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Obedience to authority is something that is essential for us to function as a society. This reminds me of a subject that we covered in my Philosophical Ethics course on psychological egoism. Psychological egoism is a theory that was developed by Thomas Hobbes. In short, it states that humans are inherently selfish and that we only do things that are beneficial to one’s self. He mostly focused this theory on the era of the hunter-gathers and before we had governments. It is hard to argue this for the time of the hunter-gather. Even altruistic actions like providing aid to another tribe member does benefit an individual. This is because the stronger the tribe is, the more security it gives that individual. He believes we established governments is because we want to protect ourselves from devolving back into this state of psychological egoism. In essence, we needed to establish authority and rules to protect us from ourselves.
A controversial experiment was done to test this obedience to authority. Stanley Milgram, a Yale University psychologist, created an experiment in which the test subject was a teacher and had to induce pain on the learner when he answered question incorrectly. The learner was an accomplice to the researcher in this experiment. The “teacher” had to give a punishment of a shock that would gradually increase in voltage to the “learner” as he got more and more questions wrong. There were 30 levels of shock in total. As the voltage increased, the “learner” would shout in more and more agonizing pain until after 330 volts, where the “learner” would go silent. Psychologists predicted that only 1% of the “teachers” would go up to the maximum voltage, but they were completely wrong. Around two out of three test subjects would go up to the maximum voltage, because they were told that they must continue by the researcher. Some even protested that they might of killed the “learner” after he went silent. They would feel the responsibility that they might have killed the “learner”. The researcher would then say that the health of the “learner” was their responsibility and demanded that the “teacher” continued. Most did as the researcher asked. The results continued to be the same when they diversified the test subjects. This experiment goes to show the great power of authority for our population. We will go along with terrible acts if the responsibility is taken away from us by an authority figure.
An example of this currently would be the Church of Scientology. The church seems to share the same traits as a cult. The Church of Scientology is under the direction of David Miscavige, and under his authority, has carried out abuse against its members. One example is the kidnaping of members who attempt to leave the church. In 2007, Martine Boublil was abducted in Italy by four Scientologists and held for several weeks against her will in Sardinia, which is an island off the coast of Italy. She was eventually found clothed in only a shirt. Her cell contained trash and an insect infested mattress. The church has also been linked to be a reason for some members committing suicide. All this abuse must have come from authority in the church that directs their followers to commit these terrible acts. Perhaps these followers think that the responsibility of the well being of the member is in the authority’s hands. This would be in line with Milgram’s experiment.
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