This year, against the backdrop of pandemic, the level of obedience manifested in many Americans stunned me: Why do Americans, the rugged individualists, obey edicts issued at the whim of “King” Newsom or “His Majesty” Cuomo, without a questioning of the legitimacy of those mandates? They remind me of my fellow Chinese who have been tamed under decades of totalitarian rule of the Communist Party. What accounts for this commonality shared by two peoples who were nonetheless nurtured in distinctive political cultures?

In a small effort to unpack the puzzle, the following words explore the challenge freedom faces in an age of institutionalized obedience—a peculiar obedient behavior that is contextualized in modernity and reigns supreme over all fields of life.

The essence of institutionalized obedience consists in an abdication of the individual responsibility of making one’s own moral judgments. On the way of executing commands from a bureaucratic office that is abstract but appears to be absolute, the individual stops thinking for himself. Rather, he obeys and conforms without questioning what is right or wrong. I worry that institutionalized obedience, in tandem with a sheer thoughtlessness (in Hannah Arendt’s words), will serve a totalitarianism that may have not passed into a distant memory in the Western hemisphere.

The subject of obedience didn’t gain much scholarly attention in social sciences until Stanley Milgram’s 1961 Obedience Experiment, which observed and measured humans’ capability to obey authority in an experimental setting. The Obedience Experiment proves the great capacity of humans to harm an innocent person even in the absence of hostility on their part.

Milgram’s empirical study came at a particular historical time when humanity created something new, something unprecedented: totalitarianism. Against this backdrop, Hannah Arendt introduced the concept of “the banality of evil,” challenging us to entertain a possibility that atrocities can be accounted for by a “banal evil.” In her 1963 book Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt argues that the greatest evil can be of the least extreme nature.

Arendt’s account of the banality of evil has been criticized since its first publication. But when putting Arendt’s philosophical contemplation and Milgram’s empirical study in juxtaposition, Eichmann is seen as little different than Milgram’s subjects. What both Eichmann and Milgram’s subjects demonstrated is an institutionalized obedience manifested in human beings’ principal duty to obey orders. Given certain circumstances, we could all be Eichmann.

***

As a Nazi lieutenant-colonel, Adolf Eichmann was tasked to manage the logistics of mass-transporting Jews to extermination camps. After Germany’s defeat, Eichmann escaped and managed to live under an assumed name in Argentina for many years before he was captured by Mossad in 1960. Mossad brought him back to the District Court of Jerusalem and tried him on April 1, 1961 for war crimes against the Jewish people during the Second World War.

In the courtroom, standing accused on fifteen counts, Eichmann pleaded “not guilty” to each one of them. He defended himself on the ground that he was not the monster who designed the Final Solution; he was merely a bureaucratic manager who held a duty to the system: “That under the Nazi legal system he (Adolf Eichmann) had not done anything wrong; that the deeds he was accused of were not crimes but ‘acts of state’… that it had been his duty to obey.” Invoking the spirit of abiding by the law, he even professed that “he would have killed his own father if he had received an order to that effect.”

Standing in a stark contrast to Eichmann’s action is Robert E. Lee’s refusal to serve as the commanding general of the Union Army. Before the Civil War broke, Robert E. Lee was an officer of the Union Army and an ardent opponent of the secession. In a letter explaining why he refused Lincoln’s appointment when war loomed, he said, “With all my devotion to the Union… I have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home. If the Union is dissolved, I shall return to my native state and share the miseries of my people. Save in her defense, I will draw my sword no more.”

Here, we see a stunning distinction between two individuals in which the former submitted fully to the edict—or to the law in Eichmann’s own words—while the latter made a hard choice based on a nuanced moral commitment.

The indictment, on the other hand, suggested that Eichmann did what he did out of base motives and evil intentions. Eichmann took those charges as an offence, even a character assault, and rebutted that “he would have had a bad conscience only if he had not done what he had been ordered to do—to ship millions of men, women, and children to their death with great zeal and most meticulous care.” To say the least, Eichmann’s rebuttal was shockingly disturbing and profoundly perplexing. We are now left with a thorny task: to understand why Eichmann, being seemingly normal and sound-minded (he even cried once when witnessing a Jew’s death) believed what he believed. Or we could accept a convenient answer that he was either a sophist hiding behind the Kantian Imperative, or, simply, a monster.

Hannah Arendt chose to understand.

Arendt brought an original and unorthodox approach to that task. A disturbing type of human being, like Eichmann, when abdicating his responsibility for making a moral judgment, is capable of committing the greatest evil in the world. This is a kind of evil committed by men without motive, without convictions, without wicked hearts or demonic wills. What makes it distinctive is that it is conducted by human beings who simply refuse to be persons—to be beings of thinking.

In the 20th century—an age which Arendt characterizes as a century of thoughtlessness, loneliness, and rootlessness after the collapse of the traditional ways that had bonded human species for millennia—a new type of human emerged, and the actions this new human can take can be devastating. Ordinary men, incapable of thinking and alienated from common sense, are now capable of committing evil deeds on a gigantic scale.

The lesson of totalitarianism that wrecked the 20th century essentially is less about victims or murderous dictators, but rather about mass society’s vulnerability to the mass politics of totalitarian solutions. Residing in a mass society are not citizens who participate in a shared public life or classes with a consciousness of common interests, but a vast population of superfluous men. Arendt notes in The Human Condition, “What makes mass society so difficult to bear is not the number of people involved… but the fact that the world between them has lost its power to gather them together, to relate and to separate them.” In so far as humans become alienated and atomized and nihilistic, drifting in a sea where common experiences have lost their force, the totalitarian impulse becomes overwhelming. It is dangerous. As the 20th century has taught us, a coalescence of drifting atoms is most attracted to the structure and supports what a totalitarian ideology, like fascism or communism, is able to offer. The logic of ideology is circular. The teaching of it is a repetitive chattering of slogans that precludes any thinking from within, but enchants the dislocated souls, making them feel like they are at home.

That is the origin of totalitarianism, says Arendt.

Arendt’s philosophical thinking on Eichmann was so heretical that she was excoriated by her contemporaries. But the uncanny parallel between Milgram’s lab results and Eichmann’s deeds renders her philosophical contemplation irrefutable.

***

It was in July 1961—three months after the start of the trial of Eichmann—that Milgram set off his venture into what later called the “Obedience Experiment.” This— arguably one of the greatest experiments ever conducted in social sciences—started with a simple question in Milgram’s mind: “If an experimenter tells a subject to act with increasing severity against another person, under what conditions will the subject comply?”

The experiment results depicted a gruesome picture of human beings’ great capacity to do harm even in the absence of antagonistic intention, leaving Milgram and his readers nonplussed. Those ordinary folks, consisting of “postal clerks, high school teachers, salesmen, engineers and laborers,” were capable of inflicting great harm on an innocent person, under no threat of any kind, and only upon commands of an unassuming experimenter.

Perhaps more disturbing and perplexing is that underneath the seemingly resolute, obedient behavior was not callousness or sadism, but waves of intense emotions of compassion. The subjects agitated, sweated, trembled or even begged the experimenter to stop the experiment when hearing their victim screaming in agony. Nonetheless, time and again, most of them proceeded to the very end.

All subjects presumably had learnt from the dawn of their lives that it is unequivocally morally wrong to harm an innocent person, but why did they exhibit a staggering willingness to obey orders, often fighting against their own moral instincts?

The conclusion Milgram arrived at over years of conducting and pondering his obedience experiments is this: “The essence of obedience consists in the fact that a person comes to view himself as the instrument for carrying out another person’s wishes, and he therefore no longer regards himself as responsible for his actions.”

Milgram was wrong about his assessment though.

In the court of morality, standing in line with Eichmann, Milgram’s subjects were guilty of the same charge—abdicating their responsibility of thinking for themselves. They simply and plainly obeyed the order.

Thus, far from regarding themselves as not responsible for their actions, those ordinary people, many of whom were tender-hearted, in effect carried out their duties conscientiously and even meticulously, as documented in the experiment logs. What dictated their action was a sense of responsibility, a devotedness to their job, not to another human being. They were bureaucrats who did not see the other party as a particular human being, but as just another piece of hired, anonymous labor. They shocked the innocent person out of no intention of any sort but from an obligation to be a cooperative experiment participant—indeed, a good employee. Thus, they may have sympathized with the other party for the pain he had to suffer, but they did not feel obliged to answer his howl.

The most fundamental lesson of Milgram’s study is, perhaps, less about ordinary people’s great potential to do harm and more about why the subjects felt so compelled to carry out the order, regardless of possible cost to them or to other humans. What is the origin of this modern work ethic that puts “I’m just doing the job” above all other concerns?

In the 19th century, Alexis de Tocqueville observed the industrial man in ascendance: “When a worker has consumed a considerable portion of his existence in this manner, his thought is forever halted at the daily object of his labors; his body has contracted certain fixed habits from which he is no longer permitted to depart.”

We live in a world in which training is the zeitgeist of our time, and thinking is nowhere to be found. That explains why so few people can resist the indoctrination coming from the left or the right. All modern institutions—the factory, the cooperative, the administration, even the school and academia—strive for a fundamental transformation, turning a versatile artisan into a skilled laborer who occupies herself routinely with one single job. Thinking is not encouraged; it is even prohibited, as it is destructive to productivity. To rigorously follow the rules and procedures is the key to efficiency, precision, and predictability, but it comes at the expense of our minds becoming inelastic and our language vague and sweeping. In the end, the person is entrenched in the worldly objects he creates.

Institutionalized obedience severs an I-You relation, in Roger Scruton’s words, which he argues is the foundation of moral life. The I-You relation holds us accountable for each other. But moderns, nurtured in the corporate economy and bureaucratic state, see humans no longer as beings with intrinsic value but as objects of utility—objects that are dispensable and replaceable at the whim of history.

To break away from institutionalized obedience requires a willingness to think and a courage to differ. To follow the rule is easy; to follow the crowd is tempting; to think is hard, and often unsettling. But as human beings, it is our primal moral obligation to think before we obey. Humans can feel truly free only in thinking. No tyranny in the world can usurp that kind of freedom.

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