Front Page Titles (by Subject) Authority and Obedience - Literature of Liberty, January/March 1978, vol. 1, No. 1
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Authority and Obedience - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, January/March 1978, vol. 1, No. 1 
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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Authority and Obedience
“The Case that Milgram Makes.” Philosophical Review 86 (1977): 350–364.
Stanley Milgram's well-known obedience experiments have been interpreted by social psychologists as establishing human nature's sheeplike submission to authority. The experiments claim to confirm how prone humans are to obey the immoral commands of authority figures, to give themselves over to voluntary servitude to evil.
In his celebrated book Obedience to Authority, (New York: Harper & Row, 1974, p. 3), Milgram described the setting of his obedience experiments:
Two people come to a psychology laboratory to take part in a study of memory and learning. One of them is designated as a “teacher” and the other a “learner.” The experimenter explains that the study is concerned with the effects of punishment on learning. The learner is...seated in a chair, his arms strapped to prevent excessive movement, and an electrode attached to his wrist. He is told that he is to learn a list of word pairs; whenever he makes an error, he will receive electric shocks of increasing intensity [from the teacher].
In reality, the shock machine is a fake; the “learner,” as a confederate of the experimenter, deliberately misremembers the word pairs to see if the “teacher” will compliantly obey the authoritarian experimenter and increase the bogus painful shocks. The results of nearly 1000 experiments showed that 62.5% of the subject “teachers” obeyed and pressed the shock levers up to maximum “painful” voltage.
Milgram claimed (1) that his laboratory subjects behaved in a “shockingly immoral way;” and (2) that there was nothing immoral in conducting the obedience experiments. Yet if we concede proposition (2), then proposition (1) is undermined. We then face two alternatives: either Milgram's experiments are themselves unethical, or they prove nothing about unethical obedience.
Milgram inferred that most of his experimental subjects acted in unethically obedient ways since they 1) obeyed an authority when there was no good reason to do so; 2) obeyed without question to commands as such; and 3) committed obviously unethical acts on command. However, Milgram rejects the arguments of his critics who allege that his experiments harmed his subjects. Milgram contends that nothing unethical happened in his experiments.
But if Milgram's experiments were not unethical, then it follows that the experimental subjects did not behave unethically either. In short, if Milgram's method of conducting the obedience experiments was justified, they fail to demonstrate his claims concerning obedience to authority.
Milgram advances two major defenses for the ethical uprightness of his experiments, one denying any harm and the other justifying any possible harm. The first defense cites the testimony of other psychologists to prove that his subjects suffered no long-term injury. Besides evading the issue of whether the subjects suffered short-term harm and stress, this defense is two-edged. If a valid defense, the subjects might use it themselves to ethically justify their own conduct. The experimenter, for example, told his subjects that the “learners” would suffer “no permanent tissue damage.” In Milgram's own view, this means the experimenter denies the very possibility of harm. Thus the subjects can appeal to the same defense of “no harm” if Milgram can.
As his second defense for his experiments, Milgram cites the testimony of questionnaires and conversations to claim that the subjects approved the experiments. Most subjects appreciated the experiments, believed that Milgram should conduct similar experiments, and felt that they learned something. This defense suffers several flaws. If Smith harmed Jones, then Jones's subsequent excusing Smith would not automatically justify Smith's original action. Next, if, according to Milgram's claim, the subjects acted in a grossly unethical way and if he considers them overly submissive, why should Milgram now trust their views to justify their treatment? Most importantly, just as Milgram's defense states that the subjects agreed that the experiments and experience were valuable, so the subjects' parallel defense might justify their actions by the value they provided to psychology.
Milgram might attempt to counter this line of argument by claiming that the subjects are arguing in a circle by denying that their conduct was unethical. For how do they defend their actions? By the submissive line of appealing to the authority's perception of the experiment! But this retort fails. The subjects could counterclaim as justification that they were accepting the claims of expertise. Expertise is not identical with authority. A nurse, for example, is justified in moving a patient's limbs even though it cases pain, because she rightly accepts the doctor's expertise. Similarly, the subjects could appeal to the experimenter's expertise.
Milgram now faces a dilemma. If he claims that no degree of expertise could justify such pain, he implicates himself and admits that he caused the subjects' discomfort during the experiment (e.g., fits, seizures, sweating, nervous laughter). If no degree of expertise justifies pain, then what about the pain Milgram caused his own subjects?