Posted on July 30, 2018

Several thousand children, many of them infants and toddlers, were forcibly separated from their parents and sent, frightened and alone, to different parts of the country. Were the Border Patrol Agents who took these children from their parents unfeeling monsters?
In short, no. Then how did they do this monstrous act?

The question has been asked in varying forms in editorials, letters, blogs and columns: How did United States federal agents deal with their own conscience and feelings when separating thousands of crying children from their frantic parents? Presumably they share the same values of the majority of Americans who were horrified by these deeds.

We do not know if every agent who received these orders complied with them. We can be sure, however, that the great majority did so. We know this because of the resulting debacle and because of historic experiments, which document that most human beings will comply with orders from authority figures, even if they believe those orders may be causing great damage.

It’s widely known that in the early 1960s, Dr. Stanley Milgram of Yale University, demonstrated this harsh reality through a series of experiments in which unwitting subjects were ordered to administer increasingly severe electric shocks, up to a potentially lethal 450 volts. What is not remembered is Milgram’s analysis of the stages the subjects went through that allowed them to violate their own sense of right and wrong. It is important that we learn these stages because only by doing that will other good Americans be prepared to resist destructive orders in the future.

There are four stages: Cooperation, Discomfort, Extreme Stress, Resolution. How resolution is accomplished is the key to the matter. Here’s how it worked in Milgram’s experiment.

Cooperation: Subjects cooperated because they were given a pro-social reason for the experiment – to improve the rate of learning.
Discomfort: When they realized they were hurting another human by administering shocks for wrong answers, they became uncomfortable and began questioning the order.
Divergence: When they realized they might be inflicting serious or even fatal damage, their conscience told them to stop, but their socialization told them to obey authority, causing intense psychological stress.
Resolution: The stress was so extreme it had to be resolved in one of two ways: place all responsibility for any harm on the authority figure and just obey, OR, take full responsibility oneself and refuse to continue to obey.

You can see that either of these courses resolved the stress but only one – refusing to obey – resulted in ceasing to participate in the unethical behavior. This sense of moral dilemma and discomfort is not the profile of monsters. We must teach ourselves, and all private and public sector employees, that just resolving the stress we experience when given bad orders is in itself insufficient. We must resolve the stress by refusing to continue participating in what we realize are destructive orders or policies. It’s hard to do. It can be done. It must be done if we are to live up to our own values.

This is not just a lesson for Border Patrol Agents.

By Ira Chaleff, author of Intelligent Disobedience: Doing Right When What You’re Told to do is Wrong