People obey authority beyond the point of using their own morals and ethics when they feel they don’t have a choice or have done so their whole lives. Obedience is defined as such, compliance with an order, request, or law or submission to another’s authority. Obedience cannot exist without authority. Without obedience, authority can not exist either. Authority defined is the power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience. Their existences lean on each other, like for example the Scales of Justice. There is no organization that can function without some form of obedience to authority, as the alternative would be anarchy that would lead to unorganized chaos. Therefore we find some sort of a social class structure in both the third world countries and the most developed countries where certain individuals hold authority over others. Human beings obey because they seek rewards, and avoid punishment. Obeying equals peace which means safety or a reward and refusal to obey can result in punishments ranging from a timeout to death depending on whom the person disobeys. Human beings tend to feel more comfortable having the ability to justify their behaviors by assigning them to them following an authority also people tend to bend to authority until it goes against basic human rights and or morals. The following of authority is a basic human trait, it tends to be an instinct to be a follower and blend into society.
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In a formative study on obedience to authority, Stanley Milgram explained the high rates of obedience within several experiments involving a teacher and learner model where a naive subject is told by an authority to carry out a morally suspicious act, as deriving from antecedent conditions such as the innate tendency to accept authority as a social norm (Milgram, 1974). It is considered that a large contributing step in the evolutionary process for humans was the ability for individuals to know and obey their position in a hierarchy and therefore contribute to the division of labor. For a significant part of a persons’ life, they are expected to understand and respect the authority of others within different class structures, such as the family but also found in societal organizations of authority such as schools and workplaces. The internalization of obedience to authority also comes with the addition of a system of rewards and punishments for obedience and the lack of. Studies from group procedures and specifically the role of normalized influences within the dual procedure model shows that motivates majority of humans conforming may also prove valuable in analyzing the reasons for obeying authority binding factors such as the desire to be polite and to avoid the awkwardness of backing away from orders, or the failure to comply, and therefore risking their own interpersonal relationship with an authority figure or organization may further add to the individual’s want to remain obedient through social anxiety.
Studies on obedience have shown that the rates for obedience in these situations are subject to certain conditions under which orders are given out. Milgram varied, for example, factors such as the proximity of the experimenter relative to the teacher in a series of experiments. These findings showed obedience levels dropped sharply when subjects were in the physical presence of the authority figure, suggesting that people are more likely to be obedient in conflicting situations when they are closely monitored. This shares similarity with, for example, Latane’s social impact theory, which suggests that immediacy of the social influence in group situations is a significant factor in obedience and the ability or the ease to conform (Turner, 1991). Despite the fact that the individual may see the justified legitimacy of obedience to authority, they are nevertheless also guided to obedience by the strength and immediacy of the authority figure. In a sense, people obey authority when it has a contextually legitimate source. Obedience, when it comes to a volunteering form, may also be reliant on an individual’s perception of the legitimacy or value of the situation in general. This type of justification extends the idea of legitimate authority to a more general belief in the legitimacy of the context of the task for example if it is in the interests of beneficial scientific discovery or if by carrying out a set of orders they are benefitting a particular group of people. Initial obedience rests on this perception of legitimacy that justifies the right or wrong of an authority to be obeyed or not. (Milgram. 1974). Within Milgram’s experiments where the experimenter or the authority figure was replaced by a normal person, levels of obedience decreased steeply, showing that the class structure nature that operates in obedience to authority is a strong factor in preventing people from risking dissent or disobedience (Milgram, 1974).
Social influence is unable to work without the backing of power. In an extreme sense, the influence that pulls people into obeying authority may come from the power to give rewards or enforce punishments. If a person is aware that there are a certain negative consequences for disobeying and or positive outcomes for obedience, they will be inclined through personal fear to obey. In the film “A Few Good Men” starring Tom Cruise the general ordered a code red on a private who was underperforming. The corporal and the private that carried out the order claimed they were just following orders. The same went for the officers during the Nuremberg trials after World War Two. People have followed orders that have gone against morals and ethics because they’re backed by fear. During the Hitler regime, the people all the way from the normal everyday civilian to the typical soldier all the way up to the generals and higher officers were following orders based on fear. People follow orders past their own beliefs when they feel pressured, that they are in fear of what will happen if they don’t comply and conformity.
A criticism that may be leveled at Milgram’s research and other studies that look into obedience to authority would be the ecological validity of the experiment’s outcomes. It is arguably a very rare situation to find oneself compelled to act out highly contentious and immoral acts by an authority in the person of a scientific experimenter, and so perhaps limits the research’s usefulness when looking at everyday examples of obedience especially considering the fascination with obedience to authority has its roots in explaining odd and terrible atrocities such as the Holocaust. However, these studies nevertheless provide us with some basic reasons for general obedient behavior. We are obedient to authority because it is an integral part of society, providing social organization and regulation of relationships, to the extent that it has been internalized as a normal thing. People’s perceptions of what counts as a legitimate authority figure and a situation that would be constituted as okay to act obediently lead us to believe in the obligatory nature of obeying authority, and the motivation of using persistence with ordered tasks.
- Turner, J.C. (1991). Social influence. Open University Press.
- Milgram, S. (1974) Obedience to authority. Harper & Row.
- Movie “a Few Good Men”
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