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Shocking: Conscience & Cruelty

By Chuck Colson
Breakpoint Ministries
February 6, 2009

In 1961, shortly after Israel put Adolf Eichmann on trial—“the architect of the Holocaust”—Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram began a series of psychological experiments. The goal was to “test how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was “ordered to” by an authority figure.

In the experiment, the subject was told to administer an electric shock every time a participant in another room (who was called the “learner”) gave a wrong answer. While there were no real shocks, the subjects thought there were, a ruse made more believable by the sounds of screaming coming from the other room.

With each wrong answer, the subject was instructed to increase the severity of the “shock”—all the way to a potentially lethal level.

When the participants expressed concern or a desire to stop, they were told things like “please continue,” or in the most extreme cases, “you have no other choice, you must go on.”

Sixty-five percent of the subjects administered what they thought was a potentially lethal shock. Only one participant refused.

The results, understandably, shocked both scientists and the public. They implied that, given the right setting, “ordinary citizens” were capable of brutality and even murder. The difference between us and the perpetrators of the Holocaust weren’t as great as we liked to believe.

In the 45 years since the experiments, our attitudes toward authority have changed a lot. That and the lessons of history led many of us to believe that the results would be different if the experiments were performed today by more enlightened citizens.

They were wrong. When researchers at Santa Clara University performed a modified version of Milgram’s experiment—where the “shocks” were limited to the merely painful—the results were “nearly identical” to Milgram’s.

We shouldn’t be surprised. Even though the social movements of the last 30 or 40 years weakened institutions like the family, they didn’t change human nature itself. We are inclined by nature to seek out authority if for no other reason than self-preservation. So when there’s chaos, people choose order over liberty.

Another reason we shouldn’t be surprised is that what stands between us and obeying an immoral order isn’t our view of authority—it’s conscience. Not “conscience” in the sense that we do something we feel inside of us. I mean conscience in the sense of actually understanding right from wrong—an informed view of life. The word “conscience” comes from the Latin con scientia, meaning “with knowledge.”

And that implies that you know something in the first place—that you have been taught principles you are prepared to apply when you are asked to do something immoral. Given the devaluing of human life and dignity in the American culture, we cannot assume that many people have that kind of knowledge today.

But without access to this higher law and belief in a higher authority—or highest Authority—resisting unlawful and immoral authority is almost impossible. So all that stands between a person and cruelty are vague feelings that, not surprisingly, can’t resist authority, or peer pressure for that matter.

This is why the biblical worldview and the authority of God, and understanding it in our lives, matters.

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