Friday, December 19, 2008

the problem of evil

This might not be the best time of year to consider this topic, but when is? Maybe I can be forgiven for addressing it on this, the year's moment of greatest darkness, at the commencement of our festivals of light and, as days begin to lengthen again, of annual recommencement of hope. The topic matters because on any day of the year we find news of events that force us to see in the world what can only be called evil. That, and because we know how much of it has been committed in the past, leading to the extinction or near extinction of entire populations. I'm not going into the why of it, but only one important aspect: ordinary people can be manipulated, with relative ease, so that they are willing to commit it. And because this is so, the willingness to manipulate needs to be addressed as a moral issue, a political issue, a religious issue. It's not so much commission as incitement to commit that should concern us.

Here's what has brought this thought to mind:

The Milgram Experiment gave me the creeps when I first read about it. I've wished it could be replicated, its procedures shown to be faulty, and its results invalidated, as so often seems to happen with psychological experiments. However, this can't be: understandably, a code of ethics was put into effect directly after, insuring that academic researchers would never exactly duplicate what Migram did.

I was saddened on reading today that a new version of the old experiment sustains its findings. From Science Daily: Replicating Milgram: Most People Will Administer Shocks When Prodded By 'Authority Figure', ScienceDaily (Dec. 19, 2008). Go there and read. It says the experimenter did not permit subjects to give what they believed to be electrical shocks so intense as to cause fainting or death. He also made sure the subjects neither knew of Milgram nor were unduly susceptible to the procedure. These changes in the procedure make it impossible to compare results directly. Nonetheless, as the headline says, the participants were no less willing to inflict what amounts to torture than were their predecessors in the 60s.

In Burger's study, participants were told at least three times that they could withdraw from the study at any time and still receive the $50 payment. Also, these participants were given a lower-voltage sample shock to show the generator was real – 15 volts, as compared to 45 volts administered by Milgram.

"People learning about Milgram's work often wonder whether results would be any different today," said [the experimenter, Jerry] Burger, a professor at Santa Clara University. "Many point to the lessons of the Holocaust and argue that there is greater societal awareness of the dangers of blind obedience. But what I found is the same situational factors that affected obedience in Milgram's experiments still operate today."
The BBC News article on Burger's experiment adds to the story:
Dr Abigail San, a chartered clinical psychologist, has recently replicated the experiment for a soon-to-be-aired BBC documentary - all the way up to the 450-volt mark, again finding a similar outcome to Professor Milgram.

"It's not that these people are simply not good people any more - there is a massive social influence going on."

She said that the volunteers were being asked to carry out a complex task in aid of scientific research, and became entirely focused on it, with "little room" left for considering the plight of the person receiving the shock.

"They tend to identify massively with the 'experimenter', and become very engaged and distracted by the research.

"There's no opportunity for them to say 'What's my moral stand on this?'"
Do a search on "Milgram" and you'll find there are some Youtube videos of the experiment, along with more articles and books on the subject.

Gustav Doré's illustration from Milton's Paradise Lost:
...Toward the coast of earth beneath,
Down from the ecliptick, sped with hoped success,
Throws his steep flight in many an aery wheel;
Nor staid, till on Niphates’ top he lights.
•Book III, 739–742

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