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Michael Almereyda dissects the life and work of controversial psychologist Stanley Milgram in a highly stylized biopic worthy of its subject.

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The controversial social psychologist Stanley Milgram gets a biopic as polymorphous as one of his own research studies in “Experimenter,” a highly formal, always fascinating movie from writer-director Michael Almereyda , who here delivers his most fully realized effort in the 15 years since his modern-dress “Hamlet” starring Ethan Hawke. Almereyda conceives of Milgram’s life and work as a kind of constantly evolving theater piece and runs with the idea, resulting in a decidedly Brechtian bitof filmmaking that routinely breaks the fourth wall and employs other bits of theatrical artifice to tell its tale. Such old-school indie-art-movie quirks won’t be to everyone’s liking, but for those who imbibe, “Experimenter” offers a heady brew of theories about the essence of human nature, and a Peter Sarsgaard performance that catches Milgram in all his seductive, megalomaniacal brilliance.

Milgram made his name in the more permissive, laissez-faireera of university-sponsored scientific research previously explored in films like “Kinsey” (which co-starred Sarsgaard) and “Project Nim,” and it’s one of “Experimenter’s” throughlines that, just because Milgram may have employed some scientifically questionable methods, thatdoesn’t invalidate the merit of his data. When the movie opens in August 1961, the Yale-based Milgram is just embarking on his most famous/infamous study, the “Milgram experiment on obedience to authority figures,” in which two randomly selected test subjects are assigned the respective roles of “Teacher” and “Learner,” with Teacher instructed to ask Learner (situated in an adjacent room) a series of multiple-choice questions.

If and when Learner answers incorrectly, Teacher is to administer a remote-controlled electric shock, the severity of which would increase with each subsequent wrong answer. The catch: Unbeknownst to Teacher, Learner is actually a member of Milgram’s lab team, cued to answer questions incorrectly on purpose and to shout in pain upon receipt of each successive “shock” (when, in fact, no actual shocks are being delivered).

An American-born Jew of Romanian-Hugarian extraction, Milgram was obsessed by the origins of genocide and the human capacity to rationalize violent behavior, and as Adolph Eichmann stood trial in Israel and Hannah Arendt wrote about “the banality of evil” in the pages of the New Yorker, Milgram was busily putting theory into practice, watching with a mix of fascination and horror as some two-thirds of his nearly 800 test subjects administered the full range of electric shocks. The subjects believed they had no other choice but to obey the directives of Milgram’s lab assistants, that they were therefore “just following orders” — a condition Milgram would go on to term “the agentic state.”

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We could probably convince our consciences that these extreme actions would ultimately fail to maximize well-being, if at least for the horror toward utilitarianism it would create in others. Maximizing overall well-being would be better served if we took into account our psychological limitations and didn’t prescribe the sorts of actions that are likely to backfire by making everyone else terrified of the very idea of striving to maximize well-being. Maximization through moderation seems, paradoxically, the way to go.

But even the demands imposed by this curbed utilitarianism are quite burdensome: it still entails radical and uncomfortable changes to our lives – at least for many of those reading this – and most of us consequently won’t make those changes. But most of us also feel like we are good people, or at least not particularly bad ones. This self-perception is difficult to reconcile with the moral failure that utilitarianism insists you are. To accept such a label feels like a particularly bitter pill to swallow, especially for moral philosophers, who, more than any other group of individuals, may find it particularly insulting.

Perhaps for this reason more than any other, utilitarianism will probably remain a minority view. And yet, the discomfort of this label can also become uplifting if we change our relationship to what it means to be a moral failure. A moral failure need not be a bad person. They could merely be a person who acknowledges their limitations and strives to fail a little less each day. And hopefully, lab-grown kidneys will soon enough help them rationalize away their greedy desire to keep their extra one all to themselves.

Hazem Zohny is a research fellow in bioethics and bioprediction at The University of Oxford. You can follow him on Twitter @hazemzohny

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Filed under: Philosophy

by Hazem Zohny

Hazem Zohny is a research fellow in bioethics and bioprediction at The University of Oxford.

Paul H. says

What motivates you to adopt utilitarianism in the first place? Perhaps a utilitarian should abandon philosophy on account of all the trouble thinking causes for oneself! I often hear that utilitarianism is overall intuitive, but in this context intuition presumably means feelings, prejudices, or instinctive reactions. That would seem to be in tension with the goal of having a rational ethical theory.

I agree focusing on solving dilemmas/scenarios is wrongheaded, although not for the reasons you state. Yet in this example, I don’t see why the scenarios should be faulted for giving you a defined outcome. Wouldn’t adding such uncertainty to the scenario, make the analysis even more difficult? If you cannot determine the implications of a moral theory when consequences are known and specified, then the theory becomes even more useless if the consequences are probabilistic or indeterminate.

Devin Bayer says

Paul, a true utilitarian will take into account everything, including feelings, instincts and uncertainty in their calculations. Instead of being in tension with rationality, this is required.

Maybe the most utilitarian action is to not focus on utilitarianism for day to day life, but instead use it as a guiding principle for coming up with more practical principles.

But these are practical concerns that can be handled within the framework. They are not objections to it.

Paul Hartyanszky says

I think you are misreading my concern and conflating the two issues I raised. The first one is the justification for utilitarianism. Utilitarians claim that the goal of ethical action is to maximize utility and for some utilitarians ‘utility’ is inclusive of considerations of feelings and instincts. Preference utilitarian is one such prominent theory.

Instead, I ask, “why adopt utilitarianism in the first place”. Why take its utility principle to be more rational than any other theory? What reason is there for taking the notion that we should always choose actions that consequently maximize utility, all persons considered? What is it about pleasure/happiness/preferences (or whatever) that says they ought be chosen?

This is an important point, because for one thing, philosophers are always interested in arguments and reasons. Even more so relevant because utilitarians themselves greatly emphasize the apparent rationality of their ethics over customary morality and traditional theories involving God, law of nature, etc.

Utilitarians might be able to ground the theory in something more fundamental (although in which case it may entail the idea that there are more important things than pure utility, weakening the original utilitarian theory). Or they might say that it is intuitive or obvious that utilitarianism is true (i.e. that we should maximize utility and minimize harm). Zohny doesn’t go into this, but since he raises the issue of “evolved intuitions”, I wonder if he thinks they can justify an ethical theory like utilitarianism or have significance for moral philosophers.

My second concern was his criticism of the scenarios because of the clearly delineated outcomes. This was not a challenge to utilitarianism at all, it was a argument against his claim that the clairvoyant nature of the scenarios makes our reasoning with the scenarios misleading.

mika says

Hi Paul, it seems to me that happiness is the thing that humans are naturally drawn to. If I’m sitting in an uncomfortable position I shift to something more comfortable. If I do a job that’s unpleasant it’s with a view to increasing my happiness. What more natural thing could there be than to increase the overall sum of happiness?

(I agree there’s no law of the universe saying we *must* use happiness; but unless one’s an adherent of one of the religions there’s no law prescribing any other basis for morality either.)

NeonCrusader says

What always seems to me to be missing from the utilitarian thought experiments is the fact that a single human being is not the entirety of the universal moral balance.

The reason people are instinctively uncomfortable with the notion of, say, killing their own child to save a million other children, or pushing the fat man on the trolley, is that it asks of the individual that he destroy himself utterly (or at least risk a lot and commit great cruelty) in the name of balancing a cosmic morality scale.

This is utterly incoherent, since everyone is but a single individual consciousness, and no one wants to consign themselves to a horrible fate in the name of abstract calculations of collective right or wrong. I feel it is much better to consider morality from a more individual standpoint, where the question asked is more: ”What can you personally do to make existence better for yourself and others, and not worse?” Rather than the purely utilitarian: ”Do whatever it takes to make the entire world ultimately have a better coefficient of good than bad.”

David Chennells @BeatConfusion says

Excellent piece, Hazem, and courageous in its own humble way in standing against the tide of the many baroque strains of conservatism that attract all too much support in this age of facile populism.

While utilitarianism, like any other broad ethical doctrine, may be absurd at its far edges, it remains closest at its core to embodying the basic humanitarian injunction of placing equal value on each and every human life. Moreover, it’s serviceable: with the most minor of repairs, as cogently argued in this piece, it emerges as closest to many of our deepest moral intuitions and aspirations. And it is, of course, the fount of classical liberalism, at this moment, the leading certified antidote to the authoritarianism, paranoia, and preposterous programmes of both the far left and far right.

Well done, both Hazem, and, as always, Quillette.

mika says

Thanks for the interesting article. Some assorted thoughts.

Regarding the first caveat, this seems to be an argument in favour of rule utilitarianism. As you say, humans are not omniscient. Our judgement is not all that reliable. Summing the total impact on human happiness is a tough job in the best of cases, let alone when the trolley is speeding down the track and there’s only seconds to make a choice. So rule utilitarianism does the hard work for us. Further to that, rules give us security and predictability which has an inherent value in itself. One thing I find interesting (if I’m reading it correctly) is that the Oxford Utilitarianism Scale appears to rate rule utilitarianism as less utilitarian than classic utilitarianism. Is this fair (or more importantly, useful)? It seems to me that in practice, classic utilitarianism is unlikely to result in much increase in human happiness.

(I appreciate that rule utilitarianism has its own drawbacks. I’d lean towards a hybrid – rule utilitarianism in most cases but act utilitarianism where the rule is clearly flawed.)

As for utilitarian choices feeling uncomfortable, I guess this comes down to us being wired in somewhat contradictory ways. We are naturally selected to be good at passing our genes on to future generations. This involves a combination of selfishness (so our own, specific genes survive) and concern for others (so the collective genes survive, to the benefit of all including our own descendants). So a moral system that prioritises the common good may seem uncomfortable if it clashes with our selfish interests (cutting off our own leg) or our concern for others (pushing someone in front of the trolley). Is this not just natural? “Uncomfortable” is clearly not the same thing as “immoral”.

I don’t think that writing the extreme scenarios off as silly is necessarily helpful. It’s a good test of any philosophy, how it stands up to extreme tests. And is calling scenarios “silly” just a way of avoiding the slightly-less-extreme-but-still-difficult scenarios? Utilitarians still have to deal with whether it’s ok to bomb a wedding party or torture suspected terrorists. We’re not actively pushing people under trams but we are, as societies, making collective decisions that may kill people. If the Oxford Utilitarianism Scale uses scenarios that are silly then perhaps the test is flawed?

(My Utilitarian score: 48 out of 63)

Hazem Zohny says

Thanks for the thoughts, Mika. The silly thought experiments in mind are not the ones depicted in the Oxford scale, but the ones that ask you to imagine a case of, say, extreme, oppressive inequality AND one where that is the only way to maximize overall well-being. An example is the slavery case used here. It’s relevant to question the stipulations of such scenarios, especially if they are implicitly positing a version of a human being that simply shares a fundamentally different relationship with well-being and suffering. These particular thought experiments are misleading, though unintentionally so I think.

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