Our key issue is whether or not social psychology can explain obedience to authority during conflict leading to the harm of others. This issue is about how people, generally in the army, will obey their superior officers in orders which can lead to the harm of innocent civilians. These orders go against their training (soldiers are trained not to harm civilians), and will most likely go against their morals too, yet there have been incidences in history where people have carried out the orders, leading to atrocious acts of violence.
This is an issue because it helps us to understand more about people’s actions during war and conflict, and if there is an incident where the life of an innocent person has been lost, then we can explain the events and decide who is to blame – the soldier or their superior.
A real life incident where obedience to authority has led to the harm of others is the My Lai Massacre. During the Vietnam War, American soldiers were ordered into a village with the intentions of them finding and killing hidden enemies. However, the soldiers went into the village and carried out a massacre, murdering women, children and animals – regardless of whether or not they were the “enemy”.
Their excuse was they were ordered to do this by their Lieutenant – Lt. Calley. When this event came to light, the soldiers were excused from the crime and only Lt. Calley was punished, although his sentence was severely reduced. Some people felt this was unfair for a variety of reasons. Firstly, they felt that as the soldiers were the ones who did the killings, they should be punished. Secondly, they felt Lt. Calley was used as a scapegoat for his superior officers.
By understanding more about this issue (using concepts from psychology), we can get a further understanding about who should be to blame in this event, and inform commanding officers in the army that soldiers are likely to follow their orders, even if it means carrying out acts that they know to be wrong.
We can explain the events at My Lai (and similar incidences of obedience to authority leading to harm) using theories and research from Social Psychology.
Milgram’s Agency theory can explain the events. Milgram theorised that we are always in one of two states – the Autonomous State (where we are following our own free will) and the Agentic State (where we are carrying out the will of others).
The soldiers at My Lai would be in an Agentic State, as they would be surrendering their own free will and adopting the will of their authority figure (Lt Calley). Milgram believes that when we do this, the responsibility of the action gets placed on the authority figure. Therefore, the soldiers were able to carry out the massacre because they believed that they would not be to blame – Lt