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The Milgram studies of obedience to authority

I read an article written by Jerry M. Burger of Santa Clara University that discussed the ethical concerns regarding Stanley Milgram's experiment on obedience to authority. After a brief explanation of the experiment and initial results, Mr. Burger describes four reasons why he believes Milgram experienced such high rates of compliance. The four reasons are obedience to authority figures, a gradual increase in demands, having limited sources of information in a novel situation, and responsibility not assigned or diffused. Burger notes that our culture reinforces submission to particular authorities such as academic, government, and parental figures. I agree these are all very important authority figures that must be maintained. Strictly from an obedience standpoint, I think the right to bear arms is important too. As citizens, I think we have a right to protect ourselves and I think it might help keep the government somewhat obedient to its citizens. Burger goes on to describe how a gradual increase in demands can change the way people think about themselves and respond to requests. During Milgram's experiment, he started the teacher with the lowest voltage and increased it in 15-volt increments. Some time had to pass before the learner would have any noticeable effect from the rising voltage. This meant that the teacher had agreed and pulled several voltage levers by now, changing her attitude and raising her level of compliance towards the experimenter. Now she might see herself as someone who can listen to directions and follow through. Milgram's participants had very limited information about the experiment and had no prior exposure to an obedience study. The only behavior the teacher could observe was the experimenter's. The experimenter would attempt to persuade the teacher to increase the voltage and shock the learner each time he responded incorrectly. Most people have more than one source of information to make a decision on how to behave. In Milgram's experiment however, this was not the case, as the primary source of information was the experimenter. Berger ends with a statement about not accepting responsibility for their own actions or attributing behaviors to a large group or organization. Most teachers felt as if they were just taking orders from the experimenter, and they didn't feel responsible for the "pain" suffered by the learner. I think this could be true in Milgram's experiment due its short time frame. In contrast, during World War II, Nazi's running the extermination camps had plenty of time to contemplate their conscious. There were plenty of chances to perform a moral assessment of right and wrong. After the war, several Nazi soldiers facing war crime charges plead not guilty stating they were simply following orders and could not accept personal responsibility for what happened to their prisoners.

I do not think Milgram's experiment was as ethical as it should have been. Milgram allowed his participants to experience very stressful moments and led some of them to believe they had seriously injured another human being. Nonetheless, his follow up studies confirmed that the majority of his test subjects believe the experiment did not harm them.