A Note on Obedience to Authority

8 Pages Posted: 21 Oct 2008

See all articles by R. Edward Freeman

R. Edward Freeman

University of Virginia - Darden School of Business

Andrew C. Wicks

University of Virginia - Darden School of Business

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Two experiments are described and discussed in this note. In Milgram's Obedience experiment, subjects acted as "teachers" posing questions to "learners." Inaccurate answers resulted in an electric shock being administered to the learner. When the errors increased in number, the voltage of the shocks was increased to a point of intolerable pain. While the shocks were not real (learners faked their responses), the teachers believed them to be real. The experiment revealed the willingness of the teachers to punish the learners in obedience to directions from the person in authority over them. In the Zimbardo Prison experiment, college students acted either as "prisoners" or "prison guards" in a mock prison setting. Guards had the freedom to run the prison as they saw fit, without direct supervision. Open hostility toward prisoners and rebellion from prisoners soon prevailed. What should have been a two-week experiment was aborted on the fifth day when it became evident that real suffering was being inflicted on the prisoners.




The person who, with inner conviction, loathes stealing, killing, and assault may find himself performing these acts with relative ease when commanded by authority. Behavior that is unthinkable in an individual who is acting on his own may be executed without hesitation when carried out under orders.... It has been reliably established that from 1933 to 1945 millions of innocent people were systematically slaughtered on command. Gas chambers were built, death camps were guarded, daily quotas of corpses were produced with the same efficiency as the manufacture of appliances. These inhumane policies may have originated in the mind of a single person, but they could only have been carried out on a massive scale if a very large number of people obeyed orders.

Stanley Milgram,

Obedience to Authority

Some of the more significant recurrent moral problems in human history revolve around obedience to authority. Obedience is a necessary ingredient to the survival of communities—for citizens to obey laws, soldiers to obey orders, and workers to obey their bosses. Disobedience threatens to undermine the structure of authority that holds a society together. Yet obedience is riddled with ambiguities and dilemmas. When conscience and authority conflict, which should guide our conduct? As a nurse, do I follow an order of a doctor to lie to a patient about her condition? As a bank representative, do I follow the orders of my boss to foreclose the mortgage of a farm that went bankrupt from weather conditions beyond the farmer's control? As a soldier in the heat of combat, do I obey orders from my commander to shoot innocent women and children? The dark side of obedience is that it can mask individual moral conscience and serve as the mainstay for entire networks of oppression, domination, and murder (as was the case in Nazi Germany).

. . .

Keywords: ethical issues, group behavior, interpersonal behavior, managerial psychology

Suggested Citation

Freeman, R. Edward and Wicks, Andrew C., A Note on Obedience to Authority. Darden Case No. UVA-E-0070, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=908124 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.908124

R. Edward Freeman (Contact Author)

University of Virginia - Darden School of Business ( email )

P.O. Box 6550
Charlottesville, VA 22906-6550
United States
804-924-0935 (Phone)
804-924-6378 (Fax)

HOME PAGE: http://www.darden.virginia.edu/faculty/freeman.htm

Andrew C. Wicks

University of Virginia - Darden School of Business ( email )

P.O. Box 6550
Charlottesville, VA 22906-6550
United States

HOME PAGE: http://www.darden.virginia.edu/faculty/wicks.htm

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