In the early 1960s, the American social psychologist, Stanley Milgram, ran now famous experiments using university students – then largely white and middle-class – as his subjects .
His research interest lay in the Nazi concentration camps and the defence used by Adolf Eichmann (featured image) in his trial in Israel in 1962 – that he was only following orders.
The students were brought into a laboratory and told they were participating in a learning experiment. There was a fake test subject who needed to adhere to a protocol and to facilitate the adherence they needed to be willing to prod him with electric shocks. See image.
To the surprise of everyone, Milgram included, the students administered the shocks and did so even when the doses were increased to approaching lethal levels.
It seems we are all prepared to hand over responsibility to an authority figure. We might show distaste at what is happening but it is rare for us to step out of line.
Milgram’s finding explains what happens in armies generally and why the psychological profiles of the Nazi concentration camp guards turned out to be no different, in some respects more upstanding and normal, than the American troops liberating the camps.
The finding also explains how difficult it is to get even doctors who agree you are having a side effect on a drug to put their head above the parapet and complete a RxISK report.
The Inquest of Stephen O’Neill covered extensively for the last two months HERE maps straight onto the Milgram Experiment.
Some nice white middle-class doctors, tortured and ultimately killed a man, not a fake test subject, who was pleading for help and telling them exactly what they could do to help him. But they kept doing what the authority figures told them to do.
At his inquest, these doctors essentially ran the Eichmann Defence. We were doing exactly what NICE Guidelines say we should do and we were doing it with MHRA approved drugs. You can’t find us guilty without finding yourselves guilty and bringing the social order to a grinding halt.
There’s a difference surely between the nice people who run NICE and MHRA and the murderous psychopaths who ran the Nazi apparatus?
Hannah Arendt who was attending the Eichmann trial was struck by how ordinary he was, how little like the monster she imagined, leading her to an extraordinary phrase to capture what she was seeing “the banality of evil”.
Eichmann was probably less passive and more actively anti-Semitic than Arendt concedes but her point still holds for most of the concentration camp guard (the Germans; the dynamics become more complex for other nationalities).
In Britain, the authority figures that doctors like Drs Brannigan and McMahon appeal to, are Sirs. The Knight idea stretches back to the Knights of the Round Table, whose mission in life was to assist people like the family of Stephen O’Neill when they came looking for someone interested to take on a challenge that might lead on to glory.
But British medical Knights (no-one else has people like this keeping us safe), for several decades have been willing to go along with what they know to be a close to entirely ghostwritten fake clinical literature. A literature that will necessarily harm and kill people but does so without anyone doing anything so obviously evil as pulling a trigger.
Where’s the harm in ticking a few boxes? Sure maybe there is a problem but I’m not doing anything wrong.
What is keeping the Sirs from speaking out? Arthur would surely have dumped any of his Knights too scared to speak up? Why have a Pope like Pius XII, if he is too scared to speak out?
It may well have been that tens of thousands of German guards and others were not held to account because of the sheer difficulty in executing so many. Milgram’s work suggests it would have been wrong to execute them. It seems wrong to let them go, but wrong to execute also.
Eichmann ran into trouble because he was sufficiently high up the authority chain to be held to account and, quite aside from the convenience factor involved in just sentencing, whatever about executing, one, there does need to be some holding to account.
It’s not clear that any medical doctors, or Sirs, are likely to be held to account any time soon. The ones most likely to end up in trouble are the very few who refuse to follow the instructions of the Milgram experimenters.
We need to find ways to stiffen more backbones, ways to wake the test subjects from the trance into which authority can too easily put them, or ways to stop the rest of us from meekly getting on the trains in the first instance.
To be continued: The Double Eichmann