Agency Theory (Milgram 1974)

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Milgram proposed a theory in 1974 to explain why decent and responsible people who lead ordinary lives are prepared to obey orders that go against their morals and causes them distress. He proposed that we have evolved 2 social states (or distinct modes of social consciousness) that give us the capability to do this.

Autonomous state is the state in which we normally operate, self-governing and independent, where we are free to acts as we wish according to our own moral compass. In this state, the vast majority of people behave decently towards others and would not cause them harm in the absence of provocation. They feel responsible for their own behaviour.

Agentic state is the one we move to when we are confronted with authority, in which we surrender our free will and conscience in order to serve the interest of a wider group. In this state we see ourselves primarily as the agents of those in authority and secondarily as individuals. We are no longer independent and do not hold ourselves fully responsible for our actions. The justification in this state is normally because we were ordered to do so.

We are socialised into developing the capacity for the agentic state from an early age. At home and school children are expected to do as they are told and so they internalise the importance of obedience so that eventually obedience comes easily and disobedience becomes a negative behaviour. In school, children learn to put aside their individual wishes to maintain order and put the good of the class as a whole first. Milgram believed that, like children in a classroom, we are constantly subordinating our own needs and wishes to those of society.

We can see this tendency in job related behaviour. In theory people would say that they work for their own benefit and would not go out of their way for their employer. However, in reality, once people are in a job they identify themselves as part of that organisation, they have the tendency to put the needs of their employer above their own.

Obedience is necessary in society in order to function effectively and Milgram whole-heartedly acknowledged this, however, it is also argued that society should not encourage ‘blind’ obedience.

Moral strain occurs when we have to do something we believe to be immoral in order to function…


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