Following Orders

I have been busy elsewhere. Writing an astrophysics course has been challenging both to memory and ingenuity and an alarming number of my worked examples seem to be being centred on the impossibly bloated Betelgeuse, a red supergiant which if it replaced the Sun would be half as hot with a radius extending beyond Jupiter. My students have been considering the history of astronomy, Galileo’s muttered double blind when he recanted his recantation at his trial, and his famous letter to Johannes Kepler which read:-
“My dear Kepler,
What would you say of the learned here who, replete with the pertinacity of the asp have steadfastly refused to cast a glance through the telescope?  What should we make of this? Shall we laugh or shall we cry?”

Galileo had expected the telescope to make good Catholics believers in the Copernican system of a heliocentric universe where the planets obediently rolled around a Sun at its centre. Alas, scholasticism and its accompanying dogma set him at such odds with the Church that he was arrested and put on trial by the Inquisition for heresy. Dressed in the white shirt of the penitent, he was forced to abjure his ‘heretical nonsense’ in a court of law. Legend has it that sotto voce he said at the end ‘yet, it doth move’.

Of course, the Inquisitors were really only ‘doing their job’. They believed in the infallibility of their system, just as, presumably, Adolf Eichmann did at his trial since his primary defence was identical to Galileo’s inquisitors.  

A simple glance through the telescope of morality and natural justice should have convinced him of the spectacularly heartless evil which he had perpetrated and encouraged vast numbers of others to participate in. But, no. He was just “doing his job”. The Shoah writhes ceaselessly here, just under the surface of society, a monster ready once again to bare its teeth. Historian David Cesarani has challenged the widely accepted view that Eichmann was just a faceless, obedient bureaucrat. At the behest of his superior, Adolf Hitler, he was merely carrying out orders. Instead, at his trial, he created a ‘deliberately banal façade’ in order to deceive his prosecutors. Cesarani would have us believe that he was a man of bestial evil, stained and twisted by an evil system into performing the unthinkable.

I am indebted to Adam Grant who suggests that bad, or evil people opt into bad situations. Eichmann’s Nazi convictions and his unquestioning obedience to orders were part of the same ideological package. Either he actually wanted to kill Jews or he didn’t care if they perished. The Jews, in other words, had no intrinsic claim to life.

Returning to Grant’s core proposition, can we argue that if good, or at least, not bad people are put in a bad situation, bad things will happen? If true, this is cold-bloodedly alarming. A Yale, psychologist Stanley Milgram provided some evidence, showing that ordinary men would inflict severe pain on others simply because they were instructed to do so by an authority figure. When a man failed to learn a set of words, a scientist in a white coat told them to deliver increasingly harmful electric shocks. “It may be that we are puppets—puppets controlled by the strings of society,” Milgram lamented.
At Stanford, psychologist Philip Zimbardo randomly assigned students to play the roles of prisoners or prison guards in a realistic prison environment. 

Quite rapidly, basic humanity fell away, and arbitrary cruelty overwhelmed the participants; the ‘guards’ forced the ‘prisoners’ to sleep on concrete and took away their clothes. “In only a few days, people became sadistic,” Zimbardo wrote: the “power of a host of situational variables can dominate an individual’s will to resist.”

I couldn’t help asking myself ‘what kind of person would actually have volunteered for the Stanford experiment?’ Had I myself volunteered, for example, would I too abandon core values and basic humanity for some kind of material reward? Or, could I – indeed would I – withstand peer pressure, the security of conformity and follow the dictates of my conscience?  Would I have ‘followed orders’ as Eichmann contended or, indeed, would I too have condemned Galileo? In truth, I don’t know. And, neither do any of us.