what do so many people listen to a higher authority when they are told to do something, even if it's wrong to do?
People are taught at a very early age to listen to people who have authority. This is in a way related to conformity and the rules of society. We naturally assume that someone who has authority has earned that authority and people generally respect that.
I think we should start by reviewing Stanley Milgram's study on Nazi atrocities. Milgram wanted to know why ordinary German men would willingly torture and kill Jews. In his experiment, he asked the test subject to provide increasingly more powerful shocks to an unseen, but audible person. As the shocks were administered the unseen person would cry out in pain. The experiment looked at whether the test subject would continue to shock the person even though he/she was supposedly experiencing pain.
What Milgram found was that a majority of people will go against their conscience if ordered to do so by someone in authority. He came up with two theories that explain his findings.
- Theory of Conformism-A subject who has neither ability nor expertise to make decisions, especially in a crisis, will leave decision making to the group and its hierarchy
- Agentic State Theory-the essence of obedience consists in the fact that a person comes to view himself as the instrument for carrying out another person's wishes, and he therefore no longer sees himself as responsible for his actions. Once this critical shift of viewpoint has occurred in the person, all of the essential features of obedience follow
On a level, it makes it easier for individuals to follow orders from a higher authority. It allows for some level of plausible deniability if individuals are able to say that they are following orders and thus can retreat into a location where they do not have to bear the full burden of their actions. One of the most philosophically terrifying aspects of the Holocaust perpetrated by the Nazis were the amount of people who "followed orders" without speaking out against what was done. The ability to listen to a higher authority helped absolve these individuals of the tremendous amount of guilt in such a situation.
Authority is by nature a social contract - it is not usually something that is taken or forced, it is agreed to, either out of respect or fear or both. So people conform to what authority asks or demands of them because they agree to extend that authority - that power - to a person or group.
If everyone were to question or resist authority or even a significant percentage of the population were to do so, then the authority is compromised. If one percent of Americans converged on Washington DC, it would be paralyzed to act without extreme police or military force. So under this social contract, whether it be in a family, a business or in government, we give authority permission to make the rules by choosing not to question or resist.
In my opinion, this is partly because we are conditioned to do this. We are, from the time we are little, told to obey when our parents tell us things and obey when our teachers tell us things. People don't tell us to do whatever we're told even if it's wrong, but we do get used to doing what people say.
I think we are also likely to think that we should listen to people who, we think, know more than us. If we are told by an "expert" that something is true, we are likely to believe it even if it goes against our ideas.
I mention this because you asked about the Milgram experiment before and I think maybe you are talking about it again. In that experiment, people were told that it was really okay to do what they were doing by "experts" and so they took their word for it.