Religion and Philosophy

Electric Schlock: Did Stanley Milgram’s Famous Obedience Experiments Prove Anything?

By Keith Preston March 13, 2023
Whatever the flaws in the Milgram, Zimbardo, and other similar experiments, the findings are well demonstrated by real-life experience. The Asch experiments demonstrated the same basic thesis, which is obvious when ordinary human behavior is observed. A primary difference I have with nearly all liberals/leftists and most conservatives, particularly Christians, is their failure to realize that human beings are nothing more than a predatory species whose large brains give them capabilities other animals don’t have.
Human beings are no different than an ape or wolf species that are capable of art, science, philosophy, and technology. Humans seek safety, security, and tribal acceptance not “freedom,” “justice,” “equality” and other abstract ideals. People get their ideas of “right and wrong” from cues taken from peers, leaders that are considered to be legitimate, and primary reference groups. This is born out by every conceivable bit of sociological, psychological, anthropological, and historical evidence.
One would think that religious believers, with their concept of “original sin,” would have some understanding of this, but they are often just as bad as secular utopians in their delusional, idealized view of humanity. As Carl Schmitt pointed out, any serious approach to political theory begins with recognizing that “man is evil.”
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Any political tendency that does not understand this is fighting with one hand tied behind its back right out of the gate.  This point is crucial because it is a primary consideration regarding how one understands the nature and exercise of power. Some people have an implicit recognition of this, but respond by merely wanting their tribe to exercise hegemony.
The idea is that “evil” (metaphorically conceived) is fine as long as it is one’s own tribe that is engaged in “evil.” But as anyone who has participated in a totalitarian regime or organized crime can tell you, members of your own tribe are frequently your primary enemies. The state under which you live is 90% of the time going to be your enemy to a much greater degree than any foreign state. A wise person understands this, but a foolish person merely immerses themselves in the wider herd. Most humans are more foolish than wise.
Most humans could be ordered to their deaths by perceived legitimate authority figures and thank them for it. Only a minority, perhaps a very small minority, has the independence of mind to resist such prodding. Fascist-types and Communist-types simply want their tribe to be hegemonic, not realizing they are just as likely to find themselves in a “Darkness at Noon” situation as they are to be heroic warriors or revolutionaries.
Already we see the totalitarian humanist revolution beginning to “eat its own” as millenarian revolutions driven by universalist ideologies always do. Interestingly, even many people claiming to be “anarchists” do not understand these concepts and instead embrace every possible kind of moral panic so long as it’s denominated as “progressive” out of the delusion that only “reactionaries” can be tyrannical or authoritarian.
The first prerequisite for being a politically, socially, and personally wise individual is to be capable of independent thinking, critical thinking, and resistance to groupthink, doublethink, and moral panics. Most anarchists, like most people, fail on all counts.
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Stanley Milgram’s test subjects were not the only ones misled by his famous experiments on obedience.

In October 1963, the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology published an article, blandly titled “Behavioral Study of Obedience,” by a 30-year-old Yale professor named Stanley Milgram. The young author had never before published in an academic journal, and it was clear from his prose he was hoping to make an early splash. He had conducted an experiment that he claimed shed light on one of humanity’s basic features: our tendency to obey orders, even ones that conflict with our morals, so long as they are issued by an authority figure. By his fourth sentence he was already referencing Nazi death camps and their “daily quotas of corpses,” implying that the Holocaust was something his nine-page paper would help the world understand.

Almost five decades later, the “Milgram experiments”—with their famous simulations of powerful electric shocks—are among the most well-known studies of the 20th century. No introductory psych course or textbook can get away with skipping them. The experiments have inspired plays, a William Shatner movie, episodes of reality TV, a storyline on Law & Order, special issues of academic journals, at least one novel, and two pop songs that I can find. The lyrics to Peter Gabriel’s 1986 track “We Do What We’re Told (Milgram’s 37)” neatly sum up Milgram’s findings, at least as they have been absorbed by popular culture: “We do what we’re told / We do what we’re told / We do what we’re told / Told to do.”

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