In 1961, a Yale psychologist decided to measure the willingness of people to obey orders at odds with their morals and conscience. Stanley Milgram's experiment involved administering an electric shock to a person in another room whom the participants couldn't see. No electric shocks were actually administered, but the participants didn't know this. They could hear the person in the other room supposedly receiving the shocks screaming and pounding on the wall.
In the first set of experiments, 65 per cent of the participants (26 of 40) administered what they believed to be the top-level 450-volt blast. Along the way, participants did pause and question the experiment, but continued what they were doing. Before the experiment began, participants had been asked to estimate how many of them would be prepared to administer that top-level blast. The answer? Maybe a couple.
In a 1974 article about his experiment, The Perils of Obedience, Dr. Milgram wrote that, when authority was put up against the participants' "strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects' ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not."
He continued: "Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority."
Which brings us to the revolting story that broke this week of the mass slaughter of possibly as many as 100 sled dogs in Whistler, B.C., last spring. Details of the massacre were revealed in a B.C. Workers' Compensation Board application made by the person who said he carried out the deed under the directions of management. The company has admitted it asked the employee to get rid of the dogs, but not in this manner. Authorities are investigating.
The initial reaction to the story, of course, was focused almost exclusively on the animals themselves and the grotesque circumstances that surrounded their demise. The thought of dogs watching other dogs being shot and stabbed to death sickened us. Stories that some of the wounded dogs tried to escape brought tears to our eyes.
What kind of person, we asked, could do this? We, the moral majority, would never do such a thing. We wondered, too, about the other employees at the company. They must have known what happened. A hundred dogs just don't disappear overnight. Why didn't they protest or bring the so-called cull to light? Why didn't they quit?
We can all be sickened by what we know about this brutal execution of animals, and we should demand that some kind of justice be served. A civil society must know that the brutal nature of this event can never be right, no matter a company's economic circumstances.
But we must also keep in mind that animals are slaughtered in this country every day, in many different ways and manners, some more humane than others. Most of us are lucky we aren't put in situations that pit our moral and economic interests against authoritative imperatives.
While we'd all like to think we'd do the right thing, regardless of the impact on us, it doesn't always turn out that way. Ask Dr. Milgram.