Half a century ago, a junior faculty member at Yale University undertook a notorious experiment familiar to anyone who has taken an introductory psychology course. Stanley Milgram set up the experiment to find out the extent to which people will obey authority. This was motivated, in large measure, by the horrors that had taken place scarcely two decades earlier in Nazi-occupied Europe, where large numbers of otherwise decent people were caught up in an effort to eliminate entire categories of humanity.
In the experiment, two persons came into the laboratory. One of them, designated the “teacher,” believed he would be taking part in a study of learning and memory. The other person, designated the “learner,” was an actor privy to the real aim of the experiment. The learner was brought into a room, strapped into a chair, and attached to electrical wires. The teacher was put before the console of a formidable looking machine which, he was told, controlled the amount of electricity flowing through the wires into the body of the learner. The teacher was to ask questions of the learner, and each time the learner made an error, was instructed to administer successively higher doses of electricity to him.
In reality, of course, no shocks were ever given or received. The real test was to determine how far the subject/teacher would go in carrying out orders, even when hearing the agonizing cries of the victim/learner at the end of the wires. Would the subject break off the experiment, thereby defying authority, because he believed he was being commanded to do something wrong? Or would the subject, upon being assured by the white-coated experimenter that he assumed full responsibility, continue to administer “shocks” even up to the dangerous level of 450 volts?
David T. Koyzis teaches political science at Redeemer University College and is author, most recently, of We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God.