On some level, whether it is to our teachers, bosses, or just the local government, the majority of us are obedient. According to Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram, “Obedience is as basic an element in the structure of social life as one can point to” (631). Society would lack order and be full of chaos without obedience. Authority helps society function; obeying that authority ensures stability. But at what point does obedience cross the line from advantageous to detrimental? Obedience becomes dangerous when it is harmful to one’s self or others.
A classic example of dangerous obedience is demonstrated by Nazi official Adolf Eichmann. Throughout his trial for war crimes, Eichmann proclaimed his innocence. He placed the blame on his superiors and said he was simply following orders: orders that involved sending millions of people to extermination camps and ultimately their deaths. In their separate writings about obedience, Milgram and psychoanalyst Erich Fromm both compare Eichmann to the ordinary person, someone we can all see ourselves in. While he may not be the ideal person to be equated to, Eichmann’s submission to authority is understandable: had he refused his orders, he most likely would have been arrested or killed, then replaced by someone who was willing to follow commands. So it’s quite probable that those millions of people still would have been executed, with or without Eichmann’s compliance.
Obedience is also seen by many as the path of least resistance; it isn’t as mentally demanding to follow someone’s orders. Assuming authority figures know what is best for everyone, it is simpler to do what we are told than to have to think for ourselves. But once we stop thinking for ourselves and begin following orders blindly, we slowly start to lose our freedom. We are no longer making our own choices; they are being made for us. Once this happens it is easy to shift responsibility to whoever is in command, just as Eichmann did. In “The Perils of Obedience,” Milgram states, “The essence of obedience is that a person comes to view himself as the instrument for carrying out another’s wishes, and therefore no longer regards himself as responsible for his actions”(641).
Fromm reasons in his essay “Disobedience as a Psychological and Moral Problem” that for most of history, disobedience has been looked upon as a sin while obedience has been seen as virtuous. Fromm believes that another reason we are inclined to follow authority so willingly is because that obedience makes us feel safe and protected. As long as I feel safe and secure, “it makes little difference what power it is that I am obedient to” (Fromm 624). Along with that false sense of security, there is a sense of obligation to support that power no matter what, because that power is safeguarding us. Fromm and Milgram recognize that Eichmann’s willingness to carry out heinous orders is not an isolated case, but instead is a widespread issue throughout society.
Jonah Lehrer states...