Responsibility is one of the most controversial subjects, so much so that philosophers have been debating it ever since ancient Greece without reaching any conclusions. Some of the most mainstream debates on the subject originated from the Milgram prison experiment and the Nuremberg defense. Both questioned whether you are responsible for your actions when following orders. Although the answer might seem simple enough, it really isn’t, as a team of researchers establishes that the Nuremberg defense actually distances you from responsibility.
Nuremberg, Milgram, and responsibility
Two completely different source of controversy, the Nuremberg defense and the Milgram experiment are connected by the fact that they were both published in the same year and by the type of controversy they sparked – are people responsible for their actions if they’re just following orders.
For a little bit of context, the Nuremberg defense refers to how a bunch of Nazi war criminals tried to escape justice by claiming that they were just following orders. The controversy began as a political philosopher published a book claiming that indeed the people on trial were just regular people following orders instead of being the monsters everybody saw.
Quite different in its approach, the Milgram experiment saw a bunch of volunteers locked up in prison social experiment, with some of them guards and the others prisoners. Since the guards were told by the researchers to be ruthless, the experiment eventually ended with one dead and a few injured as things rapidly got out of control, and the volunteers started acting against their moral beliefs simply because they were told to.
What actually happens when you’re following orders
Attempting to figure out how well the defense stands up, a team of researchers tried to verify its validity by measuring a psychological state called the sense of agency. As you probably suspect, it refers to the sense of responsibility coming from performing an action and seeing its result, knowing that you yourself have directly caused something to happen.
Previous studies showed how people perceived time as moving faster, as well as a greater sense of agency when the action they performed was positive than when it was negative. The current study, performed by researchers from the University College London, looked at how the sense of agency changes when administering someone a mild electric shock, either voluntarily or ordered to do so.
As expected, people under orders to harm the other person experienced a decreased sense of agency. Brain activity was also measured, showing a reduced agency response when the person was coerced into doing something. The subjects also claimed to feel less responsible when ordered to shock the other person.
The conclusion of the study is pretty obvious – when people use the fact that they were just following orders as an excuse for doing something unpleasant, they do mean it; they actually don’t feel as responsible as they would have if they had undertaken the action of their own free will.
If you’re interested to find out more about the concept, you can watch one of the at least three movies based on the Milgram prison experiment, or you can just read more on the subject pretty much all over the internet.
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