Revising Milgram’s conclusion is a waste of time.

I noticed this article in the Independent today about a new interpretation of the Milgram Experiment.

The article is typical of newspaper’s treatment of scientific research as a set of competing conjectures which are deemed true based on the authority that said them and when they were said. In Newspaper Science, you can undo Einsteinian special relativity simply by saying it doesn’t exist and having the perceived authority to do so. The actual science bit, the essence of the scientific method is often poorly reported, misunderstood or swept under the carpet as ideological nuisance.

The problem with the famous electric shock experiment of Stanley Milgram is that it challenges the perception that humans have innate goodness. This is a philosophical position with theological origins. Mankind is simply wired up to need to justify their actions by assuming moral correctness.  Moral ambivalence is viewed as a disorder, implying we assume that psychological normalcy involves engagement with questions as to the morality of one’s actions. Mankind also needs to feel good about itself. Avoidant-attachment disorder,  Schizoid Personality Disorder, Depressive disorders. When we label those as disorders, we’re saying something about an outlook that regards not feeling good about oneself as being wrong, again against the normalcy that we’d like to believe exists.

Milgram’s experimental conclusion is heretical. It’s the experimental psychology equivalent of “non serviam”. Fuelled by the immediate aftermath of the Nazi holocaust, Milgram courageously attempted to reveal what dark aspect of humanity could bring us to commit atrocities on such a grand scale. In doing so, he would challenge the theory of mankind’s innate goodness and the conclusions would prove unsettling.

Yet Milgram never said people were evil, just that they had a great capacity to do acts that would be objectively considered evil when encouraged to do so by authority. From “The Peril’s of Obedience” in 1974:

“The legal and philosophic aspects of obedience are of enormous importance, but they say very little about how most people behave in concrete situations. I set up a simple experiment at Yale University to test how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to by an experimental scientist. Stark authority was pitted against the subjects’ [participants’] strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects’ [participants’] ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not. The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.
Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.”

I see nothing in this retrospective that changes Milgram’s interpretation. Indeed, it looks like a newspaper sensationalising work by academics, themselves  coming up with a contrarian interpretation on one of the most famous experiments in their field. They state:

“This provides new insight into the psychology of oppression and gels with other evidence that perpetrators are generally motivated, not by a desire to do evil, but by a sense that what they are doing is worthy and noble.”

Prima facie, it doesn’t provide new insight at all because it’s arguing against false dichotomy.  That Milgram suggested that the underlying motives were evil and that this new interpretation challenges that.

Also it’s syllogistic thinking to suggest that the participants’ aim in delivering the shocks were “worthy and noble”, creating an unverifiable chain of causality based on the the interview records of participants following the experiment. It’s merely conjecture.

Calling Milgram a “dramatist” is perjorative, particularly when he’s not around to defend himself and the term maligns the experimental methodology with the stink of innuendo.  Milgram’s conclusions stand. Authority figures can convince people that bad is the new good and they’ll go along with it for reasons of self-preservation/ naivety/both.

Anyone exposed to daily news of executions, beheadings, bombings, cheating, institutional abuse, political lying, corruption etc. could easily convince themselves that people are inherently bad. Milgram never made that argument, he argued for mankind being easily led. It’s the lesser of 2 evils. In my, perhaps nihilistic, thinking, one of the greatest moral dilemmas facing mankind is how to develop a more realistic view of our morality such that we are resistant to the many false arguments of a given act’s moral correctness. We learn moral gullibility in the form of religion but not moral skepticism in the form of philosophy in most of our schools, which ill equips us to reject appeals by authority that any act, including holocaust, is morally wrong.  I’m not suggesting religion has no moral lessons. That would be silly but the problem is the absence of rigorous examination and debate of those moral lessons. Unexamined morality is simply gullibility and easy to manipulate. There’s plenty evidence of this in how cults break down the ability of followers to argue against the morality of the cult’s actions.

The bedrock of moral skepticism is rejecting the innate goodness theory as, once we give it oxygen, it makes it easier for a malevolent authority to light the fire of manipulation. Rather than people being innately good, I’d suggest that people would, in general, like to be innately good.  The evolutionary basis for this is that feeling good about ourselves makes us healthier, stronger and more resistant to disease and infection.  The perception of goodness helps our selfish genes to propagate. And that’s OK if we can learn how to be better based on accepting that we’re not.