Studies of obedience to authority have been important to social psychologists as they study the manner in which authorities change thoughts, behaviors and feelings of citizens.
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Despite the fact that Obedience has been perceived as a useful tenet in society, psychological research has suggested the existence of a dark side (Hill par. 5-8). Therefore, it is necessary for authorities to order people to be obedient, but the orders have to be based on moral standards. In this paper, the negative and positive aspects of the authorities’ orders are compared while maintaining the necessity of obedience to authority.
The manner in which people obey those in authority has been the focus of recent debate and research. For instance, Stanley Miligram, a social psychologist described an experiment where ordinary citizens delivered electric shock every time a person failed to memorize certain words. In this experiment, shock givers did not know that no shock was being delivered, and the recipient was trained to respond by false pretence.
The experiment revealed that about two thirds of shock deliverers were ready to inflict pain regardless of the recipient’s agony, simply because of authorization (Tourist 13).
In line with Miligram’s experiment, the situation in Abu Ghraib prison (where soldiers participated in inhumane treatment of detainees due to orders from those in authority) and Okinawa (where residents were ordered by Japanese military to kill themselves using grenades) gives the implication that even decent people can end up torturing and killing when given the right circumstances.
The fact that the soldiers in Abu Ghraib participated in torturing of detainees (they considered it principled or even romantic) raises the important question whether the bow to authority must exist among all people or moral oppositions should sometimes be put up. Therefore, a balance between obedience and non-compliance has to be struck, since obedience is required for smooth functioning of societies.
Similarly, when people oppose authority blindly, it causes a delusional belief where they think they possess a certain moral virtue. This is contrary to the fact that real life always requires people to exercise compromise. Several authors (e.g. Wenker) have pointed out that blind opposition to authority serves no other role other than a satisfaction to one’s own egoism, which may be detrimental to society and people’s well being.
Therefore, as much as authorities should order people to be obedient, the existence of opposition to authority should be principled, considerate and highly selective (Hersh 1-3; Kambayashi 1-3: Wenker 1-8).
According to Wenker, a strong moral decision exists in the armed forces. Therefore, soldiers have a strong moral obligation to fulfill these decisions by choosing the best approach of attaining their goals in line with those of the military. Soldiers have always attributed the attainment of military goals as being extremely significant.
However, this may contravene the rights and freedoms of those involved, as explained by the attempt of soldiers to milk evidence from detainees at Abu Ghraib prison through immoral and inhumane ways (Wenker 5). According to Wenker, the military force is not justified to use authority in a manner which contravenes the rights of citizens.
Therefore, he suggests that “the armed forces are a means to very significant moral ends” (Wenker 7). Wenker further points out that the military system of authority is not devoid of unfair treatment, for instance when liberties of soldiers are restricted in certain situations. However, authorities (e.g., the military system) have generally achieved a remarkable record of promoting fair treatment.
For instance, though obedience by prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq was necessary as part of their rehabilitation, there was also a dark side because of the tendency by American soldiers to obey authority figures, even when they made demands which were out rightly questionable and ultimately immoral to the detainees (Hersh 1-3; Kambayashi 1-3; Hill par. 5-8).
According to Wenker, authorities need more instruments to realize their goals other than solely relying on soldiers. Hence Wenker points out that there must be societal cooperation, where the effort of each societal member is in line with the effort of others. However, for such a phenomenon to occur, conscious decisions have to be made, which elicits the necessity of societal decision procedures.
Wenker asserts that if effective and fair decisions are adopted as part of procedures, citizens tend to obey them. Therefore, obedience to authority is a condition which is necessary so that the moral goals of authorities can be achieved. Hence according to Henkel, obedience is a functional imperative, so long as the decision procedure undertaken by authorities is fair and effective (Wenker 1-8).
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For instance, protests by Okinawa residents due to attempts to downplay army’s role in mass suicides was a justified and fair approach taken by society on moral grounds. Hence the decision by authorities to revise history and protect involvement of the military in mass suicide during the Second World War was a decision that was morally wrong (Kambayashi 1-3; Hill par. 5-8).
Because of the obligation of personnel working in authorities to obey military or police authority, the personnel, in any situation should rely on obedience as the morally appropriate response to decisions. However, quick obedience should not be blind and the personnel’s moral sensitivities should be kept alert towards the possibility that disobedience might be required by morality (Wenker 8; Hill par. 5-8).
Hersh, Semour. “Torture in Abu Ghraib: American Soldiers Brutalized Iraqis-How Far Does the Responsibility Go?” The New York Times, 10 Mar. 2004: 1-3. Print.
Hill, Spyglass. Notes on Military leadership, n.d. Web. <http://www.molossia.org/milacademy/leadership.html>
Kambayashi, Takehiko. “Japan Revises History Texts: Okinawa Resident’s Protest Attempts to Downplay Army’s Role in Mass Suicides”, The Correspondent, 7 Aug. 1990: 2-3. Print.
Tourist, Grief. Milgram’s Obedience to Authority Experiment, 15 Mar. 2009. Web.
Wenker, Kenneth. “Morality and Military Obedience”, Air University Review, 17 Aug. 1981: 1-8. Print.