The well-known psychologist Erich Fromm wrote an essay, "On Disobedience," published in his book On Disobedience and Other Essays. Fromm wrote that "human history began with an act of disobedience." He was referring to Adam and Eve whose act of disobedience in eating the apple of knowledge set them "free and opened their eyes." Obedience is the root of much evil. Fromm wrote:

"Man has continued to evolve by acts of disobedience. Not only was his spiritual development possible only because there were men who dared say no to the powers that be in the name of their conscience or their faith, but also his intellectual development was dependent on the capacity for being disobedient - disobedient to authorities who tried to muzzle new thoughts and to the authority of long-established opinions which declared a change to be nonsense.

...[W]hile we are living technically in the Atomic Age, the majority of men - including most of those who are in power - still live emotionally in the Stone Age; ...while our mathematics, astronomy, and the natural sciences are of the twentieth century, most of our ideas about politics, the state, and society lag far behind the age of science. If mankind commits suicide it will be because people will obey those who command them to push the deadly buttons; because they will obey the archaic passions of fear, hate, and greed; because they will obey obsolete clichés of State sovereignty and national honor."

Fromm continues to say that in order to disobey we need courage, and the capacity for courage depends on our state of development. When we are fully developed individuals, having "emerged from mother's lap and father's commands," and having acquired the ability to think and feel for ourselves, then we have the courage to say "no" to political coercion.

In Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View Stanley Milgram writes:

"Obedience, because of its very ubiquitousness, is easily overlooked as a subject of inquiry in social psychology. But without an appreciation of its role in shaping human action, a wide range of significant behavior cannot be understood. For an act carried out under command is, psychologically, of a profoundly different character than action which is spontaneous.

The person who, with inner conviction, loathes stealing, killing, and assault may find himself performing these acts with relative ease when commanded by authority. Behavior that is unthinkable in an individual who is acting on his own may be executed without hesitation when carried out under orders.

...Obedience, as a determinant of behavior, is of particular relevance to our time. It has been reliably established that from 1933 to 1945 millions of innocent people were systematically slaughtered on command. Gas chambers were built, death camps were guarded, daily quotas of corpses were produced with the same efficiency as the manufacture of appliances. These inhumane policies may have been originated in the mind of a single person, but they could only have been carried out on a massive scale if a very large number of people obeyed orders.

...Though such prescriptions as "Thou shalt not kill" occupy a pre-eminent place in the moral order, they do not occupy a correspondingly intractable position in human psychic structure. A few changes in newspaper headlines, a call from the draft board, orders from a man with epaulets, and men are led to kill with little difficulty. Even the forces mustered in a psychology experiment will go a long way toward removing the individual from moral controls. Moral factors can be shunted aside with relative ease by a calculated restructuring of the informational and social field."

Milgram conducted some experiments to determine the degree to which people are obedient to authority. In a typical experiment there is a "teacher," a "learner" and the "authority" (experimenter) who conducts the experiment. The teacher asks a series of questions to the learner. If the learner gives an incorrect answer the teacher presses a button that supposedly administers an electric shock to the learner. Actually no shock is involved, but the learner is an actor who pretends that he suffers pain from the shock.

There is a series of buttons to administer a range of shocks, starting at 15 volts and going up to 450 volts in 15-volt increments. Every time the learner makes a mistake the teacher is to administer the next higher level of shock. The teacher is told that high levels of shock will hurt the learner and may even kill him.

Prior to a typical experiment people were asked what they thought would be the maximum shock applied. Among 39 psychiatrists, one predicted that the strongest shock would be 300 volts, two predicted 195 volts. All the other predictions were lower. Among 31 college students, the highest prediction by one student was 210 volts. Among middle-class adults, the highest prediction by three people was 300 volts.

In the actual experiments, generally, about two-thirds of teachers administered the maximum shock, despite the learner's screams of pain and demands that the experiment be stopped. In some variations of the experiment over 90 percent of the teachers administered the maximum shock. The degree of obedience to authority was vastly higher than anyone expected.

Milgram concluded from his experiments that obedience to authority is a "danger to human survival inherent in our make-up." His experiments revealed something very dangerous:

"[T]he capacity for man to abandon his humanity, indeed the inevitability that he does so, as he merges his unique personality into larger institutional structures.

This is a fatal flaw nature has designed into us, and which in the long run gives our species only a modest chance of survival...

Each individual possesses a conscience which to a greater or lesser degree serves to restrain the unimpeded flow of impulses destructive to others. But when he merges his person into an organizational structure, a new creature replaces autonomous man, unhindered by the limitations of individual morality, freed of humane inhibition, mindful only of the sanctions of authority."

My conclusion: It is people whose minds were severely damaged by compulsory state education, who easily succumb to authority. The cognitive connection between their behavior and the consequences of their behavior was greatly weakened in school. It is these dependent, obedience-trained, powerless weaklings who submit to authority.

In any case, obedience must be just about the greatest of all evils. Obedience is the surrender of personal power.

Milgram concludes his book by quoting from an article by Harold J. Laski, titled "The Dangers of Obedience":

"...[C]ivilization means, above all, an unwillingness to inflict unnecessary pain. Within the ambit of that definition, those of us who heedlessly accept the commands of authority cannot yet claim to be civilized men."

America - the United States - was born through a brave act of disobedience. The signers of the Declaration of Independence risked their lives and their fortunes. They could have been hanged for "treason."

Disobedience creates civilization. Obedience causes its collapse.

Elias Canetti has written a penetrating analysis of power called Crowds and Power. He says about commands:

"An action performed as the result of a command is different from all other actions. It is experienced and remembered as something alien, something not really our own."

Canetti makes these points about commands:

Solving the "punishment problem" is no easy task. Here are some considerations:

In Actualizations: You Don't Have to Rehearse to Be Yourself Stewart Emery wrote:

"The first postulate of behavior modification is this: If somebody does something for which he or she receives positive acknowledgement, or positive reinforcement, he is more likely to repeat the behavior...

...[I]f you do something and nobody takes any notice of it at all, you are less likely to do it again. In other words, any behavior that is consistently ignored will ultimately cease. (...[T]hese are all tendencies, not absolutes.)

...If you do something and you are punished - negatively acknowledged - the results of the negative acknowledgment are unpredictable, except under circumstances wherein the only kind of acknowledgment you ever get is negative; then negative acknowledgment will lead to a repetition of the behavior... If, when you were growing up, the only time you got acknowledged was when you did something that your parents did not like, then the administration of negative acknowledgment, or punishment, led you to continue to repeat behavior that led to your getting punished... Let's look at the consequences.

It is most obvious in our penal system. People are in jail because they did something that got negatively acknowledged. The reason they do things that get negatively acknowledged is that they think that is the only way they can ever get any kind of attention. The more we give them negative acknowledgment, the more negative behavior they will manifest."

My suggestions for solving the "punishment problem":

I recently received the following quote:

"I recall a story I once read by a psychiatrist, a story about a tribe that has a rather unusual way of dealing with moral wrongdoers or lawbreakers. Such a person, when his or her infraction is discovered, is not reproached or condemned but is brought into the center of the village square -- and the whole tribe gathers around. Everyone who has ever known this person since the day he or she was born steps forward, one by one, and talks about anything and everything good this person has ever been known to have done. The speakers aren't allowed to exaggerate or make mountains out of molehills; they have to be realistic, truthful, factual. And the person just sits there, listening, as one by one people talk about all the good things this person has done in the course of his or her life. Sometimes, the process takes several days. When it's over, the person is released and everyone goes home and there is no discussion of the offense -- and there is almost no repetition of offenses." (Zunin, 1970)


Canetti, Elias: Crowds and Power (Penguin Books, England; 1973). Classic on the dynamics of crowd behavior. Important analysis of obedience and commands and their consequences. Highly recommended.

Fromm, Erich: On Disobedience and Other Essays (Routledge & Kegan Paul, London; 1984). Why disobedience is a virtue and obedience is evil. Why disobedience is the first step toward developing real consciousness.

Haag, Ernest van den: Punishing Criminals: Concerning a Very Old and Painful Question (Basic Books, NY; 1985). Analysis of crime and punishment.

Honderich, Ted: Punishment: The Supposed Justifications (Penguin Books, England; 1976). Comprehensive analysis of punishment theories.

Jaynes, Julian: The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (Houghton Mifflin, Boston; 1990 - originally published in 1976). In my opinion, the most important book on psychology ever written. Explains where human consciousness came from, how it developed, and where it is now - why most humans still crave "external authorities."

Milgram, Stanley: Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View (Harper & Row, NY; 1974). Must reading for appreciating the degree of obedience and the potential consequences.

Contents -- Next: On Government


Downloaded from the Personal Empowerment Resources Web-Site: http://www.mind-trek.com/