A Shocking Experiment

milgram-shock-box.jpgHow about some more philosophy for kids (10 and up)? (For earlier posts in this sometimes series, see The Little Red Hen and Small Earth.)

Way back in the 20th century, a psychologist by the name of Stanley Milgram did an amazing set of experiments. The point was to find out how people would react if asked to inflict suffering on an innocent person.

Milgram created an ingenious set-up involving a punisher, a scientist, and a student. (There’s great video footage here.) The punishers were 40 volunteers who had no idea what the experiment was really about. The scientist told the punisher he was supposed to deliver increasing electric shocks to the student every time the student gave the wrong answer to a test question. A label at the high end said “XXX warning, extremely dangerous!”

Now, pause for a second and guess how many people went along with the scientist and delivered the shocks…..

The answer is all 40.   Although they could see the student squirming, complaining (“let me out of here!”), screaming, and growing faint., 26 delivered the maximum voltage despite the warning label. (For a great article about the study, click here.)

I’m sure you’re thinking–the poor students! But never fear, they were really actors. The wires and switches were just fakes and the writhing and screaming wasn’t for real. What was real was the willingness of the volunteers to inflict pain on innocent people.

Milgram thought his experiment shed light on why some Germans went along with torturing and killing Jews and other minority members during the Holocaust; and why soldiers in war will sometimes do cruel things, like torturing enemy soldiers. There are all sorts of situations in which people will go along with unethical conduct rather than rebel against an authority figure.

So here’s my question: do you think you would have inflicted the shocks if you’d been one of the volunteers? If you’re the kind of person who would have (and remember, that’s two-thirds of people!), you might be on the road to doing something that really harms real people. What is there about you and your life right now that tells you that you woud have or wouldn’t have?

Say your answer is: honestly, I don’t know. Then what should you do to prepare so that if you ever find yourself in a real situation like this, with real people (or animals) potentially getting hurt, you’ll be bold enough to stand up to authority and do the right thing?

If you are a parent, not a kid–what are you doing to prepare your kids to challenge authority just when it’s morally important?

Leave a comment ?


  1. “If you are a parent, not a kid–what are you doing to prepare your kids to challenge authority just when it’s morally important?”

    Well, my daughter is only 4 months old, so I’m not doing a lot of moral education yet (except, of course, trying to set the example of good behaviour in my own actions).

    But I wouldn’t bother with the qualification “just when it’s morally important.” Any legitimate authority, including parental authority, must always be open to question and challenge, or it’s simply oppression.

    I encourage people to read this recent anecdote from a parent who follows the “question everything” approach with his kids:


    (There is more of the same in the excellent parenting book he edited, which is advertised on the blog’s site.)

    Does this seem like a shocking and extreme stance to take? If so, perhaps your shock is an illustration of why so many of Milgram’s participants went along with it.

  2. Didn’t Hannah Arendt write a book on this? The Banality of Evil, I think.

    You need two things for this sort of complicity to happen: a questionable belief in authority, and a lack of empathy. Oh, and an attitude that “the end justifies the means” might be useful.

    For myself, I know I wouldn’t electrocute the guy on the other side – it would be impossible for me to inflict pain on the guy. I’d probably report the professor, too!

    I can’t inflict pain on innocents, but I have no problem inflicting it on those who deserve it. (ie I’ve gotten into trouble for standing up to bullies.)

    A somewhat funny story: an old neighbor of ours emphasized to her son that he shouldn’t accept what authority told him – he needed to challenge it. (He was 7 at the time.) One day she was bemoaning that she now had the challenge that he questioned his parents’ instructions! “How can I get him to question authority, but listen to me?!?” she said.

    Carolyn Ann

  3. Oh, I nearly forgot: I totally missed The Idiot Show with the Histerical, er Historical Idiot.

    I don’t check in a for a couple of days and you guys have a humdinger of a fight – and I miss it?!? Darn. My apologies for being so neglectful.

    (BTW: It’s probably been stated, but as I’m here: never get into a wrestling match with a pig. You both get covered in mud, but the pig enjoys it. And thinks it gives him legitimacy.)

    Carolyn Ann

  4. CA–I wouldn’t want to say that obedience to authority explains too much of the Holocaust, since that would be to deny the role of virulent anti-semitism (and anti other things, like disability). As one of many factors it may be important. The Milgram experiments were replicated in Germany and there they found 85% compliance–certainly food for thought.

    Tim–I fear you may feel a little more positive about kids challenging authority now than you will when your daughter is older. There’s got to be some deference for parents and teachers or things get very crazy, so that’s why I said “when it’s morally important.”

  5. >

    I think that is one of the problems, CA. All that is needed to get people to participate in this sort of behaviour is to persuade them that the ‘others’ deserve punishment. Eg, persuading soldiers that all the people in the prison they’re guarding are terrorists.

  6. Sorry, angle brackets dont translate. Previous comment should have been preceded by quote from CA:

    ‘I can’t inflict pain on innocents, but I have no problem inflicting it on those who deserve it. (ie I’ve gotten into trouble for standing up to bullies.)’

  7. I like the timing of this topic! The previous threads lead up to it in a way.

    Derren Brown, a UK magician, reproduced the Milgram studies recently.


    Unfortunately psychologists are not allowed to do these experiments now – they would never be given ethical approval.

  8. Jean: Carolyn Ann is right about Hannah Arendt’s book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, A Report on the Banality of Evil. Eichmann himself was not an anti-semite. At his trial he swore that he personally had nothing against the Jews. He had never read Mein Kampf and only vaguely understood the Nazi ideology. In fact, Eichmann had joined the Nazi Party because he saw it as a chance to ascend in life, to become more important, etc. And his defense was that he only followed orders, as CA affirms. One more thing: Eichmann always insisted at his trial that he personally had never killed a Jew.

  9. Amos: This reminded me of something. Here’s a recent reappraisal of Arendt and Eichmann.

    ‘Questioning the banality of evil’ by Haslam & Reicher (2008)

  10. There may have been some perpetrators of the Holocaust who weren’t anti-semitic (I haven’t read about Eichmann) but surely the vast majority were. So I don’t think of the obedience business as more than one piece of the puzzle.

    Surely no one really thinks anti-semitism wasn’t a critical factor in the Holocaust. Anti-semitism was common all over Europe and especially Eastern Europe, but pronounced in Germany because it had been systematically taught by the Nazi party in the 1930s, even in the schools. It’s also obvious from the fact that soldiers did what they did with such zeal and sadism. To read a Holocaust memoir is to know that there was more going on there than “following orders.”

    I think the idea that it’s all about following orders often goes with an agenda. The idea is to spread guilt. For some people it’s not comfortable to point to a particular time, place and people and find evil there. It’s just too offensive to their liberal sensibilities to say some people are better than others. Well, they are…maybe to some extent innately, but a lot due to culture. To get extremes of cruelty like the Holocaust (or US slavery, to take another example) you need other factors. Ideas about how some people are just animals and don’t matter at all are powerful motivators and culturally specific.

  11. Paul: Very interesting link. The link calls in doubt that paradigm established by the Milgram experiment as well as the idea of the banality of evil. Required reading for this thread. Thanks.

  12. OK, OK, if it’s “required reading” I’ll look!

  13. I don’t know about Eichmann’s antisemitism, but this is from a review of Cesarini’s “Eichamann: His Life and Crimes”:

    “Cesarani insists [that] Eichmann “learned to hate and he taught himself to be a practitioner of genocide”. Exposure to Nazi indoctrination within the SS in the mid-1930s transformed his run-of-the-mill Austrian anti-Semitism into an ideologically grounded racial anti-Semitism that identified the Jew as a deadly enemy who had to be eliminated. The great strength of Cesarani’s book lies in its careful reconstruction of the process – by no means preordained – through which Eichmann became a mass murderer.”

    “Cesarani also rejects Arendt’s characterisation of Eichmann as a mindless, motiveless modern bureaucrat who never realised what he was doing. Eichmann participated in mass murder out of conviction, and he was proud of the suffering he inflicted. As he stated to a confidante in the mid-1950s: “To be frank with you, had we killed all of them, the 13 million, I would be happy and say: all right, we have destroyed an enemy.” Cesarani’s detailed account leaves no doubt about Eichmann’s initiative, zeal and genuine fanaticism in the pursuit of extermination.”

    (see: http://www.theage.com.au/news/Reviews/Eichmann-His-life-and-crimes/2004/12/22/1103391828372.html)

    I don’t mean to get into a debate with Arrendt, whose idea of the banality of evil strikes me as more important than many have taken it to be. In fact, the word ‘evil’ itself tends to dignify the horrific things that some people do to others. Eichmann managed to do horrific things, and to do them as a matter of official (and sometimes humbrum) routine. (But we shouldn’t forget that Eichmann arranged and attended the Wannsee Conference.) That’s where the banality comes in. But what he accomplished by his routinisation of antisemitism was far from banal for those who sufferred.

    As for Milgram, I’ve always had a sneaking suspicion that the actual set-up of the experiment must have twigged someone to the artificiality of the situation, and have never been entirely convinced that authority alone could achieve these results. This has been an abiding conviction ever since the early sixties when I first read about his experiment. I was in my twenties then, and he couldn’t have convinced me to turn up the voltage.

  14. Eric, Actually, the link that Paul sent cites Cesarani’s work on Eichmann, but thanks for the new link. One more myth disappears: the myth of the infallibility of Hannah Arendt. Who can I believe in now? Next you’ll tell me that the Bible contains historical errors.

  15. I am very fond of Hannah Arendt, but Paul’s link is required reading indeed. By the way, I fixed a link in my post, to this. Zimbardo explains Milgram and then says more about people who do terrible things in parts II and III (long…I’m still reading!).

  16. I should add (in response to Eric)–that Milgram’s experiment has been replicated over and over again in different countries and with different groups, and the results seem to be consistent. (That’s what Marc Hauser says, anyway, in Moral MInds.)

  17. “So from Stanford, as from the obedience studies, it is not valid to conclude that people mindlessly and helplessly succumb to brutality. Rather both studies (and also the historical evidence) suggest that brutality occurs when people identify strongly with groups that have a brutal ideology.”

    There are implications for the death penalty thread as well I reckon. Namely the view that legal killing doesn’t give licence to illegal killing. But that’s another thread. Sorry.

  18. I really would not have pressed the shocking buttons. I think about what it would be like if I were “that person.” Many times I feel sorry for the person, and I know I really would not want to be shocked with so high volts! I have strong feelings for living things, mostly for animals though:) If I saw someone aiming a gun at an animal, I would rush over and redirect the gun away from the animal. (but I’m not bragging!!)

  19. Excellent post Becky and I agree with everything you said. I’m impressed that someone so young is so wise!

  20. There seem to be inconsistencies in the two links. In the Zimbrano article, he says that Milgram found no significant differences when he carried out his experiment in Bridgeport, that is, a non-academic setting, while the link that Paul sent says that in Bridgeport there was less cooperation. I’ve never been in Bridgeport myself, but I suspect that cooperation with an experiment like that of Milgram would vary according to the setting. Let’s take two extreme cases: policemen and committed adult pacifists. I doubt that both groups would react in the same way to the Milgram experiment.

  21. Bingo, Amos! Jean can’t have it both ways. She can’t both say, as she does, that “Milgram’s experiment has been replicated over and over again in different countries and with different groups, and the results seem to be consistent,” but then say, “There may have been some perpetrators of the Holocaust who weren’t anti-semitic (I haven’t read about Eichmann) but surely the vast majority were. So I don’t think of the obedience business as more than one piece of the puzzle.” (Or perhaps I should say, ‘before say’.) Because, Milgram’s experiment seems to indicate that the obedience business was the key. That’s why I wonder if Milgram’s experiment depends on the ‘experimental’ situation. If it were ‘real life’, and people knew that they were actually applying that kind of pain, as, say, the SS guards at Auschwitz knew, without doubt, that they were doing so, would they do it based just on authority? I’m still not sure. The experimental situation may have been acting, in a way, just like the depersonalisation of antisemitism in the death camps. Any comment, Jean?

  22. Eric, I don’t really follow your point. There’s some fluctuation in the numbers. In the US, 2/3 were obedient. In German, 85%. Say it was even 100%, everywhere, just for the sake of argument. Why would that mean that a tendency to obey in the Milgram set-up fully explains the behavior of SS guards?

    The Milgram set-up is has many specific features. The volunteer knew the student was a consenting volunteer. He could also reasonably assume the scientist wasn’t going to do things that irrevocably harm or kill people. That’s criminal, and it’s reasonable to assume scientists aren’t committing crimes. So the study is shocking, but let’s not exaggerate how shocking…

    Now think of the SS troops. Since I said this post was “philosophy for kids” I can’t get into too much detail about the things they did to Jews–men, women, children, babies. Their victims were definitely not volunteers. The suffering was vastly worse, and it was torture to the very death. Why think the Milgram situation type of obedience fully explains the willingness to do all that?

    Furthermore, it just seems bizarre to think anti-semitism didn’t play a major role when we know it was the motivator for vast amounts of anti-Jewish violence at the time. All across eastern Europe, and especially in Romania, Christians were not just obedient to the Nazi plan, but enthusiastic. Being asked to kill Jews, as they were, was their dream come true. They joined in with gusto. (Much detail about this in Holocaust, by Dwork and Van Pelt). What are we to think, Nazi Germany was actually less anti-semitic, and people killed Jews only because of the universal tendency to be obedient? And somehow the virulent anti-Jewish propaganda they’d been hearing for many years never really affected them?

    So, sure, obedience seems like some piece of the picture. I think we should be wary of blind obedience. But I can’t see thinking it’s the whole story. Why do people want a single-factor explanation anyway? As I said, I suspect an agenda. Let’s attribute the Holocaust to something nearly universal so we don’t have to point a finger at the Germans and their supporting cast of anti-semites. It’s an attempt to be “nice” but I find it not intellectually or morally satisfying.

    I seem to be undermining my own post. I really do think the Milgram experiments are fascinating and we ought to prepare ourselves for necessary disobedience.

  23. And I say “right on” to Becky. I really think caring about animals is great preparation for caring in general…besides being important just for itself.

  24. Hey! HEY! That wasn’t my point, please! I do think that anti-semitism played a big role, perhaps an over-riding role in what the Nazis did. It can’t be explained by obedience alone. But, that was my point. Milgram’s experiment suggests that obedience was the over-riding feature. This explained the high level of compliance. I think it was the experimental situation. If the subjects in Milgram’s experiment were put in immediate contact with people they were actually hurting, and could know that they were hurting them badly (and as you say, they assumed that the scientists weren’t committing crimes), then the results would have been very different.

    I just think the experimental situation skewed the results, just as antisemitism explained a lot of Nazi cruelty. But most people, responding to Milgram, give too great a role to obedience, and too little to the obvious parameters of what is possible within an experimental situation. (Recall my original scepticism about Milgram’s results — which goes so far back now that I scarcely remember it.)

    In fact, I am arguing exactly the reverse of what you think I am arguing. I’m sorry if I didn’t make myself clear. I think that the experimental context was vital in Milgram’s results, just as I think that antisemitism (and the virulent sort of depersonalising antisemitism that turned Jews into vermin) played an over-riding role in Nazi atrocity. (Remember that it was Hitler who thought he had introduced the completely new idea that the Jews were like the bacillus, the germ in the body of Europe.)

    But, as someone who has studied the Holocaust in some detail, just let me say, to set the record straight, that I do think that antisemitism of the most inhuman sort was the driving force behind the callous murder of millions of Jews, and that the Christian churches were complicit in this to a far greater degree that is now generally acknowledged. It was enough for me, along with other tragedies in my life, to persuade me to abandon faith in any providential or caring power within the universe.

    That does not mean that I do not find Milgram’s findings interesting, nor that I think we should not be prepared for necessary disobedience. This seems to be morally required in any case.

  25. Ah, I see. I really didn’t understand. Milgram’s experiment does show that the average person has a disturbing tendency to go with the flow. I’d like to think I would have refused to cooperate. I also think it’s good to prepare for the day when someone asks you do something dubious.

    Actually, as I’ve thought about Milgram more and more over the day, I’ve been thinking about the parameters and how they played into it. (Maybe inspired by your point (which I forgot was your point.) I mean, it’s an experiment, which says–nobody’s really getting hurt, everyone’s here voluntarily. So it says something not so good about a person if they go along (yes, those were high volts) but it doesn’t show they’re prone to all manner of extreme cruelty! Which the Nazis were…and yes, surely that’s about their extreme form of anti-semitism.

    I wrote something about faith and the Holocaust a while back…

  26. Obedience to authority isn’t just obeying the cop when he says “move over there” – the cop probably has an excellent reason for directing, ordering, you to move over there.

    The more threatening forms of societal obedience comes when an authority, no matter how it is appointed, requires you to believe it, implicitly.

    Anti-semitism is so ancient I’m not sure contemporary historians could reasonably point to a “beginning” of it. It’s been an over-riding policy of the Catholic Church (until astonishingly recently); Martin Luther was virulent in his anti-semitism; it was pervasive in America, and Europe, and it actually had little to do with WW2. (The allies didn’t invade Germany to “free the Jews”, for instance.) Hitler tapped into a sentiment, and turned into a national policy, but to do that he had to have everyone believe his government when they said something. All pedagogues have that need; Hugo Chavez is no different to Robert Mugabe, Stalin felt perfectly at ease rewriting history, and many Evangelical Christians in America are quite insistent on their version of American history. What all these people have in common is a requirement that the rest of society obey their statements.

    All of these leaders and groups require one thing: obedience. Without it, they don’t survive, their power vanishes. And they enlist the help of others, who enlist still more, and the propaganda machines churn out rhetoric, and the alternative is suppressed. And eventually people say they believe the official version, but come to rely on rumor and innuendo. But when an authority figure says “pull that lever when he gives a wrong answer” – they’ll do it. Because teachers insist on obedience (they can’t teach without it), and many parents insist on it (my parents did, for instance). We’re taught to respect authority, and to obey it.

    (At this juncture, I need to add that tribalism is a powerful factor in ensuring obedience to authority.)

    That obedience comes with a price – it prevents anarchy, but it also means that those who figure out how to manipulate perception gain real power. When we question authority to the point where some say “I’m not going to pull that lever”, we challenge something more fundamental than a perception: we challenge the roots of what tribalism is. You can hear it in the inane rhetoric of the American Right Wing pundits – they argue that the NY Times is treasonous: “believe me when I tell you it’s for your safety”; they argue that torture is fine – it’s being used to defend the free, and so on. What they are demanding is that “we” believe, and obey, the National Authority – that we don’t question it. The various Fascists who killed Jews in such hideous ways could do these things because they believed the rhetoric; they believed their leaders (and they were looking for a scapegoat). They became inured to the horror they perpetrated. This allowed them to participate in, and originate, ever-more horror. And not see it as the horror it truly was.

    That’s what obeying authority is.

    Carolyn Ann

    PS There are some things we all have to do – pay taxes, send kids to school, obey various laws, moral imperatives, etc. And there’s a scale to all this; I can identify and tackle a bully. I can’t necessarily tackle a nation, but I can identify the bullies among nations. And, yes – it’s subjective, but only to a point. /CA

  27. There seem to be two schools of thought, as expressed in the two links, the one that Paul sent and the one by Zimbrano. The first link discredits the Milgram experiment and the banality of evil thesis: it stresses that people need special preparation, for example, anti-semitic endoctrination, in order to commit cruel acts. Zimbrano, like Milgram, sustains the situationist
    thesis, that any average person, placed in X situation, will commit cruel acts. I suspect that the tendency to commit cruel acts because an authority figure tells you to do so, the situationist thesis, will vary from culture to culture and from person to person. What are the personal qualities which keep an individual from blindly obeying authority? According to Hannah Arendt, the most important is thinking, by which she means not what she calls instrumental reason, calculating how to get from A to B, but reflection, the the dialogue of the mind with itself. Eichmann, according to Arendt, was not stupid, but did not think, in the sense of reflecting upon his acts. Arendt seems to believe that thinking, in the sense of our inner Socratic dialogue, prevents us from commiting serious injustices. Any comments?

  28. I can definitely see how Eichmann wouldn’t think about his acts. He probably started out avoiding thinking about them, and became so inured to what he was facilitating that he became unable to think about it. At that point, he became an instrument of the state in a different way to when he simply ignored the consequences of what he was doing.

    Of course, a simplistic reading of Eichmann’s “motives” doesn’t include anything about his own, immediate, survival – if he didn’t do the job he was charged with, he could be taken out and shot (trial? where?) in the later stages of the war, or sent to the camps himself in the earlier stages. “Justice” was a capricious and brutally rendered system under the fascists.

    I think that’s the danger of experiments like Milgram’s: he’s looking for one result, but it’s actually telling us something else. Unfortunately it’s a poor experiment to describe what it is telling us! I don’t think it’s telling us so much about our readiness to inflict pain on others, as it about our individual readiness to obey authority?

    Carolyn Ann

  29. I keep pondering the Milgram experiment.

    Here’s what I think the Milgram crowd seems to overlook. Obedience is partly a function of certain background beliefs that tell you whether an authority figure is asking you to do something that makes sense.

    Way before the Milgram experiments psychologists like Harry Harlow and Martin Seligman (he of current “happiness” fame) were doing horrifically cruel experiments on animals. Graduate students of theirs went along with this.

    Nobody thought–wow, that shows how obedient people are! People will do anything to anyone! Of course not. It’s perfectly obvious that their obedience had to do with shared background beliefs. The students thought animals are just animals and the experiments made sense to them.

    That’s what I think about German obedience to Nazis. It is more on a par with the graduate students obedience to Harlow. It shows a combination of respect for authority plus utter disrespect for Jews. In fact, this is more than an analogy. The obedient Germans thought Jews were just animals.

    I don’t think you can get people to do insanely cruel things (like in both the Harlow experiments and in Mengele’s lab and the death camps) without instilling the relevant background beliefs.

    Amos, I hate to say it, but the Socratic reflection thing just doesn’t seem to do the trick. Heidegger must have been pretty good at Socratic reflection (er, he was Arendt’s teacher and lover), but he joined the Nazi party. All that anti-Jewish stuff apparently passed muster in his mind.

  30. Whoops, I meant to erase a bunch of that…and now I have. Sorry, I’m getting long-winded but not THAT long-winded.

  31. I can’t inflict pain on innocents, but I have no problem inflicting it on those who deserve it. (ie I’ve gotten into trouble for standing up to bullies.)

    I’m like that too. I’m always getting into trouble for being too brave and compassionate and concerned with justice. I’m just too good for this world, that’s all there is to it.

  32. Oh, that’s interesting. Brilliant. I’ve always hated the Harlow experiments, but I hadn’t made that connection.

    (Mind you…despite the cruelty…I suppose the Harlow experiments did a lot of good, including even for animals. The need for attachment just wasn’t accepted at the time – bizarre as that seems – and Harlow’s hard evidence did [I think? this is right isn’t it?] do a lot to change pediatric advice etc, and probably some kinds of animal care.)

  33. I think it’s absolutely crazy that two-thirds of the “shockers” gave the shocks, fake or not. I don’t understand why on earth they’d want to do that. They saw the students, so they knew what they were doing (well…). So what does this mean? Do humans truly enjoy inflicting pain on one another? Is there some satisfying element in seeing your actions effect another person? Did the shockers actually know the students were acting? Because I find it very hard to believe someone could find pleasure in doing that.
    My sister thinks humans are bad for polluting the earth and hurting animals. But could humans also be bad for hurting each other? We’ve got wars. We’ve got murderers. There are torture punishments. Is this the true nature of our species?

  34. It’s unbearably vexing to have to admit some good came out of the Harlow experiments, but sadly you’re right. I think some of them were just insane and pointless, but the main ones about attachment did a lot to correct extremely weird ideas people had about childcare at the time (the 50s). Then again some of the Mengele experiments may have taught people something too. I shudder to think of it…

    Sammy–look at the you tube video in the post. I don’t think the shockers knew the students were faking it. Is it fun to watch people suffer? Hmmm….Do you by any chance watch the TV show survivor? Is it kind of fun watching people get thrown out and eat bugs and stuff?

  35. Sammy,

    Actually, in all the accounts of the Milgram experiment that I’ve read, the very opposite was the case. That’s one of the most interesting (and sad) things about it. The subjects – the people who did the shocking – were horribly, horribly distressed and upset. They didn’t enjoy it AT ALL. They tried to stop, they begged to stop, they argued, they shook, they cried – but most went ahead anyway.

    Some people do enjoy hurting people, but not all. This experiment doesn’t show that people enjoy it, it shows that in certain conditions they will do it anyway.

    Sometimes that’s even necessary – dentists for instance! But in others of course it’s the worst thing you can do. But the experiment shows that we can’t always tell which is which – so we have to learn to think and think again.

  36. As a matter of fact, one of the many interesting things about the Milgram experiment is that Milgram himself inflicted terrible pain on people – mental and emotional pain, but that’s real pain, and it lasts – himself, and he wasn’t tricked into doing it, he did it knowingly. The subjects not only felt bad at the time, they felt bad afterwards. It altered their lives, and for the worse.

    That’s why such experiments are not allowed any more. The knowledge is immensely valuable, but damaging people in that way is just not ethical.

    So the experiment actually gives us two questions…would I do what the subjects did? And, would I do what Milgram did?

  37. “I don’t think you can get people to do insanely cruel things (like in both the Harlow experiments and in Mengele’s lab and the death camps) without instilling the relevant background beliefs.”

    I agree – I think the conclusion that ordinary people will do bad things given the right circumstances was due to the dominance of behaviourism and the reluctance to even discuss ‘beliefs’.

    I think Amos is right when he says the human ability to reflect is our best defence against engaging in brutality. That we can think about ourselves and form desires about our desires is what makes us different from Pavlov’s dogs, Skinners rats or Lorenz’s ducks – and it’s also what makes us responsible.

    Also, the ability to tolerate a degree of ‘Tolstoyan’ existential despair can be helpful. Isn’t it the case that a lot of regrettable thinking behind Nazi ideology, eugenics, ethnic cleansing and certain religions comes from a belief that ‘human perfection’ is the purpose of existence – in turn driven by fear of purposelessness? A more ironic attitude to life seems unlikely to inspire thoughts of genocide.

  38. Ah! At last we are coming around to the view that I have held (a bit nebulously) since the sixties. I did not know some of the details of the Milgram experiments, especially the ones that Ophelia has just spoken of – that Milgram caused (moral and psychological) pain to his subjects, who were forced to do things that they did not want to do, and that this had a lasting effect. This kind of thing didn’t come out when the experiments were written about in the sixties, so far as I recall.

    It does not surprise me, for I could not understand how anyone could have been made to do the kinds of things Milgram’s subjects were asked to do. Recall that German soldiers and SS men found it difficult to shoot Jews and others en masse. That’s why they resorted to gassing instead. It was to deal with the moral distress of those made to participate in shooting people. Not all were affected like this, but enough to make it difficult to continue at the pace that was necessary in order to achieve the Endlosing of the Jewish problem.

    Coupled with the Harlow experiments, which also, at the time — whatever their benefit — seemed cruel and immoral at the time (leaving a baby monkey with a wire fraime instead of a mother, for example) it raises serious questions about the limits of psychological experimentation. As I recall, the CIA did some brainwashing experiments on some Montreal psychiatric patients. What moral checks are in place now on the moral limits of psychological experiment?

    However, to conclude my little rant, Ophelia says this: ‘That’s why such experiments are not allowed any more. The knowledge is immensely valuable, but damaging people in that way is just not ethical.’ What was the knowledge gained? I’m still a bit hazy on this one. Milgram only had to look at Nazi experiences to see that you could force some people some of the time to do horrible things. Did he have to screw up people’s lives in order to show this all over again?

  39. “What was the knowledge gained?”

    That it doesn’t take losing a major war, an economic meltdown, zealous anti-Semitism, and being German to force some people to do horrible things. That decent people in a prosperous country in peacetime (Cold War apart) could go into a sciency-looking lab and be not forced but manipulated and coerced into doing horrible things. In short, that anyone could. That it takes less than we would like to think.

  40. What Paul says about the reluctance to discuss beliefs because of behaviorism is interesting.

    I’m curious what the follow up to the Milgram experiments. What problems did these people have?

    Also, what with those experiments being a thing of the past, what’s with those Zimbardo experiments where people acted out the roles of guards and prisoners…and the guards wound up getting quite sadistic? I don’t quite follow what’s allowed and what’s not with human experimentation.

    With animals, it still is anything goes, apart from some toothless regulations.

  41. But that’s not to endorse the screwing up of lives. I really don’t think it was ethical (and Philip Zimbardo came to the same conclusion about his own quite similar experiment). But I nevertheless do think the knowledge was highly valuable. Look – we’re talking about it here, after all!

  42. Experiments like Zimbardo’s are also not allowed. I think that’s a matter of academic (university) ethics panels. I suppose purely private researchers could do such experiments…but maybe they’d be liable to lawsuits; I don’t know. I don’t think the experiments are illegal, but in practice they’re blocked. I think.
    That door closed behind Milgram and Zimbardo, I believe – there was a reaction and that was the end of it.

  43. Can we just say “knowledge allegedly gained”? I’ve been arguing throughout this thread that it ain’t so. Obedience to authority matters, but beliefs matter too. I think there’s a limit to what Milgram could have induced people to do. I don’t think he could have induced American volunteers to torture and kill Jews. Harlow did induce students to torture and kill monkeys. That’s all about beliefs.

    The very fact of viewing someone as an authority in the first place has something to do with how you regard their belief system, considering your own beliefs.. To folks here, Harlow is a potential authority, but a Mengele type isn’t. We didn’t get taught that Jews are vermin. In Germany, they did.

  44. In a perfect universe, ill-gained information would never be interesting!

  45. But is the Milgram experiment supposed to show that beliefs don’t matter? I don’t think so. I think the fact that it is all about beliefs is part of what the experiment tells us – part of the alleged knowledge. The lab coats are an important variable.

  46. Just so! I petition for a perfect universe, starting today.

  47. “Did he have to screw up people’s lives in order to show this all over again?”

    Eric: But if the volunteers weren’t responsible for their behaviour and it was all down to Milgram and the pressure, why should they feel bad? On the other hand, if they were responsible for their behaviour, why should Milgram feel bad?

    Was the pre-Milgram/Arendt ethical idea not that people (i.e., the Germans) were more or less entirely responsible for their actions? Working within that ethical outlook he should not feel bad at all. In a way his experiments are being judged by an ethical outlook only taken seriously because of the experiments themselves.

  48. Ah! Ah! Well, isn’t that what Milgram tried to show, that beliefs weren’t at the heart of it? That what it took was obedience to authority? Forgetting of course, that the experimental situation, lab coats, and so forth, summoned up a whole constellation of beliefs, like it or not? But the beliefs come to be added later. Milgram didn’t add them, did he? (I’m too far away in time to remember details like that.)

  49. I’m not sure actually (despite my previous comment suggesting it was ‘evil behaviourists’ to blame!) I don’t think Milgram was a behaviourist actually and wasn’t behaviourism already on the decline by that time? Was Skinner not beginning to get too radical by then?

    I suppose a behaviourist could interpret Milgram as evidence for the potency of certain conditioned stimuli (such as lab coats) drawing forth a conditioned response (i.e, obedience). Or the scientist’s approval providing reward etc.

  50. “But is the Milgram experiment supposed to show that beliefs don’t matter? I don’t think so. I think the fact that it is all about beliefs is part of what the experiment tells us – part of the alleged knowledge. The lab coats are an important variable.”

    It’s not supposed to show the irrelevance of all beliefs to the Holocaust atrocities but the irrelevance of anti-semitic beliefs. The idea is that people will defer to authority, even in the absence of any specific nasty belief system. But I don’t think they’ll defer to the point of torturing and killing people. For that you’ve got to have some licensing beliefs. The belief that Jews are just animals, or blacks are just animals, or…for that matter, animals are just animals, to name a few possibilities.

  51. In response to Jean’s remarks (as well as a few others) could it be that the Milgram experiment didn’t control for any of these variables? I don’t have the literature here with me, but I can still remember reading it when it first appeared, and it seemed to me simply far-fetched. There are two reasons why this might have been so. First, I may have read it quickly and without attention. That’s possible. I was only an undergraduate at the time. Second, it may be that these variables weren’t mentioned, so that the question of lab coats and beliefs never really arose. So, help me out, experts. Which is it? If I was just glossing the literature, let me know, and I’ll shut up. Otherwise, is Milgram’s experiment as shocking as some people suggest?

    You know, come to think of it, there were a number of SS men and sonderkommandos who found killing people in cold blood impossible to accept and were reassigned — without obvious penalty. Eichmann didn’t need to do what he did. He could have done something else. It would have had promotion consequences, but he would not have been in great danger. Presumably, the students in Milgram’s experiments were under even less threat. That’s why it has always seemed to me that there was something else going on at another level not mentioned by Milgram. Am I simply wrong? (After all these years!)

  52. Jean: I don’t believe that Arendt would say that thinking in her sense of the word, that is, our inner dialogue, is an automatic guarantee against engaging in atrocities. However, thoughful people (it’s interesting that the word “thoughful” has two meanings: one who thinks and one who thinks of others, is concerned about others) don’t tend to commit the world’s worst injustices or crimes. Perhaps it’s because they never leave their ivory towers or their computers, but if you don’t believe that reflection upon who we are or whether we are leading good lives makes us ethically more aware people, why do you write one article after another on ethical issues in this blog? Is philosophy just a chess game for you? I suspect not.

  53. Yeah well everyone says they are not sheep but almost everyone are sheep.

    This experiment has been repeated numerous times with similar results. People follow authority, and to be given the chance to inflict punishment by authority is also something many crave. People, it seems, want to be told what to do. They respect outer authority because there is nothing inside to become offended. Other than the bundle of habits they are, they are vacuous.

    But on the bright side, the article should mention that every time there were some “torturers” who refused the orders to inflict pain.

    But if everyrone thought for themselves, America would be America, and we all know that can’t happen when we’re oh-so-close to the military state.

    Conspiracy? Tell me this. If they said tonight on the news that a hurricane/earthquake/tornado was heading to your town, and you had to evacuate, would you?

    My bet (don’t take this the wrong way) is most of you would. This is how far we have come.

  54. Eric, I think Milgram interpreted the experiments as showing that the lab coat inspires obedience, so people’s ideas about scientists were key. I think people have extrapolated to other situations where there’s a uniform or a role that command respect. I also first heard about these studies way back when…and haven’t read anything by Milgram for a very long time.

    Amos, I really really want to believe that moral reflection makes a big difference and can save us from doing terrible things. Lately I keep reading stuff that makes me less and less sure, which bothers me.

  55. The idea is that people will defer to authority, even in the absence of any specific nasty belief system. But I don’t think they’ll defer to the point of torturing and killing people. For that you’ve got to have some licensing beliefs. The belief that Jews are just animals, or blacks are just animals

    But people did torture people in the Milgram experiment (in their own minds, of course, but that doesn’t change this point). They didn’t have nasty beliefs about the people they tortured. They were sympathetic to the torturees; they tried to encourage them, urge them on, get them to do better. They presumably had licensing beliefs about authority and so on, but they weren’t of the kind ‘these experimental subjects are just animals.’

  56. Forgetting of course, that the experimental situation, lab coats, and so forth, summoned up a whole constellation of beliefs, like it or not?

    Nooo….Milgram designed the experiment; he didn’t forget the lab coats. Of course he knew the situation and the lab coats were important, that’s why he designed the experiment the way he did. He wasn’t dim! Whatever you think of the ethics, this was one of the great social science experiments of all time.

  57. Yeah well everyone says they are not sheep but almost everyone are sheep.

    Years ago Jeremy and I got in a big argument with several people on TPM’s old discussion board, about the Milgram experiment. Jeremy said that whenever he asked a class he was teaching what they thought they would have done, they nearly all said they wouldn’t have continued. But the statistics say otherwise. It’s a big mistake to state confidently (or at all) ‘I wouldn’t have done it.’

    [This of course does not apply to people under the age of, say, 18!]

  58. Jean: If moral reflection doesn’t make a difference, what does? Just genes? I have the feeling that there is an ideological offensive coming from the social sciences against the supposed myth of moral reflection. Professional rivalries may play a role, but I also suspect that the social sciences in general provide ideological backing for the established order of things, that they lack the critical dimension that philosophy can provide. No, it’s not a conspiracy theory. Everyone is acting in good faith. Maybe we need a world where the social scientists and old-fashioned ethical thinkers each have their place.

  59. I don’t agree that there’s any comparison between what the Milgram subjects thought they were doing to the students and what SS guards thought they were doing to Jews. The whole set up told the Milgram volunteers them they probably weren’t doing permanent damage. That’s part of what the presence of the scientists told them! The knew the people they were shocking had volunteered.

    But in the Nazi case we’re talking about all manner of hideous long term brutality. There couldn’t possibly have been any doubt about permanent damage. I mean, people were being killed and in the most painful and humiliating possible way. There could have been no thinking anyone was a volunteer. So a complete explanation of people being cruel in the Milgram experiment is not at all a complete explanation of the extremes of cruelty in the world of concentration camps.

  60. Eh? I didn’t say there was any comparison between what the Milgram subjects thought they were doing to the students and what SS guards thought they were doing to Jews! I just quoted what you’d said – “I don’t think they’ll defer to the point of torturing and killing people.” I thought you meant just that, rather than that as shorthand for what the SS guards did. In short my comment was beside the point, because I misunderstood.

    For the record, I certainly don’t think there’s any comparison either.

  61. Thanks to Ophelia and Jean for clarifying a few things for me. However, having clarified those things, it does seem frightening, doesn’t it? Since I can’t even bear to fish, and watch fish drowning in the air, I don’t think I would have turned up the voltage, but you never know, do you?

  62. Eric–me too…I don’t know what I would have done, but I generally have a low tolerance for cruelty. I’m not even good at watching violent movies. No fishing for me either.

    Ophelia, I took you to be comfortable with the extrapolation–if people delivered shocks out of obedience and nothing else, then Germans killed Jews out of obedience and nothing else. That seems to be the extrapolation that Milgram & co. are making. But perhaps not. It seems like a huge leap.

    amos, I keep reading stuff about moral instincts which seems to undercut the idea that reflection has much power. “Ideological offensive”–maybe so! I’m struggling to understand at the moment (suffering under the weight of a long book by Marc Hauser…will it ever end?)

  63. Jean: I could get burned for heresy for trashing the social sciences. Anyway, the social sciences study the average man, the guy or gal who obeys the man in the white coat, talks about what is on TV, and who buys blue pants when blue is in fashion. We are all average on some level, and we probably all prefer the color blue when it is in fashion. However, people seem capable of moral creativity too. Do they ever study the helicopter pilot at My Lai, who at gunpoint, saved Vietnamese civilians from the other U.S. soldiers or the kids who burned their draft cards and went to maximum security prisons or the German officer in the Pianist (true story) who saved the pianist’s life or my chicano friend Eduardo, who drafted during the Vietnamese war, refused to shoot at targets that resembled a human figure and spent months in solitary confinement before receiving a dishonorable discharge or the network of Frenchmen and women who saved Jewish children during the occupation or people in Chile who risked torture and death to hide fugitives from the Pinochet dictatorship? As I said, on some level we are all average, we are all statistics, but just as artistic creativity exists, there are ethical Beethovens too, and the social sciences, for methodological reasons and for ideological reasons, don’t take them into account. The average man doesn’t interest me much: ethically and artistically creative people do.

  64. Jean, no, absolutely not. I do think the Milgram experiment tells us something, but I don’t think it tells us that.

  65. amos,

    …But what is interesting is one thing, what could send us all to the gas chambers or the closet where the machete is kept is another. Of course moral geniuses are interesting, but surely you don’t think there’s no need to understand how most of us act, and why?

    For one thing, don’t you think it’s worth being aware that humans in general are not as humane or independent-minded as we like to think? Don’t you think it’s worth knowing that we tend to overestimate ourselves? If we know that, we can guard against it; if we don’t, we’re less likely to.

  66. Ophelia, I agree. I think it is important to know that we have a tendency to overestimate ourselves, and our ability to guard against the influence of authority, and its attending beliefs.

    There is another interesting thing here too. In situations where authority has collapsed, there is a tendency for people to ignore ordinary moral rules. I can think of a few occasions, as when police in Montreal went on strike, or a similar situation in Cape Breton (Nova Scotia). Suddenly, people began acting out and taking advantage of the lack of authority.

    I can understand that. What I simply find it so difficult to understand is how it happened in lab-coated Princeton (was it?). I know, there are all sorts of Yahoos, and I’ve watched some of them, from time to time, and wondered: would these be the ones who would obey the commands and do terrible things? The really surprising thing about the Nazi genocide is that there were so many doctors involved (not only medical doctors, though a lot of those) but also Ph.D.s

    There’s a haunting scene in Schindler’s List where the sounds of Mozart (I think) are interwoven with the sounds of machine gun fire as they cleared the ghetto in Krakow. It seems to me that we need to look at that bit more deeply. I know a young man — he drives a truck — who would be horrified at this kind of violence and injustice and cruelty. But he couldn’t tell you a thing about Spinoza, Kant or Milgram. So, there’s more going on here than meets the eye, and it’s not just about knowing about something and guarding against it. What is it?

  67. It wasn’t Princeton, it was New Haven.

    I grew up in Princeton, so I’m very pleased it was New Haven. Of course it couldn’t possibly have fallen out the way it did if it had taken place in Princeton. Ha!

    But the subjects weren’t Yalies, I don’t think – they were just a random sample of citizens. (Weren’t they? Is that right?) The subjects in Zimbardo’s study were students (Stanford – it’s called the Stanford Prison Experiment), but Milgram’s were generalized adults. I think. (And New Haven is more of a city, with a much more mixed population, than Princeton is. Princeton is a rather horrible little enclave.)

  68. Ah, I’m so glad it wasn’t Princeton! That gives us all a reason for hope!

  69. Ophelia: I was an odd child, and so I never had many illusions about human nature or about my own goodness. I’m sure that at age 18 I would have participated in the Milgram experiment and delivered the shocks with pleasure. I have never needed a sociological study to see that most human beings over-estimate themselves in ethical terms and not only in ethical terms. As I got older, I discovered goodness in others. It attracted me, as did artistic creativity. So the field of ethical creativity is something that I’ve been discovering as an adult, basically since age 40, not the continuation of a childhood or adolescent ethical vision, which I never had. At age 18 I considered anyone who spoke of goodness or virtue automatically to be a hypocrite. By the way, your article in the new issue of the Philosophy Cafe is interesting. Living with others is hard.

  70. Thanks amos. You would think I’d written it in response to the archbishop, wouldn’t you, but actually I wrote it a couple of weeks ago. I had to look at it to remember what it was about…

  71. Surely, Ophelia, you’re not going to leave it at that. Surely the ABC deserves more of a comment in this context.

    After all, here is a man who professes to believe (God help us!) in the idea that God is love, and yet he is quite prepared, for quite political, cultural reasons, to obey the dictates of one of the most virulently misogynist dogmas in the world. And he hasn’t anyone with more authority than he (in the Anglican Communion anyway) to give him commands.

    Let us go one step forward, and say that we know where Nazism comes from. Not from Princeton or New Haven, but this time, from Lambeth.

  72. Eric, well I’ve been commenting extensively about the ABC elsewhere. I can’t blanket the universe with my views on the subject!

  73. Ophelia: Actually, what struck me in your article is your reflexion about how we are born into a world with social relations, say, the nuclear family or that of couples, which we do not choose and would not choose as mature adults. I have not followed your polemic with the archbishop in detail, since I don’t understand the dynamics of the UK. I try not to comment about the politics of countries which I do not understand. That is the result of having written a monthly article on foreign affairs in a little-read left-wing magazine for several years. Long before the days of internet, I generally took my information from the Economist and gave it a leftwing slant.

  74. amos, actually, what I meant in that article was that we are born into the world with social arrangements – I wasn’t thinking of relationships in particular, but the overall web of How Things Are Done Around Here. That would include relationships though of course.

  75. Speaking of “man’s inhumanity to man” (as it used to be called in highschool English class)…I’ve been busy taking kids to see Shakespeare’s “As You Like It.” Ahem. It seemed like a good idea…

    Amos–I’m very interested in the whole subject of “very good people” and love to read about them. I would like very much to know what makes some people more able to stand up, take risks, do the right thing…Is it a matter of their emotional make up, or the way they think? And yes, I agree with Eric and Ophelia that we’d better worry about everyone else…the people who aren’t so especially good.

  76. I am very dubious about the conclusions usually taken from this experiment. All it shows, in my view, is that people who volunteer for psychology expriments have a higher-than-average confidence in scientists. Taken together with the fact that they all came from a society where they could usually presume that acts of gratuitous cruelty by authority figures were strictly forbidden, where scientistrs in particular had a hard-earned social status and a very high degree of social legitimacy t is not surprising that this group should be largely cooperative even under extreme duress. In fact is it more surprising to me that so many refused and so many others strongly registered their distress. If the sample had been taken at random it might have been more convincingly parallel to Nazi society, but then I think it unlikely that many would have cooperated at all, let alone gone the whole way because they would have been gathered by force and would therefore have stopped recognising the legitimacy of the people conducting the experiment.

    It is also worth noting that, in fact, many (non-enslaved) people did refuse to cooperate with the Nazis on death-duties and were very rarely punished for it. In other words, the death squads were largely self-selciting. So, all we learn is that in a society there is a signifcant number of evil people.

    Milgram was a brilliant experimenter but I don’t see that his experiments in the torture test tell us what people seem to want them to tell us. People are both better and worse than that.

    I also understand that Migram vetted the sample to remove volunteers who were considered unrepresentatively independent-minded. Can anyone confirm that? Students from a particular university faculty were left out, I believe. That opens a whol other can of worms if true.

  77. Jean: I never said that we should not worry about or watch out for people who are not particularly good. I was commenting on the tendency of the social sciences to study the average man, and I feel that at age 62, I have enough life experience to understand how the average man (I’m not talking about social class.) will react, without any need to consult the Milgram experiment. I walk the streets for hours each day and observe human behavior. What I said is that what fills me with wonder (and philosophy begins in wonder) is the behavior of exceptionally good people or those with special ethical fine tuning. They can come from any social class or any educational level. Their behavior is motivated both by compassion/empathy and ethical reflexion. By the way, the comments of John M. on the Milgram experiment are pertinent, especially his observation: “people are better and worse than that”.

  78. amos,

    But your comment was critical, wasn’t it? It wasn’t a mere observation, it was a dissent of some kind? Wasn’t it?

    And frankly I still don’t get it. You feel you have enough experience at age 62; but what follows from that? You seem to be saying that because you feel that you don’t need any Milgram experiment, therefore there is something (what?) wrong with the social sciences.

    It’s funny…whenever the Milgram experiment comes up, there are always lots of people who rush to disparage it, nearly always without knowing much about it. It’s like a parlor game.

  79. This is an excellent article on the Milgram experiment by Philip Zimbardo (adapted from The Lucifer Experiment).


    He quotes psychologist Mahrzarin Banaji at the end:

    “What social psychology has given to an understanding of human nature is the discovery that forces larger than ourselves determine our mental life and our actions — chief among these forces [is] the power of the social situation.”

    I have a hard time seeing how that could fail to be of interest.

  80. ‘Tis a good article indeed…there was a link to it in my original post.

    I do think the Milgram experiments shows us some things that aren’t obvious. We are much less independent in our moral thinking than we’d like to believe. We take our cues from what other people think, especially if they have some kind of status in our eyes. With social “permission” people will do things that are surprising.

    I’m all for recognizing that, but not all for thinking every volunteer in that study had the mind of a Nazi. Not at all, not even close. The Milgram-ites put too much emphasis on current social situation as a determiner of our mental life, and too little on slowly developed ideas about who is “like us” (so counts, morally) and who is not (so doesn’t count, morally). But I think current social situation is an awfully interesting factor.

  81. I also had wanted to agree with John M that there’s room for debate about what those volunteers were thinking. It could be (1) they were blindly obedient, willing to do whatever scientists say, or (2) they inferred from the scientific oversight that the shocks were not actually permanently harmful or gratuitously harmful, and they took into account the fact that everyone was a volunteer. If (2), they may have been too credulous, but it wouldn’t be as bad as (1).

    And now I must read more about it (just went to library).

  82. Oops! I missed the link. D’oh.

    But are there really any Milgramites who claim that every volunteer in that study had the mind of a Nazi? I’m just not familiar with any claims of that kind – which of course doesn’t mean there aren’t any. If you know of any, Jean, could you give particulars (links if you have any)?

    But perhaps you’re finding them even as we speak.

    (Part of the problem here is that it wasn’t just Nazis who killed Jews. Very often it was, in Christopher Browning’s phrase, Ordinary Men.)

  83. I think you’re taking my sentence too literally. Here’s how I understand the two sides of this debate–

    (1) You’ve got the Milgramites, who like the idea of the banality of evil, and the ordinariness of Germans who carried out the killings of 6 million Jews. They think this was about obedience, NOT about anti-semitism. So they see the volunteer in the Milgram experiment as a model of the Germans who killed Jews. The volunteer is supposed to shed much light on the killers.

    (2) Then you’ve got people who say it’s much more complex. The volunteer in the Milgram experiment is not a good model of the killers of Jews for lots of reasons. For one the ordinary German may have been obedient, but he had also been taught to be a virulent anti-semite over many years. That was an important additional factor (and there are others…).

    Everything I’ve read tells me that (2) is right–but I won’t repeat all the arguments I made to that effect above.

  84. Ophelia: When I dissent, my dissent has to do with me. You may find the Milgram experiment to be enlightening, fine. I don’t. It merely confirms what my observation of people around me since childhood tells me. My point once again is that the social sciences study the average man, the mass man, what Nietzsche calls the herd man. That is almost inevitable given their methodological procedure and I think that that is their goal. Sociology is the study of society as a whole, not the study of misfits. A sociologist might study misfits, but she would tend to do it from the point of view of society. I don’t doubt that value of such studies. They just don’t interest me as you once indicated that my reflections on stock market prices didn’t interest you. I get my information about people around me from observation, from gossip, from fiction (“the novel is the private history of nations”: Balzac), from philosopher-observers like Nietzsche or even the now controversial Hannah Arendt, not from sociology. Now, you say that sociology tells us that forces larger than us determine our mental life.
    I do believe that Spinoza, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche and Freud would all agree that affirmation, as do I. That is hardly a new discovery of the social sciences. Whether is the social situation is the chief force involved seems to be a more controversial point. Finally, each of us here, none of us being herd people, seems to be on his or her individual quest, with his or her unanswered questions, his or her sources of wisdom (the selected sourcs of wisdom having much to do with the nature of the quest), etc. At times those quests coincide. At times they clash. At times they have nothing to with one another. I certainly am not here seeking any consensus or trying to convert anyone. Rather, I am here to clarify my own thoughts through the process of dialogue and debate.

  85. I’d like to revisit a few things.

    First, in Milgam’s original paper, he takes it for granted, as he says, that the inhumane policies of the German government “may have originated in the mind of a single person, but they could only be carried out on a massive scale if a very large number of persons obeyed orders.” (371) He even quotes CP Snow to this effect, that crimes against humanity were large the result of obedience. This is what Milgram set out to show.

    Second, he did in fact show that, in the experimental situation that he had set up, a significant percentage (over 60) of subjects obeyed orders and gave harmful shocks to victims.

    However, third, Milgram acknowledges that, in those cases where subjects continued, “subjects were observed to sweat, tremble, stutter, bite their lips, groan, and dig their fingernails into their flesh. These were,” he adds, “characteristic rather than exceptional responses to the experiment.” (375)

    Milgram also acknowledges that “in a large number of cases the degree of tension reached extremes rarely seen in sociopsychological laboratory studies.” (375)

    Although Milgram tells us what prods were used to get subjects to continue administering shocks to victims (374), there is little sense of the vehemence or threat with which these prods were used. To this extent it is difficult to know how to replicate this experiment.

    Also lacking is any sense of the social or moral background of the subjects, Milgram helpfully separates them into “Workers, skilled and unskilled,” “Sales, business and white-collar,” and “Profesional.” But this is not very helpful. So, there is a troubling lack of information here, information that might have been used to explain (or not) the outcomes of the experiment.

    I understand that the results have been duplicated elsewhere and in other cultures. Germans, we are told, are somewhat more likely, or at least were, to respond to the prods of the experimenter. But there is still something disturbingly self-fulfilling about the experiment itself. Milgram assumed that the murder of millions depended upon obedience, and then proceeded to prove it. But, in fact, as Jean has pointed out several times, there is more than obedience involved here. I’m not sure that this means that the evil is not, in the end, banal, since other things can be banal besides obedience, but the experiment itself suggests that it takes much more than obedience to get people to do evil things. If you isolate people with stooges and lies you get the result that Milgram got. But, that is, in a sense, at most what Milgram’s experiment shows.

    The more troubling thing is that Milgram thought the experiment itself an ethical thing to do, even after he watched the characteristic behaviour of those who obeyed him. This is perhaps one of the most disturbing “findings” of all.

    (Reference: Stanley Milgram, “Behavoral Study of Obedience, “Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 1963, Vol. 67, No. 4, 371-378.)

  86. Bravo. The actual article! I’ve found it on the internet, here.

    Throughout this discussion I keep thinking about a statistic prominently displayed at the US Holocaust Museum 1/3 of the 6 million killed were children. An experiment that shows that adult volunteers will deliver shocks to other adult volunteers doesn’t (to my mind) begin to explain the fact that people killed children…often in awful ways…and in front of their mothers. (Yes, usually mothers…the men were in a different line).

    As Eric says (wisely!) if you start off thinking the Holocaust atrocities are all about obedience, then the Milgram experiment will help you go on believing it. But if you take the experiment as your starting point, it will not get you to that conclusion.

  87. I changed the previous comment. Link is now there…thank you Eric for the reference. It’s about time I read the original article.

  88. Yes but Jean I still don’t get who these Milgramites are. Do they include Milgram? Do they include everyone who finds the experiment interesting and/or enlightening?

    Some people who don’t know much about the experiment understand it that way (the way you attribute to Milgramites) – but that’s a crude understanding. I don’t think Milgram was saying that obedience was a complete explanation of the Holocaust.

    Oh well hang on – I typed that before properly reading your last para. Okay I get it. Yeah that makes sense. And there are people who think that.

  89. amos, just for the record, I don’t think I do say ‘that sociology tells us that forces larger than us determine our mental life’ – I don’t remember saying that, and can’t find it, and it doesn’t sound like something I would say. I don’t know what it means, for one thing, so it would be odd to say it.

    Anyway, sorry if I annoyed you; I thought you were making general claims about the worth of the social sciences, rather than a personal dissent.

  90. Ophelia: In a post sent at 4:57 PM (I have no idea what time zone this blog operates in) you quoted
    Mahzarin Banaji about the forces larger than ourselves which determine our mental life and our actions, and asked why I (or others) did not find that to be interesting. As I said, Marx, among others, made the same point over 150 years ago. Once again, I’m a bit autistic and am only here to clarify my own ideas. The one thing that I retain from my completely unsuccessful Jewish education is the phrase: Judaism is not a proselytistic religion. I follow that tradition. I find it hard to read the social sciences; perhaps that it is my chief complaint against said field of study. Perhaps they should follow Orwell’s rules of style or imitate your friend, Jane Austen. I did enjoy Pride and Prejudice. She writes very well. There’s a poem by Auden on the death of Yeats, where he says that God forgives those who write well. I agree. God, therefore, may forgive certain Zen texts, Ecclesiastes, some of the Prophets (including Amos), Job, some of the Psalms, but the Koran?

  91. amos, oh right – I guess I didn’t find it because I skipped over quoted material. (The longer version sounds a little less Martian.)

    Well, I’m very demanding about writing myself. Being an editor has only made me more so. But – I also like to gain new understanding. Plus to tell you the truth I’ve gotten quite tired of the idea that novelists have some kind of power of insight that researchers don’t have. I just don’t think that’s true. Story telling is a fine thing, but I think its mystique is somewhat exaggerated. (I love all those Bible items you mention though – also some Psalms, and Ruth, and Song of Solomon.)

  92. Somebody take a picture, NOW. I think we all pretty much agree, plus we like some of the same books of the bible. Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon…wonderful stuff.

    The social sciences are always trying to make it look like people aren’t entirely in control of themselves, what with genes and instincts and peers and authorities and all…there seems to be less and less room for ME to figure out what’s right and wrong, and then judge everyone else accordingly. What with a lot of new stuff on science and morality around these days, I think this is Very Interesting.

    And now back to the novel I’m reading…which is so very mysterious and deep. Just kidding–it’s actually Madame Bovary, and so far I’ve only found one sentence mysterious and deep. That’s not so good after about 150 pages.

  93. I meant to say–Eric, thanks again for bringing in the real article. I read it and noticed the same things you did. Actually, there’s a great deal that’s interesting in there. Milgram’s analysis of his volunteers’ state of mind is quite complex.

  94. Jean. Just for the record. The subjects in Milgram’s experiment were duped. They watched or heard someone who they thought was being hurt, and found it vey difficult to continue, despite prods to do so. Milgram’s subjects were in real pain (given his description of their behaviour), and acknowledges that this kind of distress is uncommon for psychsocial experiments. And yet it was Milgram, without obeying anyone, that continued. This seemed to me at time — though I had forgot the specifics over the years — and still seems to me now, a significant and rather disturbing thing. Maybe it shows the lengths that people will go, when in authority, to carry out tasks that are, for any reason, important to them.

  95. Eric, And now I’m going to have to have a look at his book on the experiments, or a biography of MIlgram, because that’s a good point, and I wonder if he ever felt remorse that he himself had “delivered shocks”–at least, emotional shocks

  96. See that’s exactly the realization that Philip Zimbardo’s then girlfriend (now wife) forced on him – he was trying to tell her ‘Look what’s happened to these nice boys who play prison guards’ – and she said ‘No, look what’s happened to YOU – look what you’re doing to these boys.’ He couldn’t see it at first, he resisted – and she felt stupid and girly and kind of shamed (she’s a psychologist herself, was about to start her first job, at Berkeley) for being too ‘weak’ to do tough research. But she stuck to it anyway, and suddenly Zimbardo realized she was right.

    So both experiments are double-layered in that way.

  97. I have one more question about the Milgram experiment or about social psychology experiments in general. I read the article, and I have no reason to doubt that the experiment proves the selected volunteers will apply supposed electro-shocks up to X level to supposed learners. Now, how do we extrapolate from that data to conclusions about human reactions to authority in general? What are the rules, if any, which allow us to say that Milgram’s experiment provides us with data about anything but the experimental situation itself? It is a serious question, because in my experience the tendency to extrapolate from data or from personal experience is one of the chief sources of error in life.

  98. Amos. I’m a bit hesitant about quoting myself, but in my summary (above) of the Milgram experiment, I said: “But, in fact, as Jean has pointed out several times, there is more than obedience involved here. I’m not sure that this means that the evil is not, in the end, banal, since other things can be banal besides obedience, but the experiment itself suggests that it takes much more than obedience to get people to do evil things. If you isolate people with stooges and lies you get the result that Milgram got. But, that is, in a sense, at most what Milgram’s experiment shows.”

    I think the limits of the experiment were so narrow that the possibility of extrapolating anything significant from it is fairly small. That was my interpretation nearly 40 years ago, and that is still my conclusion. I believe that too much has been read into it. I don’t want to deny the power of obedience to prompt people to do things they would not otherwise do. Otherwise, armies would have a hard time getting men to kill each other. An interesting statistic here is that, in one study of American combat troops in Europe during WWII, only 15% of combat riflemen fired their weapons in combat. The percentage has risen since then, since armies have devised ways of convincing soldiers to kill other soldiers, by dehumanising the enemy (gooks, rags, etc.), for example. But obedience itself was not enough to do it. It’s interesting that Milgram managed to get a higher percentage of his ‘subjects’ to obey than the American army could.

    My conclusion is that what Milgram showed by his experiment is still controversial, and will likely remain so. We need another way in to this maze.

  99. Eric, More than through obedience, contemporary armies get soldiers to kill (I’m not talking about atrocities against civilians, but in combat situations)
    through creating strong, emotional bonds among the troops as well as, as you say, dehumanizing the enemy. It becomes a fighting for your family (in the sense of your immediate combat unit) type of thing.
    That works doubly so for irregular combat units. I agree with you about extrapolating from the Milgram experiment, but are there any methodological guidelines used by social psychologists about extrapolation? I ask because I honestly have no idea.

  100. “but are there any methodological guidelines used by social psychologists about extrapolation?”


    I think a ‘good’ psychologist will be as skeptical as the people on this blog about extrapolating from experimental data to the real world of human interaction. No experiment ‘on its own’ ought to be taken as firm evidence that a hypothesis has been supported or refuted.

    A theory would be seen as useful and would probably be adopted if (1) the experiments it was based on were resilient to repeated and tightly controlled experimental study (i.e, reliable), (2) it demonstrated validity – this includes ecological / external validity (does it apply in the real world?), predictive/concurrent validity (does it predict results successfully), construct validity (does it account for what it says it accounts for?) and (3) it is falsifiable.

    So ideally Milgram would need to be replicated, the variables manipulated, the setting changed etc., before any decent psychologist would take seriously any conclusions. Experimentally, Milgram has been surprisingly robust despite vigorous attempts at refutation – whether it is ecologically valid I’m not sure (although he says My Lai is an example of his theory in practice – also, can it explain abu ghraib?)

    Personally I think the only thing that can really be taken from Milgram with a degree of certainty is that a majority of experimentally naive people who volunteer to take part in a scientific experiment will, when under significant psychological pressure, administer what they believe to be are lethal amounts of electricity to someone who they believe is another volunteer. Even this finding was enormous at the time, but less enormous now because we forget how certain people were about their own righteousness pre-Milgram. Skepticism about extrapolating further is entirely justified and probably shared by many modern social psychologists.

    And I agree with Jean, the social sciences are constantly reinforcing the idea that we are determined, that we have little freedom (although a lot of this is interpretation by others with vested interests in this being true, rather than the ‘ivory towers’ researchers themselves). More challenging at the moment is the stuff coming out from cognitive neuroscience on the neural basis of morality. Psychologists and cognitive scientists do display a certain glee whenever some cherished virtue or ability is shown to be contingent, flimsy or irrational.

    All good reason for moral philosophers in particular to cast a critical eye over any conclusions drawn (best example of this is Dennett’s article about B. F. Skinner – ‘Skinner skinned’). The interaction between knowledge gained about ourselves and the way we then change as a result of this knowledge is really interesting I think. For example, I bet that Milgram is less likely to happen now, in the main because of what he prompted us to think about (personally it had a massive impact on my attitude to authority).

    Adam Curtis’s landmark BBC documentary ‘The Trap: Whatever happened to our dreams of Freedom’ discusses how Nash’s game theory and psychological research created the vision of man as a self-serving robot, and how this then became a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s in three parts, available here (it really is very good and rather startling):


    Interestingly further psychological research found the only people to act in the entirely self-serving way predicted by Nash were other economists and… psychopaths.

    Anyway, forget Milgram – Asch’s line length experiments were much more convincing about the effects of conformity (influencing perception itself) although less sensational.

  101. “influencing perception itself”

    Hmmm. That’s fairly moot with Asch’s research, isn’t it?

  102. I think I’ve been so persistent about criticizing the sheer obedience model of Holocaust atrocities because it does seem to leave the dehumanization element out of it.

    The Milgram article really is quite interesting and murky because he does support the sheer obedience model, but on the other hand there are details in his discussion that would point in another direction. When he tries to explain why the volunteers obeyed, he says “Obedience occurs not as an end in itself, but as an instrumental element in a situation that the subject construes as significant, and meaningful.” Taking that sentence seriously, you’d then have to ask why people obeyed their Nazi superiors, and what they found “significant and meaningful” about mass murder. That seems like the right question to ask!

    How to extrapolate…big social science question, not easily answered (I’m sure!), certainly not by me.

  103. “That’s fairly moot with Asch’s research, isn’t it?”

    How do you mean?

  104. “How do you mean?”

    Well I forget the terminology used – but didn’t Asch’s study rely on debriefing in order to determine whether people conformed simply in order to avoid social embarrassment, etc., or whether they actually experienced a change in their perception?

    If that’s right, then it’s flawed. You can’t determine such a thing from a debrief. There are reasons why people might claim they really did see the line as other people claimed to see it when in fact they were just conforming because of social pressure (e.g., we place a value on intellectual independence, not following the crowd).

    But maybe I’m remembering Asch’s study wrongly.

  105. “If that’s right, then it’s flawed. You can’t determine such a thing from a debrief.”

    Ah bearing in mind my own assertions re the appropriateness of skepticism I should say I may have been a bit hasty saying Asch convincingly demonstrated this theory!

    But I do think his work and that of others were a starting point for a lot of other research which supports this as a possibility anyway. For example, I work psychologically with people who experience disturbing visual hallucinations (which are remarkably common in the general population) and the model we use posits a strong role for expectations, top-down processing and conformity on actual visual perceptions. This model is derived from studies on ‘normal’ perceptual anomalies and has been extrapolated upwards to more pronounced clinical phenomena (seeing or hearing things that aren’t there – and finding these distressing).

    The work by Gisli Gudjonsson et al in forensic psychology on suggestibility, obedience and their effects on actual recall of events is fascinating too (and links into your comments re confounding effects of debriefing in Asch I guess)


  106. “Taking that sentence seriously, you’d then have to ask why people obeyed their Nazi superiors”

    Part of the problem with this sort of discussion is that we tend to overestimate the degree to which people DID obey their nazi superiors to do atrocious things. The majority were not asked to perform atrocities and among those who were it was not uncommon for them to refuse or to break down under the strain. The gas chamber was partly developped as a response to the difficulty of finding enough men who were both willing and able to execute large numbers of people. Soldiers, even SS soldiers, who asked not to perform ‘special’ duties were not forced to do so in most cases and seem not to have been punished or disadvantaged by refusing, as I understand it. It was different for officers, of course, but the officer class is by definition highly self-selecting and highly selected. Understanding this makes it less difficult to understand how many people ‘collaborated’ in the nazi crimes. The balance of personal risk to posible benefit of refusing to cooperate appears very different if you are not actally pulling a trigger or pushing a child into a gas chamber. You only need a small number of individuals who are willing to do those tasks and every population has more than enough thugs in it. The guards at Auschwitz, for example, were clearly motivated to stay in the job not through habits of obedience but because the could plunder a huge amount of wealth from the inmates as well as enjoying sexual favours and the exercise of absolute power.

  107. Neither My Lai nor Abu Ghraib seem similar to the Milgram experiment. Milgram’s volunteers did not want to continue (they sweated, they protested weakly, etc.), but did continue, while at least a significant percentage of the soldiers at My Lai went to it with pleasure (they raped, which a normal male cannot do under orders, if he doesn’t want to), they killed babies in a sadistic way. Ditto with Abu Ghraib. The soldiers who appeared in the photos enjoyed their work, unlike Milgram’s volunteers. By the way, one big incentive to work as a death camp guard in Nazi Germany was to avoid being sent to the Russian front.

  108. “the difficulty of finding enough men who were both willing and able to execute large numbers of people”

    I wonder what that’s about, though. In the US it’s very hard to keep people working in slaughter houses. It’s gruelling, bloody, gross work. But that doesn’t mean people find it morally troubling. I wonder if the ordinary soldier found the work of genocide difficult in the slaughter house sense or in a moral sense.

    “at least a significant percentage of the soldiers at My Lai went to it with pleasure”

    That’s what I read in Holocaust survivor memoirs too, so I this “just following orders” thing doesn’t ring true…at least, not as a claim with any general truth.

    Paul, Thanks for the links…looks interesting.

  109. “I wonder if the ordinary soldier found the work of genocide difficult in the slaughter house sense or in a moral sense. ”

    The ‘special’ squads started in occupied Russian territory, I think, and the work was very direct and intimate compared to the death camps, executing men women and children by firing squad, so I suspect the moral strain was felt by many as well as the sheer grossness of it. Himmler was anxious to create a bit of distance between executioner and victim to prevent the menatal breakdowns, which is what led to the experiments with gas in mobile vans first and later in the camps. It is that space that allows a man, if he is inclined, to put away or benumb his moral sense, to focus on proccess rathe than the humanity of his victim (the special genius of the nazis). It is still shocking, though, how many did not ask for transfer and that a double schnapps ration was incentive enough for many to do the ‘special’ work.

  110. “I suspect the moral strain was felt by many as well as the sheer grossness of it”

    I think suspecting in this context is not wise. It really could be that killing people all day was just “slaughter house” difficult, not morally difficult for people trained in the thought that Jews are vermin. I mean, in some eastern European countries the anti-semitic general population was unleashed to do the work of killing Jews, and they did it with relish. The Romanians especially seem to have enjoyed this work. So I need evidence that mass murder was anything more than “slaughter house” grueling for German soldiers. I’m not prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt.

  111. Jean –

    Read Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men (if you haven’t already) – this is what it’s about. It’s also much better history than Goldhagen’s book is.

  112. Eventually I will read both Browning and Goldhagen (I’ve started Goldhagen). I wonder if the better “press” of Browning has to do with the way he appeals to liberal preconceptions of the Milgram-Arendt variety. He’s very big on the banality thing, but it genuinely puzzles me. Everything I’ve read so far suggests anything but banality. The eye witness survivor memoirs are full of descriptions of utterly sadistic Germans.

  113. Well I wouldn’t call it better press, exactly – Browning has a good reputation with historians, as a historian, and Goldhagen decidedly doesn’t. That’s at least partly because Goldhagen is considered to have misinterpreted the evidence and the like.

    The ‘banality’ is not about what people did – it’s about the people who did it. That was Arendt’s whole point – that it doesn’t take extraordinary people to do monstrous things. (People can be both banal and sadistic. In fact that’s quite commonplace, surely…)

  114. Again, the survivor memoirs are full of sadists. This is not just about what they did, it’s about how they did it. It’s about zeal and gusto…and vast amounts of gratuitous cruelty. Since so many survivors attest to this, I’m puzzled the banality thesis is taken seriously. But anyway. Yes, I’ve got Browning on my rapidly growing Holcoaust reading list. I liked Goldhagen’s introduction very much and find he’s got enough prizes, and a position at Harvard, and good reviews…for me to take him seriously.

  115. Jean. I’ve just started rereading Arendt, so I haven’t really got to the heart of her banality of evil thesis. However, this is how I’ve always understood it. What happened to the Jews was banal in this sense, not in the sense that the terrible things that happened to people were not exactly that and more — horrendously terrible and tragic — but in the sense that the doing of it was composed of thousands of simple “ordinary” men (if you like) — and women too — who carried out their tasks with the kind of enthusiasm you describe, from Eichmann’s detailed lists and plans and schedules and his false pride and bravado, to the nasty deeds of terrible men, who enjoyed sadism and got high on cruelty, or merely functionaries who followed orders and plundered as much as they could on the way, staying as far away from combat as the could. The whole enterprise turned out to be one of the the most horrible “evils” that has ever defaced the history of humankind, but its constituents were mundane and banal, and to call it evil in some transcendent sense is to give these “ordinary” men more significance than they deserve. This is the way I have always understood Arendt’s thesis. Now, I’m going to look again.

  116. Eric, I think I expressed myself too crudely. I just don’t want the hideous, gratuitous cruelty taken out of the picture, and find that extremely hard to reconcile with words like “banal” and “ordinary” and the phrase “just following orders.” But Hannah Arendt is brilliant and subtle (the Human Condition is one of my favorite books ever). I’ve also pulled Eichmann in Jerusalem from my shelf and I’m hoping to find time to read it. Yeah, evil in a transcendent sense seems not a helpful concept at all.

  117. I’m going to stick up for Arendt once again. First of all, she never said that those who participated in the Holocaust were only following orders: she affirmed that that was Eichmann’s defense. Eichmann, in her opinion, was a banal person: his deeds were not banal for her. His lack of understanding of the evil that he had committed was a sign of his banality. I’ve been trying to read her book, Responsibility and Judgment, which is basically about Nazism, as this thread has developed, and she in no way affirms the Milgram thesis: that is was all a problem of authority. Rather, she says that when Nazism came to power, what was once authority (the old social order with its traditional morality) broke down and each person was on her own ethically. There is where Arendt’s insistence on ethical reflexion and on judgment (which is based on Kant’s theory of judgment) comes in. Ethical reflexion is thinking (that is, our inner Socratic dialogue, not instrumental reason) and she uses Kant’s idea of aesthetic judgment (from the Critique of Judgment) to form a theory of ethical judgment in a situation where the old rules no longer apply. I still haven’t digested what I’ve read, so my apologies for the confused summary.

  118. And she didn’t say that what happened to the Jews was banal. She didn’t even say anything like that. She said the opposite. She was not, not, not attempting to minimize the cruelty.

    This is one of those subjects where there’s a demotic version (so to speak) that has almost replaced the real one. E in Jerusalem was misunderstood from the beginning, and it’s the bastardized version that has become the common understanding of what Arendt said. “Just following orders” is some sort of journalistic shorthand – it’s not Arendt.

  119. I haven’t read Arendt and I swear on a stack of bibles that I will. However, there’s a view about the Holocaust atrocities that we’ve been discussing throughout…. It’s the view Milgram explains and endorses in his article, and HE associates with Arendt. It makes the German mass murderers out to be a lot like us. That’s the pivotal thing–like us in their willingness to obey.

    I have no particular stake in what this or that person really said, but I do feel strongly about the issue itself. If you can’t see all the factors, then you can’t recognize when another Holocaust is going to take place. One of the things you have to watch out for is excessive willingness to obey. Another is grossly dehumanizing thoughts about a race or group.

    I think we may all agree about the substance of the thing (not sure) but as for what Hannah Arendt really said, I can’t say until I read the book.

  120. I’m sorry Ophelia if you took me to say that what happend to the Jews (and others) was banal. It was not. It was hideous and tragic, and for those who endured those sufferings it was dehumanising. No one that I know on this list has suggested otherwise. That would be monstrous.

    I think Arendt was misunderstood from the beginning, because she saw something that no one else seemed to see, and that is that, if you link chains of banal, stupid, cruel, inhuman acts, you get the monstrosity that was the Holocaust, something so stupendously bad that language fails us. People thought she was saying that what happened to the Jews was banal, but that, of course is wrong. (She did, however, have some fairly stern things to say about the dream world that many Jews were living in, even after the Nurembrug Laws were proclaimed. Some actually came back, after leaving, thinking that things would be better for them in Germany, and was very critical of the judenrate, with what justice I do not know.)

    And if you read the history of the Third Reich one of the things that simply stands out is the incredible commonness, the banality, if you like, of practically all of the leaders, from Hitler on down. Anyone with an ounce of sense, like Schmidt, left, because they couldn’t deal with the Byzantine politics of the Nazi Party, and the petty struggles for power and approval. That’s the one thing that stands out. It was an environment in which someone like Eichmann, who had been a failure at everything he had done, could excel. It was an exceptionally complex world of power struggles and fear. Or Himmler, a failed chicken farmer! What is it about evil that finds such remarkably mundane vehicles?

    The evil that happens to people is brutal, real, it warps and distorts and destroys, it tears apart and unmakes worlds. But the people, like Eichmann, like Himmler, like Hitler, who do it, are so banal in so many ways. Just read Mein Kampf.

  121. Jean: Arendt is a complex and perhaps not a systematic thinker. However, one of the things that she stress in On Totalitarianism is that totalitarianism systems (which she in that book at least considers to be radically evil) constitute a breakdown of authority. What she calls authority no longer exists. The traditional rules no longer apply, no longer make sense. In no work of Arendt that I know of does she refer to the so-called authoritarian personality, which is a concept developed by Theodor Adorno. Authority for Arendt tends to be a positive concept. There is a strong conservative streak in her thought. In that breakdown of authority which is totalitarianism, non-thinking people become morally lost, so to speak. Hence, Eichmann, the non-thinker. But Eichmann’s problem for Arendt (I suspect) was not that he followed authority blindly, but that he had no authority.

  122. Eric, no no, I didn’t take you to say that – just to attribute it inadvertently to Arendt. I figured it was just one of those thing we say when we’re typing fast.

    And if you read the history of the Third Reich one of the things that simply stands out is the incredible commonness, the banality, if you like, of practically all of the leaders…

    Really. I have read a little of it, and yeah. I think that’s part of why I get such a feeling of being dirty when reading about it – I was telling Jean that the other day – it’s because they’re such tawdry people, doing such monstrous things. The combination is somehow…grubby. Like the lair of some horrible serial killer.

    Anyway, Jean, I do decidedly agree about worrying about both parts.

  123. Jean: Carolyn Ann is right about Hannah Arendt’s book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, A Report on the Banality of Evil. Eichmann himself was not an anti-semite. At his trial he swore that he personally had nothing against the Jews. He had never read Mein Kampf and only vaguely understood the Nazi ideology. In fact, Eichmann had joined the Nazi Party because he saw it as a chance to ascend in life, to become more important, etc. And his defense was that he only followed orders, as CA affirms. One more thing: Eichmann always insisted at his trial that he personally had never killed a Jew.

    I read somewhere that Eichmann simply loved moving cargo in trains. He would have loved to move grain in trains or anything else including humans on their way to death camps.

    When the israelis captured Eichmann he, initially, tried to starve himself to death “because” he knew they were going to kill him. When they told him they were not going to kill him, he did the self-starvation routine. So they ordered him to eat.

    So he obeyed that order!

    The Israelis were utterly shocked at his willingness to actually obey their orders.

    They thought they would be dealing with a raving antisemite. But he vas chust vollowing orders as he did when the Nazis were giving them to him.

    Scary guy! He would have been a great American Railroad “guy” had he been born in North America.


  124. Jean Kazez, on February 8th, 2008 at 5:23 pm Said:
    CA–I wouldn’t want to say that obedience to authority explains too much of the Holocaust, since that would be to deny the role of virulent anti-semitism (and anti other things, like disability). As one of many factors it may be important. The Milgram experiments were replicated in Germany and there they found 85% compliance–certainly food for thought.

    Tim–I fear you may feel a little more positive about kids challenging authority now than you will when your daughter is older. There’s got to be some deference for parents and teachers or things get very crazy, so that’s why I said “when it’s morally important.”

    You Brits had quite an authority on The Holocaust in a Hungarian Psychiatric Social Worker, named Eugene Heimler. His “take” was from the inmates side of the Holocaust. He wrote something like 5 Books, beginning with CONCENTRATION CAMP under one publication, but something like NIGHT OF THE MIST under another title.

    Heimler documents more inmate on inmate brutality, than any brutality by Official Nazis, in the Auschwitz Bergenau camps. He also notes that detention camps where “Commie-Socialists” were in the majority were more humane and egalitarian.

    That makes him a very “politically unacceptable” sort of author and Holocaust commentator.

    Heimler’s “thing” was frustration to satisfaction ratios in 5 key areas of human social function. He developed the Heimler Scale of Human Social Functioning, which is a self test of anyone’s frustration to satisfaction ratios in his 5 key areas, such as Work, Family, etc.

    And wherever there was a self-tested FRUSTRATION over SATISFACTION “ratio” in all 5 areas, the person involved would, very predictably, harm either him or herself or others, or otherwise “escape” such overwhelming FRUSTRATIONS, in bizarre or antisocial behaviour.

    Heimler had seen so much “madness” in apparently normal Germans, and so much “madness” in the Camps, exhibited as inmate upon inmate brutality, that anyone who told him about seeing “little green men” who talked to them seemed “normal” by comparison to “reasonable” Germans and “insane” camp inmates.

    So his single question to people who “saw little green men”, was to ask them whether or not the “little green man” (or whatever “psychosis”) ever told his patient to hurt either himself or others. If the answer was “No!” Heimler didn’t try to “rid them” of their arguable delusion, which surprized many of his patients.

    They thought he would try to “cure them” of their neuroses or psychoses. But his approach was to merely remind them that if they talked about their “private experiences” to friends or acquaintenances in the work place, then they would remain unemployed and “in care”.

    He had quite a success rate in getting post war British neurotics and psychotics “off the dole” and back to work, in something called The Hendon Experiment, if memory serves.

    His Hungarian name was Janczi Heimler. For those interested in The Holocaust from a surviving inmate’s perspective and experience, Heimler, rather than Hannah Arendt, is a real eye opener.

    Like Socrates, Heimler had a guiding “daemon” in the person of his deceased mother. Interesting reading.


  125. Frankly, I don’t know what I would do. It sounds like a fantastic experiment. It’s sad some people would shock someone with 450 volts for getting a problem wrong. Clever experiment.

  126. Bookmarks about Milgram - pingback on January 9, 2009 at 5:45 am
  127. I see nothing immoral about the Milgram experiments. Milgram’s subjects sweated and agonized due to the fact that they were choosing to disobey the dictates of their own consciences. Milgram did not force them to abdicate their moral responsibilities. They chose to do so freely. That kind of decision has consequences. The subjects made the wrong decisions they alone are accountable.

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