Notes: Modernity and the Holocaust by Zygmunt Bauman

Chapter 6: The Ethics of Obedience [Reading Milgram]

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

- In a nutshell, Milgram suggested and proved that inhumanity is a matter of social relationships. As the latter are rationalized and technically perfected, so is the capacity and the efficiency of the social production of inhumanity.

- Perhaps the most striking among Milgram's findings is the inverse ratio of readiness to cruelty and proximity to its victim.

- Mediating the action, splitting the action between stages delineated and set apart by the hierarchy of authority, and cutting the action across through functional specialization is one of the most salient and proudly advertised achievements of our rational society. The meaning of Milgram's discovery is that, immanently and irretrievably, the process of rationalization facilitates behaviour that is inhuman and cruel in its consequences, if not in its intentions.

- The reason why separation from the victim makes cruelty easier seems psychologically obvious: the perpetrator is spared the agony of witnessing the outcome of his deeds. But this is not the only explanation. Again, reasons are not just psychical. Like everything which truly explains human conduct, they are social. Placing the victim in another room not only takes him farther away from the subject, it also draws the subject and the experimenter relatively closer. There is incipient group function between the experimenter and the subject, from which the victim is excluded. In the remote condition, the victim is truly an outsider, who stands alone, physically and psychologically. Loneliness of the victim is not just a matter of his physical separation. It is a function of the togetherness of his tormentors, and his exclusion from this togetherness. Physical closeness and continuous co-operation (even over a relatively short time--no subject was experimented with for longer than one hour) tends to result in a group feeling, complete with the mutual obligations and solidarity it normally brings about. This group feeling is produced by joint action, particularly by the complementarity of individual actions--when the result is evidently achieved by shared effort.

- The effect of physical and purely psychical distance is farther enhanced by the collective nature of damaging action. One may guess that even if obvious gains in the economy and efficiency of action brought by its rational organization and management are left out of account, the sheer fact that the oppressor is a member of a group must be assigned a tremendous role in facilitating the committing of cruel acts.

- In the course of a sequential action, the actor becomes a slave of his own past actions. Smooth and imperceptible passages between the steps lure the actor into a trap; the trap is the impossibility of quitting without revising and rejecting the evaluation of one's own deeds as right or at least innocent.

- Inside the bureaucratic system of authority, language of morality acquires a new vocabulary. It is filled with concepts like loyalty, duty, discipline--all pointing to superiors as the supreme object of moral concern and, simultaneously, the top moral authority. They all, in fact, converge: loyalty means performance of one's duty as defined by the code of discipline. As they converge and reinforce each other, they grow in power as moral precepts, to the point where they can disable and push aside all other moral considerations--above all, ethical issues foreign to the self-reproductory preoccupations of the authority system.

- As Milgram puts it, "the subordinate person feels shame or pride depending on how adequately he has performed the actions called for by authority.... Superego shifts from an evaluation of the goodness or badness of the acts to an assessment of how well or poorly one is functioning in the authority system."

- Bureaucracy's double feat is the moralization of technology, coupled with the denial of the moral significance of nontechnical issues. It is the technology of action, not its substance, which is subject to assessment as good or bad, proper or improper, right or wrong. The conscience of the actor tells him to perform well and prompts him to measure his own righteousness by the precision with which he obeys the organizational rules and his dedication to the task as defined by the superiors.

- Milgram's own conclusion is that it is psychologically easy to ignore responsibility when one is only an intermediate link in a chain of evil action but is far from the final consequences of the action.

- Once responsibility has been shifted away by the actor's consent to the superior's right to command, the actor is cast in an agentic state--a condition in which he sees himself as carrying out another person's wishes. Agentic state is the opposite of the state of autonomy. In the agentic state, the actor is fully tuned to the situation as defined and monitored by the superior authority: this definition of the situation includes the description of the actor as the authority's agent.

- We may surmise that the overall effect of such a continuous and ubiquitous responsibility shifting would be a free-floating responsibility, a situation in which each and every member of the organization is convinced, and would say so if asked, that he has been at some else's beck and call, but the members pointed to by others as the bearers of responsibility would pass the buck to someone else again.

- The readiness to act against one's own better judgment, and against the voice of one's conscience, is not just the function of authoritative command, but the result of exposure to a single-minded, unequivocal and monopolistic source of authority. Such readiness is most likely to appear inside an organization which brooks no opposition and tolerates no autonomy, and in which linear hierarchy of subordination knows no exception: an organization in which no two members are equal in power. Such an organization, however, is likely to be effective on one of the two conditions. It may tightly seal its members from the rest of society, having been granted, or having usurped, an undivided control over most, or all its members' life activities and needs, so that possible influence of competitive sources of authority is cut out. Or it may be just one of the branches of the totalitarian or quasi-totalitarian state, which transforms all its agencies into mirror reflections of each other.

- A most remarkable conclusion flowing from the full set of Milgram experiments is that pluralism is the best preventive medicine against morally normal people engaging in morally abnormal actions. Unless pluralism had been eliminated on the global-societal scale, organizations with criminal purposes, which need to secure an unflagging obedience of their members in the perpetration of evidently immoral acts, are burdened with the task of erecting tight artificial barriers isolating the members from the "softening" influence of diversity of standards and opinions. The voice of individual moral conscience is best heard in the tumult of political and social discord.

- Most conclusions flowing from Milgram's experiments may be seen as variations on one central theme: cruelty correlates with certain patterns of social interaction much more closely than it does with personality features or other individual idiosyncracies of the perpetrators.