Doing the unthinkable: Obeying Commands to do Evil

Have you ever wondered how a person could participate in a genocide? How was it that the average German citizen either explicitly or implicitly participated in the extermination of millions of Jews? Or consider the more recent genocides in Sudan, Rwanda, and the Congo. If you are honest, you’ve asked this question and have thought, “there’s just no way I would do something like that.”

Or would you? The January issue of the 2009 American Psychologist is devoted to the topic of obedience and the controversial studies by Stanley Milgram. Recall your Psych 101 class and the obedience studies in the 60s where he found that participants would be willing to shock “learners” when they made mistakes despite the learner’s protests. Shocks were administered to the point of the learner becoming non-responsive. Well, no, there wasn’t any real shocks in the study, but participants didn’t know that and agreed to obey the instructor and push buttons for increasing shock levels when the confederate learner made a mistake.

But, we’re more advanced nowadays, right? One of the authors, Jerry Burger (Santa Clara U.) modified Milgram’s study (by eliminating some of the ethical controversies in the study) and found that still obeyed the instructor to apply shocks even when the “learner” cried out and asked for it to stop–EVEN when they saw defiant participants (really, confederates) refuse to obey the instructor.

So, why do we not speak up? Why do we go along with bad ideas? What is it that happens when we know we should not go along with something but do anyway? What happens then to our conscience?

Is the problem the power of the situational factors, as some assume, that make us feel we should obey? Or is it our dislike of being in conflict that causes us to be willing to pass on conflict to another in order to stay free from it?

Consider how you have listened to off-color jokes and said nothing. Consider how you have watched someone do something inappropriate or say something inappropriate to another but decided to say nothing. While we can give ourselves a break due to the surprise and shock factor and time to consider what the best option should be, we have to admit we have times of non-action.      

I saw a recent TV show filmed at a deli where someone behind the counter made fun of individuals trying to order but lacking in English skills. It was all staged so as to see what would those waiting behind do. Would they agree with the ethnic comments? Would they stand up and demand the server stop the offensive language? Would they leave? Many did speak up, but some did not and some even participated in telling those immigrants to go back where they came from.

Fact is, we don’t like suffering and we prefer comfort. But, living in a sinful world means speaking up and taking one on the chin from time to time. Some of us have “hero” fantasies where we imagine us taking the high road, but if we are honest, we are just as likely to freeze up and go along with things we ought not.


Filed under christian psychology, Christianity, conflicts, Cultural Anthropology, Psychology

8 responses to “Doing the unthinkable: Obeying Commands to do Evil

  1. Ryan

    This is interesting because secularists are caught in somewhat of a bind. On one hand if you espouse biological or environmental determinism then the people who go along aren’t really guilty because they aren’t really free. On the other hand if you espouse cultural relativism or individual subjectivism then you can’t call them guilty because who are you to judge another?

    It seems that only one who can make a claim to how things “ought to be” with an inflexible foundation can and should say something is good or bad, right or evil.

  2. Carmella

    I have to say, though I idealize myself as taking the proper stance, I found myself in a situation this weekend where I did not say anything. emotionally, I felt defeated by the obvious approval of those around me to something I found upsetting and inappropriate, and I copped out so as to avoid further upset from their reactions- mostly to avoid conflict and my own discomfort, rather than to encourage them to flee inappropriate situations. I feel very convicted by this idea.

  3. Tommy Myrick

    Phil, could you suggest your top two resources on “self-injury”?

  4. Carmella, We’ve all been there and made split second decisions that seem so hard to undo. It is convicting. May the Lord strengthen us!

  5. Tommy, you’re talking about cutting. Search my site and you’ll find some guest posts by Amy Sondova. She’s an expert on the topic. Check out her links.

  6. Louie buses

    What made the disciples turn and run when they saw Jesus unjustly betrayed and condemned? Was it just fear for themselves? Why was Jesus able to speak up consistently to protect the poor and expose unrighteousness? The answer is love. Not the soupy emotional junk we are sold in this country, but true Godly love. It sounds like a platitude, but in this sin soaked world, love is what empowers the confrontation of evil. Love seeks and protects truth, justice, rightness, and the rest of the long list. Love is the decision to sacrifice myself for another’s wellbeing whatever that might entail. Reaching that decision point is the crux of counseling.

  7. I’m with Louie on this – outside of love I can’t really think of a good explanation for why people sacrifice their own comfort for other people. Although I think in many cases other variables (fear, doubt, uncertainty) can, as they say, moderate that relationship.

  8. Lightbearer

    Specifically, one of the major factors in the average German citizen going along with the extermination of the Jews is because of hundreds of years of anti-semetic propaganda, blood libel accusations, and systematic harassment made by the Catholic and Anglican churches in Europe. Persecuting Jews because they were Jews wasn’t new in the 20th century; Christians had been doing so since the time of Constantine : So one of the reasons we go along with bad or evil ideas, as twenty centuries of Jewish-hating Christians can attest to, is that we don’t actually think that it’s a bad or evil idea.

    Another reason is simple biology: we are a social species that establishes hierarchies; in short, we are bred, born, and conditioned to follow authority. The central moral tenant of all Abrahamic religions is total obediance. This is the same as the military, and to a lesser extent, civilian governments. If we are unsure of what the correct thing to do in a given situation is, and there is someone in charge who is sure, then we tend to follow their lead. In both the church and the military, this decision-making process is both codified into law and heavily reinforced.

    Authority encapsulates power; it’s not enough to know right from wrong, you have to have the authority to enforce it. From my own experiences in the military, as well as how I have both succeeded and failed at interventions like those mentioned above, I would suspect that people tend to fail when they don’t feel like they have the “right” or “permission” to confront the transgressor, so therefore feel powerless to intervene.

    @ Ryan: You bring up good points, but most secularists don’t go to the extremes of either position. Rather, they recognize that there are certain biological and environmental realities that seem to be highly resistant to change (determinism), and that, amongst the plethora of cultural norms and habits there is more than just one right way to live one’s life (relativism). In other words, the use of processes of reason and compassion is the inflexible foundation upon which to judge right and wrong, good and evil, instead of a foundation of specific beliefs. To be more clear, the secularist uses thought processes as the inflexible foundation to discern right from wrong, instead of using specific beliefs like the faith-based person. Now, this can be (and has been) argued back and forth by philosophers, theologians, scientists, politicians, educators, etc., for over 2000 years; we have all been the benefactors of such debates in the advancements of morality, technology, civics, culture, education, art, leisure, etc. So, in my opinion, saying or implying that the secularist simply has no basis upon which to make moral judgments is to say that one has not taken the time to understand their position, or to value the contributions that position has produced.

    @ e.barrett: You’ve brought up a very good question; here’s a good synopsis of our current understanding of altruism:

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