Questionable Motives

March 18, 2010

Flexible Morality: how susceptible are we to granting unjustified authority?

Filed under: abuse,belief,Ethics,Morality — tildeb @ 9:10 am

We are going to be hearing a lot more about this experiment:

A French documentary film will attempt to show the power television holds over people when it presents the results of a fake television game show in which participants inflict pain on other people.

“How Far Will Televison Go?” reproduces its own version of an experiment conducted by Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram in the 1960s, in which volunteers were ordered to inflict electric shocks on a student in order to improve memory.

The documentary — due to be broadcast in France on Wednesday — used the ruse of a TV show to explore how even a game show host had the authority to persuade participants to inflict horrendous pain on other people.

“It’s more about the notion of power than about the individual,” the show’s producer, Christophe Nick told Reuters Television. “When a person is alone, face to face with someone abusing their power, then he or she becomes completely malleable and obedient.”

Urged on by the game show host, around 70 percent of contestants laughed at least once during the ordeal, the program producers said, and only 19 percent put a stop to the game before reaching the maximum charge of 420 volts.

In Milgram’s case 62 percent of participants obeyed abject orders; with television it’s 81 percent,” he said.

Authority is a tricky word to nail down its meaning because we tend to attribute some outside agency as possessing this power rather than understand and accept that the power of authority lies with us granting it our willing obedience (the more we collectively grant authority our obedience, the more powerful that authority becomes ‘over’ us). We see that transfer of power over personal conduct here in this experiment, where the ‘power’ of the TV game show host is only as influential as each person who grants the host authority over his or her individual decision-making to inflict pain on another.

This raises some important and interesting questions: If our moral code is fixed, meaning that we clearly know the difference between right and wrong, then how can we explain why the vast majority of people are so willing to do great harm to others in the name of ‘authority’? If we understand our morality to be flexible depending on the situation, then against what ethical code, meaning our actual behaviours, do we accept the responsibility of our individual action rather than transfer that responsibility to some perceived authority? Why were so many people willing to suspend personal responsibility of their individual action causing direct harm to another simply because someone told them to do so? Why are we so willing to grant that kind of authority to another, and at what point will people take that responsibility back?

Knowing that we are quite capable of granting authority that may very well be unjustified, we should make every effort to remember that we are ethically responsible for our personal actions. When we grant obedience to authority, we remain ethically responsible for that decision.

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