Thursday, December 29, 2011

Obedience to Authority

After hearing Nazi War criminal Adolph Eichmann claim he “simply followed orders” as his defense for ordering millions of Jews’ deaths, Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted an experiment to measure obedience.  Milgram asked participants to electrically shock a student with increasing voltage levels (30 to 450 volts) whenever the student responded incorrectly.   The “student” was actually an actor and didn’t receive the shocks but did act increasingly distressed as the administered voltage increased to tortuous levels.  Participants believed they were helping Milgram study the impact of physical pain on the learning process when actually Milgram was studying participants’ obedience to authority.  He wondered why people obey authority, especially when it conflicts with their conscience, or when prima facie evidence contradicts the authoritative figure’s assertions. 

Highly orthodox and conservative religious camps stress unquestioned obedience to religious authorities, even when it conflicts with personal consciences or when prima facie evidence contradicts leaders’ assertions.  They too justify their actions, including bullying tactics or violence, based upon it.  Thus, I too wonder about the power of authority.    

Though Yale students predicted at least 97% of participants would disobey authority rather than torture a human, only 35% of participants disobeyed.  Many were distressed by their student’s reactions but still obeyed the experimenter, administering shocks to the highest voltage levels.  According to participants, they continued to tortuous shock levels because they felt the sponsor was a competent, truthful authority, and because an authoritative figure was physically present encouraging their compliance.

Milgram concluded, "Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process.  Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.”

In Milgram’s experiment the authoritative figure was just a secular university researcher, a position commonly considered of lesser moral authority than a religious leader.  Other than possibly displeasing the experimenter, there were no consequences for disobedience.  Yet, most people lacked the internal fortitude to disobey, even when obedience meant delivering obviously tortuous levels of voltage.  How much more do you suppose people struggle disobeying religious authorities especially when it involves less blatant forms of torture or damage, or when there are looming threats of consequences such as eternal damnation, censure, job loss, or being ostracized from their faith community?

I could elaborate on many examples in the Catholic Church where people blindly obey or support religious leaders who call them to actions that conflict with their consciences: the clergy abuse scandal and bishops’ lack of accountability, religious leaders blatantly lying, re-writing history or manipulating facts, the treatment of women and homosexuals, clergy celibacy, marital sexual relations and conception decisions, or even the new English translation of the Mass.  But each religion has examples and the more orthodox the religious group, the more insistent the call for obedience.   

Such orthodox leaders label disobedience as “selfishness” or “pride” – an unwillingness to sacrifice yourself for the greater good.  However, there is a tremendous difference between selfish insistence on getting one’s way and disobedience inspired by a well-formed conscience.  The disobedient people acting from well-formed consciences are the 35% of people willing to say “no” rather than deliver torture to another human.  Would you be in the 35% or 65%?  What examples from your past behavior support your prediction?

Milgram conducted another experiment to measure the impact of having a dissenting voice present that counter-balanced the experimenter’s encouragement.  In this experiment, 90% of participants disobeyed authority rather than torture a human.  The 65% are strengthened by the 35%.  If you are in the 65%, do you associate with some of the 35% folks that can help insure your obedience doesn’t enable or deliver abuses? 

Within the Catholic Church, the topic of obedience is very interesting because those policies that people most sense as conflicting with their consciences constitute several of the topics that current religious leaders most insist receive blind obedience: female clergy, married clergy, treatment of homosexuals, and the privacy of spousal sexual intimacy as well as family planning.  Some small progress has been made improving the abominable obedience policies pertaining to clergy sexual abuses but still bishops don’t unilaterally follow their improved policies and they spend millions of dollars lobbying against extending the statute of limitations to prosecute pedophiles so as to get them off the streets. 

Obedience to authority in the Catholic Church is also an interesting topic now because Pope Benedict was a member of Hitler’s Youth and the German military, joining both in obedience to authorities.  Family accounts indicate in some cases he begrudgingly complied or offered resistance.  Therefore he knows the power of dissenters and the tactics authorities use trying to neutralize them. 

Given Benedict’s cultural heritage, should we be especially alarmed that he has silenced over 90 dissenting theologians?  Are they the 35% whose concerns we should very carefully consider lest we become automatons complicit in destructive activities?  Should we be especially alarmed that Benedict has instilled a culture demanding blind obedience to him?  Should we be especially alarmed that he encourages and aligns himself with organizations espousing militant cultures of obedience such as Legionairies of Christ and Opus Dei, organizations that succeed in turning well-intentioned people into bullies? 

Benedict XVI lived in a culture that demanded blind obedience to Hitler, someone seen as standing for pure evil.   Does Benedict see himself as the anti-Fuhrer, someone also demanding blind obedience but for causes of “pure good” rather than “pure evil”?   If the pope were God or beyond human fallibility, blind obedience to him might not be a problem.  But, he is a fallible human who has used his authoritative offices as Pope and head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith to distort and abuse infallibility doctrine to get his way.  Should we obey or disobey him when prima facie evidence tells us he acts contrary to the gospel?  Do we have a moral duty to challenge him or any religious leader lest they blasphemously consider equality or superiority to God?  Do we have a moral duty to our fellow humans and ourselves to disobey religious leaders sometimes lest we stand at our final judgment with the same defense as Eichmann, receiving similar sympathy from our judge? 

1 comment:

  1. Excellent article and analysis. Thank you.

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