People’s decision to obey or disobey the law is based on how much power (in its various
forms) they perceive the law to have behind it. The power of coercion is one maintained by every
government in human history: the power to punish. The power of legitimacy is a much more
subtle power: the power to appear as an authority and let others presume that you know best.
While enforcing law, authorities will exercise both these powers. Both powers underscore
government and society’s ability to control us and to get us to obey.
Why do we obey? Stanley Milgram’s Obedience to Authority, a series of experiments in
which subjects were told to administer what they believed to be high-voltage electric shocks to
people who they thought were experimental subjects, shows us the disturbing extent of people’s
obedience in the face of power. Whereas it was hypothesized that few of the subjects would
actually shock their supposed experimental subjects, the actual experiments showed a
“disturbingly high level of compliance with authority figures despite the apparent pain evinced
by the false experimental subjects.” (Cover 223) Even when the false experimental subjects
(actually just a tape recording of responses) screamed with supposed agony, the vast majority of
the subjects, although showing some hesitation and concern for their “victims”, still nevertheless
shocked them again and again at the behest of the authority, even after the “victims” had gone
silent. (Cover 223) The almost blind obedience of these subjects was due to the power of
legitimacy and expertise they perceived the authority figures behind the experiment to have. The
authorities were able to impose their will ...
... middle of paper ...
...human, we will
always retain our freedom of thought and our decision to obey or disobey.
Cover, Robert M. “The Violence of Legal Acts.” Before the Law: An Introduction to the Legal
Process. Eds. Bonsignore, Katsh, d’Errico, Pipkin, Arons, Rifkin. Boston: Houghton
Mifflin Company, 2002. 223.
King, Martin Luther. “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Before the Law: An Introduction to the
Legal Process. Eds. Bonsignore, Katsh, d’Errico, Pipkin, Arons, Rifkin. Boston:
Houghton Mifflin Company, 2002. 158-162.
Kropotkin, Peter. “Law and Authority.” Before the Law: An Introduction to the Legal Process.
Eds. Bonsignore, Katsh, d’Errico, Pipkin, Arons, Rifkin. Boston: Houghton Mifflin
Company, 2002. 158-162.
Tyler, Tom. “Why do People Obey the Law?” Introduction to Legal Studies: A Reader. Ed.
Thomas Hilbink. Amherst: Collective Copies. 475-495.
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