- Paperback: 256 pages
- Publisher: Harper Perennial (August 8, 1983)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 006131983X
- ISBN-13: 978-0061319839
- Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.6 x 8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 8 ounces
- Average Customer Review: 90 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,063,628 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Obedience to Authority
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"Warlight" by Michael Ondaatje
A dramatic coming-of-age story set in the decade after World War II, "Warlight" is the mesmerizing new novel from the best-selling author of "The English Patient." Pre-order today
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when they are given a moral imperative that in their opinion outweighs the dictates of their own conscience. In this book the overriding moral imperative presented is the advance of medicine, which the subjects are led to believe they are furthering by taking part in Milgram's experiment and following his commands.
If you want to understand not just what we know, but how we find out things about the world, read this book.
For those who don't recognize the name, Zimbardo was a former classmate of Milgram's who went on to perform his own ground breaking research in a different species of obediance with his famous Stanford Prison Experiment. Tellingly Zimbardo notes that two cornerstone myths of western civilization -- Adam and Eve's expulsion from Eden and also Satan's expulsion from Heaven -- deal with the dire consequences of disobediance.
Like flicking a switch is how Milgram puts it when one is directed by an authority figure to perform a task, even when that task can result in inhuman consequences. Significantly, most of Milgram's book discusses variations on his experiment. Happily while it's true that in the experiment's traditional state most subjects will continue to shock someone long after it appears that person was harmed, it's also true that proximity to the subject and distance from the authority figure promote disobediance and with it, humanity.
Whenever I've been stuck with a particularly unhelpful clerk or individual from the Department of Motor Vehicles, I can't help but think of Milgram and with him Zimbardo. As noted earlier, Zimbardo spear headed the Stanford Prison Experiment. Sadly, that experiment found that even when individuals are randomly designated as prisoners they still become subject to the abuses of their confederates who were themselves randomly designated as guards.
Together these experiments serve as a stark warning of just how easy it is for humans to become inhuman. For those interested in further reading I would highly recommend Zimbardo's Lucifer Effect as a companion work.
The question isn't whether these phenomenon can occur but whether we understand them and in so doing are better positioned to avoid their happening again.