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The Perils of Obedience

Milgram, Stanley. “The Perils of Obedience.” Writing and Reading Across the Curriculum. 4th custom ed. for York College. Ed. Laurence Behrens, and Leonard J. Rosen. New York: Pearson, 2011. 692-704.

Terms and Allusions

Story of Abraham (Bible)

When Abraham became one hundred years old, Isaac was born to him by his first wife Sarah.  At one point, Abraham was commanded by God to offer his son Isaac up as a sacrifice in the land of Moriah. He was ordered to build a sacrificial altar and sacrifice Isaac upon it. Abraham proceeded in a spirit of unhesitating obedience to carry out the command. He and Isaac went alone to the mountain. Binding his son to the altar, he drew out his knife.  Abraham was just about to kill Isaac when his uplifted hand was stopped by an angel.  A ram was then sacrificed instead of Isaac. As a reward for his obedience Abraham received another promise of numerous descendants and abundant prosperity. This event served as a test of Abraham's faith to God.

Suggested Further Reading: Genesis 22.  The Holy Bible: King James’ Version (2000).  American Bible Society.


Plato (428/427 BC– 348/347 BC): a Classical Greek philosopher, mathematician, student of Socrates, writer of philosophical dialogues, and founder of the Academy in Athens, the first institution of higher learning in the Western world. Along with his mentor, Socrates, and his student, Aristotle, Plato helped to lay the foundations of Western philosophy and science.

Plato's Crito describes Socrates, a seventy-year-old Athenian philosopher who chooses to die for an ideal. When Socrates is charged with debasement of Athens' religion and told that he may be acquitted if he agrees to stop practicing philosophy, he is unyielding, saying that God commands him to find the truth. Socrates’ wealthy friend Crito comes to prison to persuade him to escape.  Socrates thinks that injustice may not be answered with injustice and refuses Crito's offer to finance his escape. Socrates argues that escaping would be wrong, and indeed undermine his whole life's work, because Socrates does not blame the laws that sentenced him, but the people.  To escape illegally would be a violation against the rule of law. Socrates prefers to be a martyr for a cause rather than a criminal who despises the very system that he worked so long to build. If he were to betray these laws, he would have to betray his own conscience.

In Crito the main arguments are:

In moral matters we should follow the few wise, not public opinion.

Public opinion says return evil for evil, the few wise say do not harm anyone.

Disobedience to law tends to harm the city.

We have a duty of obedience to the city/the state in a way as we to our parents: We owe them being, physical nurture (upbringing), and moral education.

Suggested Further Reading: Berges, Sandrine. Plato on virtue and the law.  London: Continuum, 2009.


A tragedy by Sophocles written around 442 BC.

Antigone is one of the daughters of Oedipus.  Shortly after the death of Oedipus, Antigone’s two brothers, Polyneices and Eteocles, have killed each other in a dispute over who will become the next king of Thebes. Antigone’s uncle, Creon, the new ruler of Thebes, has declared that Eteocles will be honored and Polyneices disgraced. Polyneicers’ body will lie unburied to become the food of animals. The penalty for trying to bury the body is death. Antigone rebels against what she considers an unfair judement against her brother.  She insists that her brother's body be buried so that his spirit can rest in peace. In defiance of Creon's order, Antigone goes to the battlefield, pouring sand over Polyneices' body and performing burial rites. When Antigone is caught and brought to Creon, she argues unflinchingly with Creon about the immorality of the order and the morality of her actions. The angry Creon imprisoned Antigone in a cave to let her starve to death. In the end she hangs herself by a rope.

Suggested Further Reading: Sophocles. The Theban Plays: Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, Antigone. Translated, with notes and an introduction by Ruth Fainlight and Robert J. Littman. Baltimore : Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009.


Adolf Otto Eichmann (March 19, 1906 – May 31, 1962) was a German Nazi official and one of the major organizers of the Holocaust. Because of his organizational talents and ideological reliability, Eichmann was charged with the task of facilitating and managing the logistics of mass deportation of Jews to ghettos and extermination camps in German-occupied Eastern Europe.  After the war, he fled to Argentina and lived there under a false identity working for Mercedes-Benz until 1960. He was captured by Israeli agents in Argentina and brought to Israel to face trial in an Israeli court on 15 criminal charges, including crimes against humanity and war crimes. He was found guilty and executed by hanging in 1962.  At his trial, Eichmann maintained that he was merely following orders in arranging murders.

Suggested Further Reading: Pearlman, Moshe. The Capture and Trial of Adolf Eichmann.  New York: Simon and Schuster, 1963.

Cyclon – b

The trade name of a powerful pesticide infamous for its use by Nazi Germany to kill human beings in gas chambers of extermination camps during the Holocaust.

Prisoners deemed too weak to be good workers were sent to the gas chamber. To prevent panic, the Nazis told them they would be taking a shower. Instead, the disguised showerheads gassed the prisoners to death using Cyclon -B pellets.

Suggested Further Reading: Browning, Christopher R. Collected Memories: Holocaust History and Postwar Testimony. Madison, Wis.: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2003.


perils -  n. injury, loss, or destruction; grave risk; jeopardy; danger

communal  - adj.  pertaining to a community; shared and participated in by the public

ingrained  - adj.  firmly fixed; deep-rooted

genuinely  - adv.  sincerely;  purely

courteous  - adj.  having or showing good manners; polite

pathological  - adj.  mentally disturbed ; morbid

fringe - n.  anything suggesting or resembling

sedate  - adj.  calm, quiet, composed

etiquette  - n.  conventional requirements as to social behavior; proper conduct as established in any class or community or for any occasion

reminiscent  - adj.  awakening memories of something similar

sadistic  - adj.  extremely cruel, enjoying being cruel

inhibit  - v.  forbid, hinder, restrain

subdue  - v. bring under control, conquer

heinous  - adj.  hateful, abominable, reprehensible

pinpoint  - v.   to locate, or to describe exactly or precisely

alibi  - n.  an excuse, especially to avoid blame

concoct  - v.  to devise; make up; prepare

legitimate  - adj.  lawful, legally right

fragile  - adj.  easy to break

imperative  - adj.  absolutely necessary, or required; unavoidable

dilemma  - n.  a difficult or perplexing situation or problem; a conflict

evaporate  - v.  disappear into the air, vanish

Vocabulary Exercise

Fill in the blanks with the words chosen from the box

dilemma         concoct            heinous              perils              reminiscent

ingrained           sedate            communal             sadistic                  inhibit

1. You do it at your ____________.

2. How did the  inventive chef ever _________ such a strange dish?

3. If we were to improve ______ conditions in this prison, we must first get rid of the sadistic warden.

4. In this ___________, he knew no one to whom he could turn for advice.

5. Her _____________ experiences are so fascinating that she ought to write a book.

6. When they were divorced, they had trouble dividing their _________ property.

7. The child was not ________ in his responses.

8. Try as they would, the missionaries were unable to uproot the __________ superstitions of the natives.

9. The parents were worried because their son was too quiet and ______________.

10. Hitler’s ________ crimes will never be forgotten.



1. perils    2.  concoct    3.  heinous     4.  dilemma      5. reminiscent       6.  commual

7.  inhibited      8.  ingrained      9.  sedate      10.  sadistic


Pre-reading questions

1. Who are authority figures in our lives?

2. What are the reasons that obedience to authority is needed in a society?

3. Should people always obey an authoriy?

4. What conflict may obedience to authority generate?

5. Have you had an experience in which you disobeyed your superior, for example, your parent, your teacher, or your boss?


Post-reading questions

1. If you were a participant in the experiment, what would you do?

2. Do you believe that ordinary people could do terrible things in certain situations?

3. What have you learned from Milgram’s experiment?



Video - Milgram's experiment ''Obedience'' (

Video - Milgram's Obedience to Authority Experiment (