Most of us obey every day without a thought. In fact, since we live in a democratic society, we mechanically obey to the social norms that cause us to feel, think, and act in ways that are consistent with our group’s social standards, which describe what behaviors should and should not be performed in any social setting. This situation leads us to a critical issue regarding obedience toward a figure of authority. From birth, we are taught that obedience is good and disobedience is bad; but has it even occurred to anyone that in some cases, disobedience may be the better course to choose? It is clearly evident that obedience can also be immoral and destructive.
During my adolescence years, I have faced several moral dilemmas but one of them illustrates perfectly how obedience toward a figure of authority can be dangerously destructive. When I was fourteen years old, my “so-called” girl friends and I went shopping at the local mall. Vicky, the “coolest” and the oldest girl in the group, wanted to steal this very nice sweater. Instead, the girls asked me if I had the guts to shoplift knowing that I was a very na?ve and timid person, but I told them that I have never tried to steal anything before. I believed that they expected me to steal that sweater for them. Immediately, I asked myself why they would do something like that; certainly not for the money. If they wanted something, they could have easily bought it. It certainly was not because they needed the stuff. Sometimes, they even threw away what they stole. So I came to realize that it was a “social” thing for them. In fact, stealing and getting away with it was seen as something very cool and brave, and if you wanted to be considered cool, you had to steal. It was definitely a peer pressure thing. Peer pressure can be a powerful force in one’s life and when you’re young, who you are is defined by who you hang out with. So once they got started with the shoplifting, it was very hard to stop. Only getting caught or seeing someone get caught will shake up your world and bring you to your senses. Peer pressure can drive teenagers to do things they would normally not consider and it sometimes drives them to behavior, which we would never believe them capable of. Right away, I felt like I was under the pressure of Vicky’s oppressive command. Finally, I bravely refused to obey to the group and had no regrets, because I thought about the bad consequences of shoplifting and was aware of the dangers of obedience in this circumstance.
Unfortunately, most individuals in our society fall into group pressure because they choose to obey to the authoritative group, which can be morally wrong. In her essay titled “Group Minds”, Doris Lessing deals with the important issue of obedience and group pressure. The author states that “we in the western world celebrate our individualism, but we’re na?ve in understanding the ways that groups largely undercut our individuality” (Lessing, 1988, p. 333), meaning that we, mindless humans, do not realize that we think the way the group does and that we follow the group even though belief in the Western world has it that people are “free” to think, to choose for themselves. Lessing also argues that a human is a social animal and with that, comes social pressures and authoritative figures. Furthermore, Lessing claims that “ what is dangerous is not the belonging to a group, or groups, but not understanding the social laws that govern groups and govern us” (p. 334). Because the “hardest thing in the world is to stand out against one’s group, a group of one’s peers” (334), we need bravery in order to disobey, but the capacity for bravery relies on our state of development. When we are fully developed individuals and having gained the ability to think for ourselves, we will eventually have the courage to say “no”. But average people would fall into group pressure even though the group might be obviously wrong. Since they are letting the group decide for them and they are not deciding for themselves; and this is when the dangers of obedience can possibly arise.
The dangers of obedience, which Lessing discusses in her essay, are clearly shown in my awful experience of peer pressure. If I had not immediately realized that my group of friends was persuading me to steal; to commit a crime in order to prove my courage, I would certainly fall into their trap and would therefore “obey the atmosphere” (p. 334). These days, most teenagers face this kind of moral dilemma in their life, but unfortunately, most of them choose to make the wrong choice by obeying to the group and possibly end up with serious problems.
Numerous experiments conducted by a famous psychologist named Stanley Milgram also reveal the severe dangers of obedience. The main purpose of the experiments, as discussed in Milgram’s essay, “The Perils of Obedience”, is to test how social humans would react in a certain situation and to determine the degree to which people are obedient to authority. In fact, Milgram tested how certain individuals would respond to inflicting harm onto another person because another figure told them to. In other words, he was interested in why “ordinary people” would actually do such horrific things to the victim (Milgram, 1963, p. 343). In the experiments, there was no physical consequence for the individual pushing the button if they said “no”. People in this situation believed in that the scientist knew what he or she was doing so they assumed that what they were doing was tolerable even though in reality they believed it was not right. Most subjects gave up their free will to choose because a higher authority told them to do so, which is totally absurd. Milgram’s experiments show that the degree of obedience to authority was vastly higher than anyone expected. In fact, Milgram’s experiments revealed something very shaky: “almost two-thirds of the participants fall into the category of “obedient” subjects, and that they say represented ordinary people drawn from working, managerial, and professional classes” (p. 352). A different scientist who redid this experiment found that 85 percent of his subjects were obedient (p. 347). As a result, it was evident that the individuals will succumb to authoritative figures. It is quite alarming to know that the majority of people would do such a cruel act just because they are under the command of a figure of authority. Overall, the experiments effectively reveal the critical problem concerning obedience that our society is facing.
Milgram’s experiments on obedience reflect my thoughts about the dangers of obedience. I consider that many people would actually obey to a respected, authoritative figure even though they know that the intention is morally wrong and inhuman. As for my own experience of group pressure, I was forced to commit a crime, but I courageously refused to obey because I knew that shoplifting is wrong and can perhaps lead me to serious problems. If I had participated in Milgram’s experiments, I would, for sure, fall into the category of the minority of people who refused to obey to the commanding figure. The reason why I had refused to steal and would refuse to go further in the experiment of Milgram is because I believe that it is immoral and inhuman to do such a horrific thing and not only that, it is also important that an individual take total control of his or her own action.
Based on my personal experience, I now believe that disobedience can be, in some cases, healthy because when individuals disobey, they had a thought that what the authority is doing is wrong and they do not want to do it. By doing so, the individuals then contemplate their own thoughts instead of just following the authorities thoughts. However, one should always be aware of the dangers of obedience.