Abraham and Milgram

(Disclaimer: I’m not really attempting in this post to give a plausible read of Genesis 22, as I realize that my speculations about Abraham have little basis in the scriptural text. Rather, I’m hoping to use the story as a way of raising general questions about the potential consequences of obedience vs. integrity situations. And, of course, what’s the fun of blogging if not to engage in a bit of wild speculation?)

In the 1960s, social psychologist Stanley Milgram did a study on obedience that has since become legendary. Participants were told to administer electric shocks to people, ostensibly as part of an experiment on learning. What was fascinating–and disturbing–was how willing participants were to continue inflicting higher and higher levels of shocks, despite cries of acute distress from those apparently receiving them (though this was of course faked; the “learners” were confederates in the study). The participants expressed discomfort, but ordered by the experimenter to continue, the majority of them did so–65 percent went up to the highest setting of 450 volts.

This study, and others like it, have led to much discussion about the human tendency to obey authority figures, even when their orders override the demands of personal conscience. What I am particularly interested in here, though, is the question of what it might do to you to discover this about yourself–that you would inflict pain on a fellow human being under pressure from an authority. I am intruiged by the fact that in a follow-up survey, the vast majority of the participants in Milgram’s original study reported that they were happy to have participated, that they thought they learned something valuable.

This brings me to Abraham. In wrestling with the story of Abraham and Isaac, I have sometimes wondered–how might have it affected Abraham to realize that he was willing to kill his own child? I’ve heard it said that the point of this story is that Abraham needed to learn something about Abraham. But what might you learn from such an experience? Would it be a positive thing to realize that you would commit horrific acts in the name of obedience–even obedience to God?

One of my sisters worked as a TA for an undergrad psychology class at BYU. At one point in the course they were asked what they would have done in the Milgram study. Almost all of them, she told me, reported that they personally would not go through with it, that they would not listen to the authority figure and instead would follow their conscience.

A constant temptation, I think, is to see evil as “out there.” It’s those other, weaker people who end up ensnared in it–who abuse or abandon their families; get addicted to gambling or drugs or pornography; lie, cheat, and steal; write rude comments on the bloggernacle; and, of course, cave in when authorities pressure them in psychological studies. I can read about people who are engaged in various forms of behavior I find reprehensible, and think to myself, well, at least I’m not one of them. At least I’ve never done that. It’s those “other people” who do those awful things. But then I have those disconcerting moments in which I am painfully reminded that I too can be cruel and callous, selfish and lazy, quick to anger and slow to forgive, racist and sexist, you name it–that I too have great potential for evil, that it is not something foreign to me.

And perhaps one possibly valuable outcome of an experience like Abraham’s, or involvement in the Milgram study, is that it could force you to confront the radically darker aspects of your own humanity, making it much more difficult to neatly split the world into the “evil” people and the “good” ones. Of course, it might simply make you more dogmatic, especially if you felt a continuing need to justify your actions. But it might also make you more compassionate. Can you condemn others as monsters, demonize them and dismiss them, when you are acutely aware of the monstrous and demonic elements of your own life? Can you think of the actions of the “bad guys” as other and completely incomprehensible, when an image of yourself holding a knife over your own child is seared into your brain?


  1. Very thought-provoking. As another pertinent example, some LDS would have no preference in the same sex marriage debate were it not for the Church’s “guidance.” Are we willing to inflict emotional pain on members of our community and perhaps family, because the Church has asked us to be obedient?

  2. This is a very interesting post. I remember studying the Katie Genovese case in my ethics class and wondering how I would have reacted in a similar situation. Of course I’d like to believe that I would behave differently, but I’ve been thinking along similar lines to the post lately and doubt my moral superiority. What I do hope is that after reading things like this, I am more self aware in the future and can be brave enough to take a stand.

  3. Interesting. I am also reminded of Nephi’s beheading of Laban at the behest of the spirit in 1st Nephi. Is not this a similar scriptural platform to kill in the name of diety as what one might find in the Koran? Though such extremes seem reserved for those with the prophetic mantle (Nephi, Abraham) and in situations that lay members are not likely to face, they are still laid before the reader as examples obedience to uphold righteousness. As such, are they not reserved in the religious consciousness as potential tests that the Lord may someday require of anyone? What does this accomplish within the character of the obedient?

  4. I am impressed when members of the Church are willing to push back against the herd mentality that promotes cruelty to others such as gays, racial minorities and women. Given the current climate, this takes real courage.

    I wonder what it would have been like to be a gay 15-year-old sitting in Sacrament Meeting last Sunday in California.

    Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. Milgram couldn’t have said it better.

  5. A constant temptation, I think, is to see evil as “out there.”

    I agree. The Milgram study, the Stanford Prison experiment, narratives like Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac, historical anecdotes and news accounts all demonstrate that moral choices are surrounded by ambiguous, complex contexts. There are authority figures who relieve you of the burden of responsibility and there are justifications that sound reasonable at the time. Also, I’m sure that many of the worst choices were arrived at incrementally.

    This isn’t strictly related to the obedience aspect, but you could say that as members of a global market economy we are immersed daily in an ocean of diffused responsibility. What kind of impact do the purchasing and employment and investment choices we make have on the well-being of others?

  6. “Moral choices are surrounded by ambiguous, complex contexts.”

    That is true of many situations, and it is true on “both sides” of many issues. Whatever “side” of any issue we promote, it’s very easy to forget that our own certainty can ignore ambiguity and complexity. It would be well to keep that in mind whenever we are dealing with a difficult emotional topic – to let charity (the core Biblical concept of recognizing we all see things darkly, NOT the BofM addition of the “pure love of Christ”) direct our responses.

    It’s very easy to see the story of Abraham in black and white, as it is to see any contemporary issue like SSM in that same way. Recognizing that there really is ambiguity and complexity in these things can keep us from condemning others whose conclusions are different than ours – again, on both sides of each issue.

  7. Excellent post, Lynnette. I just finished reading a book that explains some of the neuroscience behind human morality. It’s called “Why We Believe What We Believe”, and one of the more compelling chapters (although the whole book is a worthy read) is entitled, “Ordinary Criminals Like You and Me”.

    In this chapter the author explores what is actually going through people’s minds as they, for example, administer painful electric shocks to others. His conclusion is that most people will commit extremely immoral acts under the proper conditions. Not very comforting thoughts, but the good news is that he argues that we can create social environments and beliefs that facilitate peace rather than evil. (although, historically, humans have never been successful at this for very long)

  8. Lynnette, I don’t mind telling you that this post disturbs me. It is unnerving and haunting to me to realize that there is a good chance that, had I lived in Cedar City in 1857, I would have been part of the group that attacked the Fancher party. I makes me shudder to think about it.

    I have a few big rerets in my life, and two of them involve obeying a church leader when my own judgement told me not to. In both cases, I found out only later that I was being used as part of a power struggle to do someone else’s dirty work.

    I also think JohnR’s observation is correct. We don’t often make the jump all at once, but incrementally. Those youth lessons about the frog in boiling water or the camel’s nose in the tent were right after all!

  9. I agree with others that looking at our own morality and potential for evil is both interesting and important Lynnette.

    But I don’t really think the Milgram-Abraham connection works very well. The massive difference is the the “authority figure” in Abraham’s case (as in the Nephi case) was God himself. Taking orders from an unseen God certainly is fraught with a peril all its own but it is quite different than taking orders from human authority figures.

    I think the MMM example Mark IV brought up is a perfect match for the Milgram study though.

  10. Thanks, all, for some interesting comments! I particularly like the point made by JohnR and Ray and ECS about moral decisions being made in the context of complex and ambiguous social structures. I’m reminded of how often in fantasy worlds (a genre I admittedly quite enjoy), those on the side of evil represent and understand themselves as such. Darth Vader explicitly acknowledges that he’s channeling the Dark Side of the Force; the hosts of Mordor don’t claim to be serving some higher, noble purpose. But in the real world, things are so much messier.

    JohnR, your observation about our involvement in the global economy reminds me of a comment Karl Rahner made along the lines of how it’s difficult to do something as simple as purchasing a banana, without exploiting workers somewhere–as an illustration of the pervasiveness of original sin. That’s where I think the doctrine of original sin has some real power; it’s a way of articulating, I think, the extent to which we find ourselves embedded in ambiguous structures even prior to our conscious choices.

    Like Lessie and Mark IV, I find thinking about this kind of thing more than a bit unsettling. In my own life, I feel like my morality is most prone to collapse when I’m on the spot, under pressure–if I have some time to think things through, I might opt for a different course of action, but in the heat of the moment I don’t always seem to do so well.

    Geoff J, that’s a fair point, and I do have some reservations about using Abraham in this context. For one thing, I’m not actually sure the story is best read as an obedience-vs.-integrity dilemma–but that’s how it’s usually used in our discourse, so it seemed like the obvious example. And the question about the effects of the experience on Abraham is one I’ve often wondered about. Even if you accept that the command to kill Isaac did in fact come from God, I still think it’s an interesting question to ask what that might have done to Abraham, to realize that he was willing to follow through with it. Which maybe gets at the question Obolus poses, about what such tests are meant to accomplish in the character of the obedient. In the case of Nephi, I find it interesting that he spends so much time explaining why it was necessary to kill Laban–perhaps indicating that he still wasn’t completely at peace about the whole thing (though of course it’s possible I’m reading too much into the text there).

    To put this another way, I can’t help noticing how often people report regret when they share accounts in which they violated their conscience in the name of obedience. (Such an outcome clashes with one popular LDS narrative in which obedience produces blessings, even–and maybe especially–if one has personal misgivings about that obedience. Which isn’t to say that I don’t think that can happen, of course.) So is obedience to God exempt from this? In other words, could you later find yourself regretting a decision to obey God, or seeing such obedience as having been morally wrong? I suspect in most cases, such an instance would be reinterpreted as a faulty understanding of God’s will. But given the limited and fallible access to God we have in mortality, I’m not sure it’s all that easy to separate the problematics of obedience to God and obedience to human authorities–especially when frequently our access to God is mediated through human authorities. That’s why I think it’s interesting to look at a story like Abraham in this context, though I agree that MMM-Milgram would probably be a clearer parallel.

  11. So is obedience to God exempt from this?

    In most theologies popular today I think the answer is yes. A God who requires us to behave immorally would be an immoral God after all and not many mainstream theologies accept the possibility of an immoral God.

    In Mormonism there is specific scripture that says while God has the freedom to choose immorality he would cease to be God if he did make that choice. Other theologies seem to insist that God simply is not able to act immorally.

    Of course all of this raises meta-ethics questions that can get pretty tedious to dig in to.

  12. This is such a thought-provoking connection! So often we set up an opposition between integrity and obedience and hold Abraham up as the model of the latter without considering some of the potential emotional costs to violating one’s integrity–both in terms of how one sees oneself (willing to kill one’s child against one’s better judgment) as well as how one sees God (willing to command such).

    I’m actually very persuaded by the argument Jon Levenson makes in Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son, that at least on an ideological level the sacrifice of one’s firstborn son was considered wholly appropriate in ancient Israel–thus there is no tension in the story between integrity and obedience, because there are no indications Abraham considers the sacrifice “immoral.” To me this is simultaneously a more comforting reading (God doesn’t ask Abraham to violate his conscience) and a more horrifying one (God finds human sacrifice acceptable). Even so, you still have to wonder how it would affect a person to discover he was willing to make that sacrifice, whether he considered it “right” or “wrong.” And the gloss we typically give the story in the Church, in which obedience is prized above even morality, only makes these issues all the starker.

    Especially since in the story God’s character interacts with Abraham like any human authority (for example, there are no indications Abraham is uncertain about whether it was genuinely the voice of God commanding him), then I don’t think a qualitative separation between human and divine authorities is useful here.

  13. Kiskilili: I don’t think a qualitative separation between human and divine authorities is useful here.

    You lost me with this comment.

    There is a massive difference between receiving instructions directly from the source (God) as opposed to through a human mediator or several layers of human mediators. This is especially true since most of us consider God to be infallible but the mediators to be obviously fallible. That is why personal revelation is an indispensable check on any directions given through any person claiming to be speaking on behalf of God.

  14. These are very interesting questions, Lynnette. I really like your point about how easy it can be for us to see evil, or the potential for evil, as “out there” instead of “in here” in us. I remember in a family science class at BYU, when we discussed child abuse, the professor really made a big point about lots of child abuse being committed by ordinary people who were momentarily overwhelmed by their children’s stubbornness or crabbiness or whatnot. To make the point that it’s not other people who are potential child abusers, but all of us, he had us all stand up and say together “I can abuse a child.” That’s always kind of stuck with me that I can’t just assume that I’m a good person so I don’t need to worry that I might not cross the line and abuse my kids.

    I agree with your assessment of Nephi. He didn’t even start his record until he reached the promised land, and he devoted so much time to justifying his killing of Laban, I think it clearly still weighed on him. In his case, it seems like going through with killing Laban just made him adamant that it must have been God’s plan for that to happen, because the alternative was unthinkable–that he had killed Laban needlessly out of vengeance.

    I like your point too about the complexity that’s brought on when we don’t have an easy dark side whose members understand themselves to be evil. This issue actually came up just last night when I was watching an old Star Trek episode with my kids. The righteous Kirk and company were battling the evil Romulans. When the Romulan leader appeared on the screen, my five year old son asked me, “Dad, do you think the bad guy knows he’s a bad guy?” I didn’t really have a good answer. I do think, as you and several others have alluded to, that one of our strongest impulses is to see ourselves as good, and we’re sometimes willing to go to great lengths to construe events in ways that paint us in a good light.

    One last point: I read some of Millgram’s papers and responses to them a few years ago for a class. I can’t recall who raised the issue, but at least one of the response papers made the point that participating in psychological research shouldn’t lead people to learn disturbing things about themselves. I can totally see this point–that’s not the purpose of research. It’s not supposed to be some kind of dramatic therapy that jolts people into their awareness that they can commit evil. But on the other hand, I think that I would respond like most of Millgram’s participants did. I’m very compliant, and I’m sure I would have shocked the learner to the end of the board. But I also think I would be like most of his participants in that I would have appreciated learning that fact about myself, even if it made me feel horrible in the moment. It would be like a dry run for being ordered to do evil–getting to see just how compliant I was without anything bad really happening.

  15. I watched the Living Scriptures version of Abraham and Isaac yesterday with my 5 yo. What disturbed me even more than Abraham’s almost killing his son was what happened to Ishmael.
    Though the movie tried to portray Hagaar and Ishmael as deserving their treatment, I was deeply moved by the choice Abraham made to send his firstborn son away with the knowledge that God would bless him, even though he wasn’t the covenant son.
    So, maybe the idea of killing Isaac wasn’t so different from banishing his older son, Ishmael. Or, maybe it was a preparation.

  16. That’s such an interesting point, Jessawhy! I’d never really thought of it that way. The story of what happens to Ishmael and Hagar is really haunting, particularly the way in which God is complicit in their banishment. I really like the connection you’ve made between Abraham’s attitude toward both of his sons–in a way, he demonstrates his willingness to sacrifice each of them in turn.

    Geoff, maybe it makes sense to conceptualize the issues here in terms of (at least) two facets: God’s morality, and the emotional fallout for Abraham’s behavior.

    Regarding the first, if we take it as axiomatic that God is perfectly good (either because he’s above the law–a possibility I find unsettling and it sounds like you reject as well–or because he adheres perfectly to it), then I agree there’s a qualitative difference between obedience to God’s authority (a known quantity: unwaveringly good) and obedience to any other authority (an unknown quantity, so to speak). Because if this is the case, conscience should not conflict with God’s commands, and in the event that the two differ we can suppose the problem lies in conscience being poorly calibrated.

    If on the other hand we don’t bring any presuppositions about God’s nature to bear on our reading of the story, then I think useful parallels can be drawn between God’s authoritative pronouncements and those of mortal authorities. I’m not trying to advocate for either position here but just to lay out what’s at issue; I respect your unequivocal philosophical commitment to God’s goodness. 🙂

    As to the second issue–the emotional consequences of submitting to God’s authority–my inclination is to say that it can be examined independently of the first. That is, even if God is perfectly good and his command to Abraham to kill Isaac is entirely appropriate, I think it’s possible to still imagine potentially harrowing emotional consequences to “an image of yourself holding a knife over your child [being] seared into your brain.” But I guess it hinges on how we understand “goodness,” and how transparent we think it is.


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