edwards, Bob. “The Paradox of Civil Society.” Journal of Democracy. Vol. 7, No. 3. 1996. pp. 38-52.
Kara, Siddharth. Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery. (Columbia University Press: New York, NY). 2009.
Kristof, Nicholas D. WuDunn, Sheryl. “The Women’s Crusade.” The New York Times. August 23, 2009.
MacKinnon, Catharine. Toward the Feminist Theory of the State. (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA).
Milgram, Stanley. Obedience to Authority. 1974.
Power, Samantha. A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. New Republic Books.
Singer, Peter. “A Meaningful Life.” Ethics into Action. (Oxford). 1998. pp. 192-196.
Singer, Peter. “The Animal Liberation Movement.” (Russel Press: Nottingham, England). 1985.
Singer, Peter. “The Singer Solution to World Poverty.” The New York Times. September 5, 1999.
Singer, Bryan. Valkyrie. MGM. December 25, 2008.
Smith, Sandra S. Moore, Mignon R. “Intraracial Diversity and Relations among African-Americans: Closeness among Black Students at a Predominantly White University.” American Journal of Sociology. Vol. 106, No. 1. July 2000. pp. 1-39.
Wood, Erika. “Restoring the Right to Vote.” (The Brennan Center for Justice: New York, NY). 2008.