Just following orders


I spent my entire childhood in the park — chasing little kids who chased pigeons, rescuing drowning bees from swimming pools, visiting lonely-looking animals at PetCo. Then one day, I was instructed to put several live baby fish in a freezer, an action which went completely against my beliefs. Despite feeling immense guilt, I did it — because it was my job.

I was just following orders.

Authority figures and our obedience to them plays a fascinating role in our lives. In Stanley Milgram’s 1961 experiment on obedience, participants were tested on their willingness to follow orders in delivering shocks to their peers. Uncomfortable with increasing the voltage, these “teachers” would ask the men in white lab coats if they could stop delivering the shocks. They were told that they did not have a choice and they must continue. And so they did — not knowing, of course, that no actual shocks were being delivered. Out of the 40 participants who played the role of “teacher,” 26 delivered the maximum (and deadly) 450-volt shock, which rendered the artificial screams silent.

It’s easy for us to think we’d stand up to the authority figure in a similar situation before obeying such outrageous orders. But I know from personal experience that that’s not always how these things work.

I hold a strong respect for all living creatures. I’ve always gone out of my way to protect defenseless animals, and by the time I was a sophomore in high school, I desperately wanted to be a biologist in order to do just that: to save the lives of plant and animal species across the world. So I found a job volunteering in the living systems department at the Exploratorium in San Francisco.

The job was nothing like I expected it to be. I was personally responsible for using gas to paralyze gnats, putting live crickets into cages with hungry geckos and injecting sea urchins with toxic chemicals to collect their sperm – chores which left me feeling sick to my stomach. The problem with my job wasn’t that the tasks were unethical; they weren’t. Rather, the problem was the inexcusable fact that I willingly followed instructions that so directly contradicted my personal beliefs. Doing my job made me feel evil almost, as if I was betraying myself and my values, but I worked there for two whole years. I reasoned that I was really just following orders, which made it acceptable.

The idea that forsaking one’s morals is justified by one’s need to “follow orders” is what’s called the Nuremberg defense. Following World War II, Nazi officers accused of war crimes would defend themselves with the notion that they were “just following orders” and therefore were not to be held responsible for their actions.

Recently, the Washington Times published a letter to the editor which stated that “just following orders” is still unacceptable: “Since (the Holocaust), many have asked what motivated such staggering acts of evil, while forgetting the acts were enabled by the German people’s collective failure to stand up to a coterie of very wicked, very powerful men.”

The control of authority figures is enough to convince a lifelong animal lover to cause harm to thousands of helpless captive organisms. It was enough to coerce at least some of the millions of Germans who accepted Hitler’s horrific attempt at wiping out an entire people. In Milgram’s own words, “Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process … even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality.”

But thankfully, one of Milgram’s findings was not-so depressing. In later experiments, he found that obedience levels were significantly reduced by the presence of rebellious peers. If there were other participants that refused to go along with the experimenter’s orders, 36 out of 40 teachers refused to deliver maximum shock to the students.

That’s pretty good. That means although most people will not fight against something they feel is wrong, it really only takes one strong individual to stand up and say “Hey, this isn’t right. I won’t do this” to get people to follow suit and start thinking for themselves again. Perhaps that fact isn’t really too comforting, but it does allow for us to maintain a little bit of hope. If we have strong enough leaders, who are unwilling to sacrifice what they feel is right even when threatened with punishment from those in a position of power, perhaps we still have a chance at making the world a better place.