Kant: Application Source 1 – the Milgram Experiments (1961)

The Milgram experiment was reproduced in the 1979 film, I as in Icarus, and the 2007 documentary, Ghosts of Abu Ghraib. The experiments began in July 1961, three months after the start of the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem . Milgram devised the experiments to answer this question: “Could it be that Eichmann and his million accomplices in the Holocaust were just following orders? Could we call them all accomplices ?”[3] Milgram summarized the experiment in his 1974 article, “The Perils of Obedience”, with an extract below.

The legal and philosophic aspects of obedience are of enormous importance, but they say very little about how most people behave in concrete situations. I set up a simple experiment at Yale University to test how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to by an experimental scientist. Stark authority was pitted against the subjects’ [participants’] strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects’ [participants’] ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not. The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation. Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, 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, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.

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