Wednesday 19 November 2014


There was an interesting critique of the famous Milgram Experiment on the radio last night. This experiment is supposed to demonstrate that a state of blind obedience can be induced in otherwise decent people,to the point that they will actively inflict severe pain and distress on an innocent person. But does it (this critique argued) demonstrate blind obedience or something else - that people can be induced to override their moral instincts if they are convinced it is in the service of a greater good, in this case (God help us) Science? Most of the people who obeyed were not in a state of cold-eyed-killer detachment but deeply distressed by what they were being asked to do, and had to be forcibly persuaded that it was imperative they continue, for the sake of the Experiment, for the sake of Science. Milgram tells us little or nothing about human nature, I think, but much about the lengths Science is prepared to go to, and the deadly danger of overriding our moral sense in favour of any Greater Good whatsoever.


  1. Fair comment, but equally true if the words 'Religion', 'Security' or 'Freedom' are substituted for 'Science'. The problem is not science, per se, but the human tendency to worship at the altar of abstraction.

  2. Indeed Waldo, but I think I'd put Science last on that list, esp as it's arguably the most abstract...

  3. There is another aspect to this, the very common spectacle of science "discovering" something no one ever doubted. People will do morally horrible things in the name of Science? Hmm, how does one spell Auschwitz again? Forced sterilization to improve the human race? The Malthusian refusal to provide relief for the Irish famine? As to the Soviets, we can't make an omelette without breaking eggs, can we? I suspect the purpose and consequent impact was not to show that "people" will do this, but that Americans will too.