Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Defying Authority in Obedience to Authority: Milgram’s Experiment

David T. Koyzis


By David T. Koyzis

April 18, 2014

Half a century ago, a junior faculty member at Yale University undertook a notorious experiment familiar to anyone who has taken an introductory psychology course. Stanley Milgram set up the experiment to find out the extent to which people will obey authority. This was motivated, in large measure, by the horrors that had taken place scarcely two decades earlier in Nazi-occupied Europe, where large numbers of otherwise decent people were caught up in an effort to eliminate entire categories of humanity.

In the experiment, two persons came into the laboratory. One of them, designated the “teacher,” believed he would be taking part in a study of learning and memory. The other person, designated the “learner,” was an actor privy to the real aim of the experiment. The learner was brought into a room, strapped into a chair, and attached to electrical wires. The teacher was put before the console of a formidable looking machine which, he was told, controlled the amount of electricity flowing through the wires into the body of the learner. The teacher was to ask questions of the learner, and each time the learner made an error, was instructed to administer successively higher doses of electricity to him.

In reality, of course, no shocks were ever given or received. The real test was to determine how far the subject/teacher would go in carrying out orders, even when hearing the agonizing cries of the victim/learner at the end of the wires. Would the subject break off the experiment, thereby defying authority, because he believed he was being commanded to do something wrong? Or would the subject, upon being assured by the white-coated experimenter that he assumed full responsibility, continue to administer “shocks” even up to the dangerous level of 450 volts?

Going into the experiment, Milgram had believed that virtually all decent people would break it off early because it conflicted with their moral convictions. However, to his dismay, this was not what happened in many, if not most, cases. As Milgram himself put it, “Many subjects will obey the experimenter no matter how vehement the pleading of the person being shocked, no matter how painful the shocks seem to be, and no matter how much the victim pleads to be let out. . . .” Milgram concluded that, for people to be brought to the point of performing such an action, they must first relinquish their autonomy and enter into what he calls an agentic state in which they see themselves as no longer responsible for their own actions and as nothing more than an agent for carrying out someone else’s instructions.

Some subjects did indeed end the experiment early. These, Milgram concluded, had succeeded in breaking with authority and reasserting their autonomy. But at least two of the subjects believed otherwise. The first of these was an unnamed professor of Old Testament at a major divinity school, who ended the experiment early for ethical reasons. Why? As he himself put it, “If one had as one’s ultimate authority God, then it trivializes human authority.” The second was a Reformed Christian immigrant from the Netherlands who had lived through the occupation of his homeland during the war.

Although Milgram accurately recounted these two cases, he badly misfired in assuming that the subjects had recovered their presumed “autonomy.” In reality, autonomy--the capacity to act morally without reference to authority-- does not and cannot exist. Those defying authority always do so based on another authority deemed superior to the first.

A properly functioning moral conscience is formed by a variety of authoritative influences, including parental upbringing, teachers, churches, workplaces, and peers. As Jonathan Haidt so recently discovered, people do not reason autonomously when confronted with moral dilemmas. Rather, they intuit the correct course of action based on a combination of multiple influences shaping them from birth.

Yes, it may be necessary at times to break with specific authorities, especially if they become abusive. However, the only effective way to do so is not to reject authority per se, which is ultimately impossible, but to recognize, as the first Christians did, that we answer to another higher Authority whose standards override all others.

- David T. Koyzis is an American citizen teaching politics at Redeemer University College in Canada and is most recently the author of We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God.

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