Going with the social flow

I just finished reading Stanley Milgram’s Obedience to Authority. The book’s an account of his famous experiment that tested the willingness of ordinary people who had volunteered to participate in a psychological study to inflict painful electric shocks on another volunteer (who was in fact an actor who was not being shocked at all). Two-thirds of them went the limit, continuing (as they thought) to jolt the other subjects with steadily increasing shocks long after they started to scream in agony and beg to be released.

It’s food for thought on a number of grounds. One basic lesson is that it’s not just those other guys who do horrible things, so we should be careful we are not caught flat-footed when difficult situations come up. The study should also be especially discouraging for moderns who still believe that barbarism can be avoided by replacing Authority with Science. The effect of the replacement, it seems, is that human authorities we might conceivably understand and so dispute are replaced by experts who are inscrutable and for that reason all the more absolute.

One reason the Holocaust was so shocking is that everything expected to liberate us from the crimes and follies of the past—science, industry, rational neutral administration—could be adapted so easily to such horrifying and mindless goals. There will always be authority of some sort, and human authorities can always go wrong, so there’s a permanent need to put authority in a setting that goes beyond the social and so can limit it. Transcendent absolutes, it seems, are necessary for civilized life in this world.

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