Front Page Titles (by Subject) Milgram: Obedience, Authority, & Legitimacy - Literature of Liberty, Winter 1980, vol. 3, No. 4
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Milgram: Obedience, Authority, & Legitimacy - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, Winter 1980, vol. 3, No. 4 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
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Milgram: Obedience, Authority, & Legitimacy
“Stanley Milgram and the Obedience Experiment, Authority, Legitimacy, and Human Action.” Political Theory 7(August 1979):321–345.
The authors analyze the concepts involved in Stanley Milgram's famous “obedience to authority” experiment. Milgram sees obedience as an “agentic state” wherein an individual views himself as a mere instrument of authority, lacking any responsibility for the acts he performs. He sees obedience as having an essence which underlies all the diverse situation where we can speak of obedience—school, psychological lab, home, military, bureaucracy, etc. On this view the concepts of obedience, authority, and legitimacy pose no problem since they are defined operationally. Obedience is pressing the shock lever when the experimenter tells the “teacher” to do so. Authority is identified with the person perceived to be in a position of social control (such as the experimenter). But Milgram does not realize that these concepts must be clarified so that it is possible to evaluate whether a particular act falls under them. The criteria for these concepts cannot be viewed in total isolation from distinctions made in ordinary language.
First, there is the distinction between someone in authority (in some office, occupation, role, or status) versus an authority—someone who is supposed to have special insight on knowledge which vindicates the layman's accepting the expert's judgment even though the laymen cannot fully understand the authority. These two distinct types of authority imply that Milgram's conception that obedience to authority has single essence (a disposition to obey) is at best a hypothesis. In Milgram's lab the scientist (the “experimenter”) was deceiving the “teacher” by pretending to be an authority, not in authority. For one in authority, the criteria of assessment tend to be more public (e.g., did he get elected by a fair process?) while for an authority the criteria depend more on trust. This means there is a difference in the types of deception that can occur.
A second distinction is between de facto and de jure authority. De facto authority presuppose some legal conventions or rules to determine who has certain rights to rule, whereas de jure authority involves people deferring to someone because of some legal right the authority may have, or because of his personal qualities. Milgram disregards this distinction and on his own view it is impossible to say that the psychologist lacked the authority to order his subjects to shock the victim. But this means Milgram cannot explain how a subject can resist some legimately enacted law on the grounds that it was morally illegimate. This implies that obedience to political authority is not the same as obedience to a scientist in a lab.
This raises the question: why did the subjects obey? The authors suggest that rather than a mechanism (an agentic state) which is triggered by a certain environment, the psychological lab contains some unique social factors which are not transferrable to other realms. The doctor-patient relationship like the parent-child one involves a setting where a wide variety of requests as carried out without little question; this is not true in other realms. Since almost any subject is permissible within a lab, odd requests in that context will be taken with more ease than in other contexts. Furthermore, we hear little talk of anyone being killed in a psychological lab, which is again unlike other realms of “authority” which concern Milgram. Finally “the authority” in the lab was of a peculiar sort: it was a face to face situation. Milgram found that subjects gave shocks much more often when the experimenter was physically present and much of this so-called obedient behavior only occurred after much prodding. The closest analogue to this politically is the policeman and the traffic offender. Most adherence to laws in a state does not rest on such personal contact, and certainly it does not rest on personal prodding.