Obedience and the Social Contract

In Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, in the chapter regarding his social contract theory, Hobbes discusses that a chaotic state of nature can only be avoided by “[erecting] a common power.” In order for this to happen, all men must “confer all their power and strength upon one man…that may reduce all their wills…unto one will.”

From Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan

In other words, everyone must obey one sole authority. They no longer really think for themselves- instead, the sovereign, or the Leviathan, thinks for them. Even if they would have disagreed with his actions before divesting themselves of all their power, once he has become their ruler they simply have to go along with it. I learned that the hard way when we simulated the various forms of social contracts in lecture- I was in the room with ‘Sovereign Peterson.’ Once we’d chosen him as our Leviathan, he starting going absolutely haywire and making decisions that contradicted with our incredibly vocal protests.

The reading and the lecture activity both had me thinking back to an experiment I learned about in AP Psychology my senior year of high school.

This experiment was the Milgram Experiment on obedience and authority. In it, Stanley Milgram, a psychologist at Yale University, created a situation in which he acted as an authority figure that was a lot like Hobbes’ sovereign.

Stanley Milgram

In 1961, Milgram conducted an experiment that focused in on the ideas of obedience, authority and personal consciences. In the experiment, there were three roles- the ‘learner,’ the ‘teacher,’ and Milgram himself. The ‘learner’ was actually a confederate of Milgram’s, who knew the objective of the study. The ‘teacher’ was an oblivious participant, and his role (as all of the participants were male) was to ‘teach’ the learner pairs of words and have him repeat the pairs back to him. If the learner failed, the teacher was to administer an ‘electric shock’ to him, as he was strapped to a chair with electrodes.

How the experiment was set up.

What happened was that the learner would intentionally fail to memorize the pairs after a few successful rounds. With each failure, the teacher was supposed to administer higher and higher levels of shock, which went up from 30 to 450 in 15-volt increments. The shock switches were labelled as “slight shock,” “moderate shock,” “danger: severe shock,” and finally, “XXX.”

As the experiment would continue on, the learner would audibly plead for mercy, complain about a heart condition, bang on the wall, and then refuse to respond at all. In response to these many expressions of pain, most participants would hesitate or ask to stop.

This is where the true experiment begins. Milgram, fully seated in his role as the authoritative experimenter, would tell the participant to continue with phrases like “the experiment requires that you continue” and “you have no other choice, you must go on.” In response to Milgram’s authority, 65% of the participants delivered the maximum shocks despite not really wanting to

In Hobbes’ social contract theory, when the sovereign is formed, every man forms a covenant in which he saysI authorize and give up my right of governing myself, to this man…and authorize all his actions in like manner.” This forms a commonwealth of institution and each individual has given express consent. In legitimate psychological experiments, the participants give what’s called ‘informed consent,’ in which they sign a document that tells them what the objective and the procedure will be. While Milgram did deceive his participants by not telling them the learner was a confederate, they did know they they were consenting to administering shocks and following his orders. Their consent to taking part in the experiment was a form of a social contract.

The Milgram experiment shows how people willingly sign away their wills (to a certain degree) in form of social contracts as well as the authority that can be exercised over them once the social contract is formed. Milgram was initially interested in investigating the ideas of authority and obedience when he studied the Nuremberg War Trials. Nazi war criminals of WWII claimed that they were simply ‘following orders’ due to being under the authority of Hitler and his Nazi party. Dictatorships like Hitler’s give empirical support to Hobbes’ Leviathan, as does Milgram’s experiment.