Shocking Experiments

Psychologist Stanley Milgram, in his book Obedience to Authority, describes a mock experiment he conducted at Yale University in the 1960s. It is a revealing illustration of natural man’s inability to safeguard individual rights. A group of volunteer subjects participated in a study to “test the effects of punishment on learning.” They stood in front of an imposing device labeled a “shock generator.” Another man—called the “student”—was strapped into what looked like an electric chair. The volunteers were told to read a list of questions to the student and to administer an increasing level of electric shock for each wrong answer. What they didn’t know was that the “shock generator” was a dummy, and the hapless “student” was an actor hired to give a convincing performance of a man being electrocuted by degrees. As to be expected, the actor proved to be a most unpromising student and was subjected to—what the volunteers thought were—increasing levels of electric shock. What Professor Milgram found so extraordinary was how easily the volunteers set aside whatever moral qualms they might have had. One after the other, they pressed the shock buttons despite the desperate pleadings and feigned screams of the actor in the phony electric chair. Professor Milgram’s obedient tormentors were not hardened criminal types. When interviewed, they stated their opposition—in principle—to hurting innocent people. Yet what they abhorred in principle they did in practice. Why? Because an authority figure in a lab coat assured them they had no choice. What the Milgram experiments show is that—without allegiance to a higher law—decent people can be goaded into assaulting innocent strangers. In so doing they disregard a fundamental moral obligation. The Heidelberg Catechism teaches that the commandment “You shall not kill” includes the God-given obligation to protect our neighbors “from harm as much as we can.” But when the Christian foundation for society is lost, freedom collapses. We will torture our neighbors. The Russian novelist Dostoyevsky, in his novel entitled The Possessed, clearly saw the implications of attempting to build a society without God. In the book, Shigalov the revolutionary laments the failure of his utopian ideals: “I started out with the idea of unrestricted freedom and I have arrived at unrestricted despotism.” Without God, it is inevitable—as our society may soon discover. In the final analysis secular society cannot provide an inviolable basis for protecting individual rights. Unless man owes his allegiance to a power higher than the state, he cannot stand against moral degradation and tyranny. People resent the fact that the so-called “New Religious Right” obeys an authority higher than the state. But this is the very thing that guards our liberties. Look at the heroes, the martyrs of Eastern Europe who brought down communism. Most of them have a “reverend” before their names. The Declaration of Independence states that we are “endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights.” Liberty is inalienable because it comes from God, and, make no mistake, the Christian world view is the best defender against tyranny. If you don’t believe it, ask Professor Milgram’s students.


Chuck Colson



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