If you act under orders, are you still responsible for your actions?

New research has delved further into this well known conundrum, looking at our deeper, less conscious, reaction when we do things that hurt others – depending on whether we do it voluntarily. 

Courtesy of Israel Government Press Office/United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
The Defendant Adolf Eichmann inside his glass booth during the Eichmann Trial in Jerusalem, May 29, 1961. During the trial, Mr. Eichmann claimed that he should receive clemency for his role in the holocaust because he was 'just following orders.'

When someone says, “It’s not my fault: I was told to do it,” they may be expressing more sincerity than we realize, say scientists.

While it has long been accepted that people acting under orders can often do things they may not have done of their own volition, a new study published Thursday in the journal Current Biology delves a little deeper.

Researchers found evidence that something happens at a basic level to impart a sense of diminished responsibility, rather than it simply being a defense people claim, raising some interesting questions about the way in which society assigns blame.

“If you ask people how responsible they feel for their actions, you will have social bias in their answer,” says first author of the study, Emilie Caspar of the Université Libre de Bruxelles in Belgium, in a Skype interview with The Christian Science Monitor.

“To counter that, we asked people to estimate the time lapse between their own action and the consequence inflicted on their co-participant,” Dr. Caspar says.

This research builds on a foundation laid down in the 1960s by psychologist Stanley Milgram who undertook famous experimentation in a Yale University basement, demonstrating that people will inflict pain on others simply because someone in authority told them to do so.

What Caspar and her team found, however, was that their subjects perceived the amount of time between their depression of a button and the administration of an electric shock, or a financial penalty, on someone else to be longer when they had been ordered to press the button.

When their action was entirely voluntary, they perceived the time delay to be smaller, leading scientists to conclude that on some basic level, there was a greater sense of association between a participant and the consequences of their actions, when they freely chose to execute those actions.

“We all know, from common sense, that if someone is forced to do something by someone else, they feel less responsible,” says Joshua Greene, director of Harvard University’s Moral Cognition Lab, in a telephone interview with The Monitor.

“What’s new here is that it’s not just on some high conceptual level of ‘he made me do it,’ but it changes your sense on a lower level,” explains Dr. Greene, who was not involved in the study.

So, does this mean that, after all, when someone commits an act perceived by society to be abhorrent, if they did it because they were told to do so, they should not be held responsible?

Greene is quite emphatic in his answer: “This doesn’t mean people shouldn’t be held responsible, and it doesn’t provide an argument against the assertion that, as an adult, you should be responsible for your own actions.

“But whether or not, in the end, we judge people should be held responsible, it suggests that the person who feels less responsible might be more sincere than you think,” he adds.

This is important for society as a whole to understand, says Caspar, citing this as one of the most important implications of the research.

“If the one following the orders genuinely feels less responsible, then society should understand this so that, perhaps, those giving the orders assume more responsibility and, equally, those carrying them out can be taught to accept more responsibility themselves,” Caspar tells the Monitor.

“Everyone should be aware of their own degree of responsibility.”

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