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Though there are still numerous debates on obedience, various studies clearly demonstrate the human disposition to obey the instructions given by those who occupy the superior positions. Studying the experiments and works belonging to such outstanding psychologists and researchers as Milgram, Zimbardo, Asch and Fromm contributes to the clearer understanding of the nature of human obedience. Though numerous causes of people’s inclination to obey can be determined, the most influential of them include moral standards, social pressure, striving for safety, and the power of authority. The analysis of each of these factors helps to reveal why man is “so prone to obey” (Fromm 686).
Moral Standards as a Cause of Obedience
Ethical norms have played an essential role in shaping the behavior of people during most of human history. Moral standards occupy a vital place in human life and have a huge impact on our opinions and actions.
Fromm claims that “obedience has been identified with virtue” during the history of the humankind (Fromm 686). Therefore, disobedience has been identified with a sin (Fromm 686). Both religious and social authorities have tended to ensure people that obeying the rules is the initial duty of every person. Such situation can be explained by the need to find a method how the minority of people occupying superior positions and having access to most of material resources can control the majority. Such method was necessary for ensuring that the majority would not rebel against the unfair share of goods. Positioning obedience as a sacred duty is a vital characteristic of most cultures. For example, the educational system teaches the people to obey the instructions and accept the ideas shared by the majority, not to oppose them. Therefore, humankind is inclined to obey the instructions of those who occupy superior positions as obedience is regarded by most people as an attribute of high morality and one of the highest virtues.
Social Pressure as a Cause of Obedience
Any human is a highly social creature that needs to belong to some community. Besides the physical safety provided by being a part of the society, there is a psychological aspect that plays a crucial role in people’s need for socializing. Only by communicating with other people, a person can develop a personality and sustain mental health. People cut off from the society for a long period face severe psychological problems and cannot live the normal happy life. Therefore, it is unquestionable that society plays a crucial role in human life.
As being a part of society is one of the initial needs of the human, people are inclined to take actions that enable them to become a well-respected member of the community. Therefore, society has huge power to modify the behavior of a person by using such tool as social pressure. Asch claims that the fact that “social influences shape every person’s practices, judgments, and beliefs” is a “truism to which anyone will readily assent” (2). The opinions of other people have a huge impact on the person and if they contradict the person’s position, experiencing being under social pressure is inevitable. Asch conducted an experiment showing the power of social pressure. The groups of men were asked to compare the lengths of lines. The majority of participants in every group were instructed to give fall answers. Nearly forty percent of people put in minority situation accepted “the misleading wrong judgments” (Asch 4). The findings of this study demonstrate to which extent the opinions of other people shape the person’s judgments, and, therefore, behavior. The disposition to obedience heavily relies on the described susceptibility to other people’s opinions putting a social pressure on the person. People are inclined to obey to avoid experiencing social neglecting and remain the full-fledged members of the society. For example, the teenager disobeying the school instructions because of his religious position has huge chances to become an outsider. The peer pressure is likely to cause him to change his behavior and obey the instructions to avoid being neglected by the school community. To be unsusceptible to social pressure and disobey, the person needs to have enough courage to be alone (Fromm 686). Most of the people prefer to avoid social pressure instead of opposing the majority by disobedience.
Striving for Safety as a Cause of Obedience
Striving for ensuring the safety conditions for life is one of the essential instincts of humans. Every person searches for methods of avoiding conditions that can put a threat to his/her life and family. Therefore, behavioral patterns of people are heavily influenced by the desire to be safe.
Disobedience can be regarded as one of the behavioral patterns that put a serious threat to the safety of the person. Every act of disobedience usually leads to certain punishment and corresponding penalties. Every person witnesses the examples of negative consequences of disobedience of other people in everyday life and in that way is urged to avoid experiencing such situations. People are prone to obey because they want to “feel safe and protected” (Fromm 686). The person’s obedience to any form of power makes his/her feel strong (Fromm 686). The obedience to orders in everyday life helps to receive some benefits and avoid certain punishments or other unpleasant consequences of disobedience. For example, the history of humankind has witnessed numerous unjust laws that have violated the initial rights of people. In such cases, people understand the unfair nature of such laws and do not agree with them but still obey them, as such obedience helps them to avoid the punishment. In any situation encouraging people to oppose the power and show their position, they are more inclined to choose the behavioral pattern that gives them protection from punishment than the one that requires them to put their safety at risk.
Power of Authority as a Cause of Obedience
Authority is one of the essential attributes of any human community. Human society cannot exist without the presence of authoritative institutions controlling the behavior of the majority. All ideas about an ideal society in which there are no institutions established for enforcement purpose and all members have the right to live their life according to their beliefs are utopian. Unfortunately, human beings cannot coexist without an authority that enforces them to follow the rules. Though authority presents a threat to people’s right to free choice, it is necessary for ensuring the proper functioning of society as the absence of authority will lead to chaos and anarchy. Therefore, the presence of authority is inevitable in any human society.
The power of authority is one of the primary causes of human obedience as the main aim of authority is to force people to obey its orders. One of the main factors that encourage people to obey the orders of those who occupy superior positions is related to the fact that most members of society are inclined to believe that authorities functioning in it are legitimate. Therefore, the majority of the population considers authorities and their orders and regulations worth putting trust in them. This factor illustrates the fact that most people prefer to give their right to judge and make decisions on important issues in the hands of those who are considered legitimate for doing this. Most humans believe in the validity of authorities and vest them with the right to influence their life. Stanley Milgram conducted the experiment that demonstrated the people’s readiness to obey the instructions of an authority even if they cause suffering of an innocent person.
The findings of the study demonstrate that the main causes of obedience to instructions that contradict the morality include the positive feelings the participants experienced from “pleasing the experimenter” and their strong belief that “obeying the experimenter under difficult circumstances” is their duty and even something they can be proud of (Milgram 367). The experiment conducted by Phillip Zimbardo also revealed the readiness of common people to do harm to other people if it is the part of instructions given by an authority. The findings of the study demonstrate that one of the main causes of such behavior is that “the prisoners did not get to know each other as people” and, therefore, valued the power of the authority’s instructions much higher than humanism and ethics (McKirnan 5). The findings of these experiments demonstrate people’s inclination not to question the rightness of decision made by the authority. The experiments also illustrate the fact the majority of people consider following the authority’s order a primary duty of every person.
Besides believing in the rightness of authorities, people are inclined to search for power that can make decisions they feel they are not capable of making. Such typical human characteristic demonstrates the willing to give the right for free choice in somebody else’s hands to avoid accepting the responsibility for the consequences this choice will cause. This disposition causes people to obey the instructions that contradict their moral values in particular situations. The participants of Milgram’s experiment tended to feel relief after receiving the confirmation that the responsibility for the life of the person that was hurt is assigned to the experimenter (Milgram 363). Therefore, the experiment demonstrates that attaining responsibility to the authority is a typical behavioral pattern that encourages people to obey the orders. Most people do not want to have the freedom to make choices on their own. It is convenient for them to shift particular decisions to the authorities. For example, the people that followed the inhuman instructions given by authorities in Nazi’s Germany considered themselves just a part of the mechanism and did not accept the responsibilities for cruel actions. They regarded following such instructions as a part of their job and attained the full responsibility for the actions leading to millions of deaths to the authorities.
Obedience is a natural human trait that has a huge impact on the way the society develops and functions. The analysis of the main causes of human obedience reveals that people are inclined to obey because of the need to follow certain moral standards prevailing in the society, the unwillingness to be neglected by the society, and the necessity to protect their safety. The power of authority also plays an important role in encouraging people to obey the orders and regulations.
Asch, Solomon. Opinions and Social Pressure. n.d. Web.
Fromm, Erich. Disobedience as a Psychological and Moral Problem. n.d. Web.
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Milgram, Stanley. “The Perils of Obedience.” Writing and Reading Across the Curriculum. 10th ed. 2007. Ed. Laurence Behrens and Leonard Rosen. London: Longman. 358-370. Print.
Zimbardo, Phillip. “Stanford Prison Experiment.” New York Times. 1972: 1-15. Print.