The ethics of proximity.


Stanley Milgram is a name everyone should know. If you can, watch his films. Read his books. He is best known for his laboratory experiments, where he proved that the gentlest nudging of authority can get the average citizen to kill his brethren. Urged to apply deadly electric shocks to unseen subjects, most people complied.

Milgram was troubled by the Nazi killing program, and wanted to know how ordinary people got involved with atrocity. Conventional wisdom of the time postulated an ‘authoritarian personality type’ or a form of mass psychosis. However, neither insanity nor special cultural conditions were necessary. It seems that the requirements for atrocity include obedience to authority, dispersion of responsibility, and distance.

It’s the last condition that interests me the most. Apparently, humans are highly ethical actors within a limited realm of physical proximity. You are not likely to harm someone in your direct vicinity – someone you can see and touch. However, ethical boundaries degrade very quickly when the victim is somehow removed from your perception – when you can’t heat the screams, or see the anguish on the faces.

It’s troubling, then, that we can go to war by video game, controlling death-dealing drones from the safety of a US military installation. We are already very removed from the dirt and blood of war. Our eyes can’t see what our hands are doing. Milgram has shown that this means our hands can be easily persuaded to do the devil’s work.

Here is a link to a podcast about a recent recreation of the experiment:

And a website about Milgram:


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