Philosophy speaker discusses process of how free will, social pressure develop

Anna Duszkiewicz

David Schmidtz spoke about psychological freedom as a political problem as part of the Veroni Lecture series last night. HEATHER STAWICKI | DAILY KENT STATER

Credit: DKS Editors

Picture this experiment:

The teacher asks a student a question. The student gives the wrong answer. The teacher immediately delivers an electric shock to the student.

Would the teacher continue delivering these shocks when ordered to do so, even when they began to harm the student? Yes.

This, in fact, was an experiment performed in the 1960s by Stanley Milgram.

The result of the experiment was one of the examples David Schmidtz used in his lecture last night to illustrate people’s tendency to cave into social pressure.

The lecture, attended by about 50 people, was part of the philosophy department’s Veroni Lectures in Philosophy and the Humanities.

Schmidtz, Kendrick professor of philosophy and joint professor of economics at the University of Arizona, explained that the teacher’s role was to ask questions and deliver an “electric shock” to the student in case of a wrong answer. The “teacher” was the subject, the “student” was an actor.

Schmidtz said the student began to give incorrect answers according to the script and began screaming to be released as the voltage began to mount toward what the teacher’s control panel described as increasingly dangerous shock levels.

If and when the teacher expressed concern, the lab director ordered the teacher to continue.

When the student refused to answer any more questions and apparently collapsed, the teacher was ordered to treat non-answers as incorrect.

The experiment, Schmidtz said, showed people’s tendency to obey orders even when what they’re being ordered to do is immoral, and they want to disobey.

“Social pressure, it seems, turns us into cowards,” he said.

Schmidtz said free will is not an on-and-off switch. He said it is an ongoing achievement, and is achieved in varying degrees.

“Our wills can be more free in some circumstances than in others,” he said. “Our culture and system of government affect people’s inclination and ability to make up their own minds.”

Schmidtz has published articles in moral philosophy, action theory, decision theory and environmental ethics. His recent work is in the philosophy of freedom.

He said it would be ideal if people could do whatever they want and be happy.

“It turns out life isn’t that simple,” Schmidtz said. “There are impediments other than the obvious ones.”

Contact College of Arts and Sciences reporter Anna Duszkiewicz at [email protected].