How much of our behavior is influenced by authority figures? Can the declarations of perceived authority cause us to act against our personal moral compass, even to extremes?
In 1961 German Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann went on trial in Jerusalem. His defense rested on exactly this issue. He was a soldier following orders. How could people carry out atrocities that were so antithetical to their personal or collective human conscience?
A few months after the trial began, Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram constructed an experiment to test obedience to authority. Will people perform acts against their strongest moral imperatives when directed by a recognized authority? The results were astonishing. (NOTE: It is important to understand the Milgram Experiment. Watch the video below for a review of the original and similar modern experiments.)
“The legal and philosophic aspects of obedience are of enormous importance, but they say very little about how most people behave in concrete situations. I set up a simple experiment at Yale University to test how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to by an experimental scientist. Stark authority was pitted against the subjects’ [participants’] strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects’ [participants’] ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not. The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.
“Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.”
– Stanley Milgram
We would all like to think that we behave according to our personal moral compass. The data strongly shows a different picture. The majority of people will follow the dictates of authority, real or imagined, instead of their own moral compass. Most will even place their own lives at risk if ordered by sufficient authority.
Thousands of Deaths Have Already Occurred
Milgram’s work demonstrates that the 61-66 percent of humanity; regardless of age, education, theology, social status, nationality or gender; will compromise their personal moral and ethical code if a recognized authority directs them to do it. Subsequent experiments indicate that we may also become insensitive to the direct infliction of pain. This is evident by the conditioning we experience in the military.
How is this applicable to global warming? A significant fraction of society ignores the extreme events that already kill tens of thousands and threaten millions. Our innate desire to conform and obedience to perceived authority is keeping us from acting in support of our personal moral code.
America functions under the influence of two political authorities. Both are heavily influenced by outside forces. Science tells us there is absolute proof of global warming and climate change. They rest their position on massive amounts of documentation from many diverse sources. Human behavior is already causing discomfort, pain and death. Business as usual (BAU) will only increase suffering and death on an unprecedented and global scale.
The political debates focus upon the economy, military security, immigration and religious views of moral behavior. If America was the Titanic, would politicians argue about the menu or the icebergs ahead? Is unregulated economic growth more important than life––all life?
Just how often have you heard either side mention global warming or climate change? If we don’t immediately address global warming, we will have more security threats. Immigration will increase as people are displaced. The economy will suffer from the cost of military security, climate extremes and sea level rise. It appears that the parties debate the symptoms and not the disease.
My intent is to show that obedience to authority is often blind. We do not always act rationally, guided solely by our personal moral code or values.
Climate Change Presents a Moral Choice
Here is the real moral choice we all face. Both parties have chosen by omission to condemn the science of global warming, despite irrefutable evidence by every major professional organization that studies the subject. There is universal agreement among 197 nations around the world. Virtually all the world’s national academies of science agree. Global warming is primarily human-caused via burning fossil fuels. It is causing the climate to change permanently. Those changes threaten planetary systems so seriously that it threatens human civilization. Immediate measures must be taken to mitigate this threat.
The United States is the most powerful nation on Earth. The world looks to us for leadership. U.S. inaction threatens international confidence in America to lead the world away from social, economic and environmental collapse. Not one GOP Presidential candidate supports emissions regulations, a carbon tax or moving off fossil fuels. The Democratic Party assigns global warming and resulting climate change to the back page.
Before reading this article, most of the readers were already in one camp or the other. Are we going along just to get along? Are we ignoring our moral compass because it is convenient? This may be the real inconvenient truth.
We hear the screams in the other room. We see the rubble of war, starvation, and mass migration. We witness the storms, droughts and floods every day in the media. Are our choices based upon what is credible and just, or are we simply following the assertions from the guy in the white coat behind us? Do we obediently flip another switch and hear another scream?
Planet Experts is here to debate, educate and motivate the reader. If we don’t recognize our weaknesses, we may never realize our strengths. It is the reader who must decide the path ahead. In our democracy we are the ultimate authority, or has someone convinced you that, “resistance is futile, please continue.”