Obedience to Authority, by Stanley Milgram

In Stanley Milgram’s book Obedience to Authority, he states that all people (except for those dwelling in isolation) are forced to respond, through defiance or submission, to the commands of others. He was talking about men, but it seems to apply to Christ’s commands to us as well. Our inherent choice is to rebel against God, every one of us; and yet, Milgram shows that we tend to obey earthly authority, even to the point of crossing moral boundaries. He quotes someone named C. P. Snow (1961):

“When you think of the long and gloomy history of man, you will find more hideous crimes have been committed in the name of obedience than have ever been committed in the name of rebellion. If you doubt that, read William Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. The German Officer Corps were brought up in the most rigorous code of obedience . . . in the name of obedience they were party to, and assisted in, the most wicked large scale actions in the history of the world.”

Milgram then discusses the moral question of obeying when commands conflict with conscience. Conservative philosophers, he says, argue that even when the commanded act is evil, it is better to carry it out than to undermine authority. Thankfully, God answers this dilemma for us by explaining the levels of authority that we’re to obey. As long as a civil official or civil laws do not require us to dishonor God, we’re to obey them. Paying taxes doesn’t dishonor God (actually, it’s lying or being lazy on our taxes that does).

On the opposite end of the spectrum from the conservatives, humanists, according to Milgram, argue that “the moral judgments of the individual must override authority when the two are in conflict.” I tend to be a humanist, deciding to disobey my district and my bosses because I think they’re wrong. But what I think doesn’t matter, and here I require repentance, because Jesus perfectly followed even unjust laws.

Milgram’s experiment, which required subjects to administer increasingly painful shocks (at least, they thought they were administering them) to people, had disturbing findings–almost two-thirds of the people administered powerful shocks that they knew were dangerous. “It is the extreme willingness of adults,” he wrote, “to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority that constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.”


About davestuartjr
Dave Stuart Jr. is a full-time teacher who writes about becoming better, saner teachers at He is a follower of Jesus Christ, a husband to Crystal, and a father to Hadassah, Laura, and Marlena.

2 Responses to Obedience to Authority, by Stanley Milgram

  1. dabinl10 says:

    i recently watched a youtube video about the milgram experiment too.
    it’s really scary how people follow the orders..

    by the way, nice post!
    may i quote some of your sentences for my own blog?

  2. davestuartjr says:

    Gracias! You absolutely may quote anything you’d like.

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