Latest news revealed there might be a degree of scientific basis for the Nuremberg defense. Scientists claim individuals who are given orders to do something cruel have a lower sense of responsibility than others. A group of researchers attempted to find why people are so easily forced into doing something that is not moral.
It is said that in 1962, Adolf Eichmann, one of those responsible for the Holocaust, wrote in a letter that he and his officers were only forced to serves as simple tools. This way he tried to escape the blame for killing millions of Jews, saying he was just following orders. However, his attempt wasn’t an adequate defense for the officers from the Nuremberg trials.
Ever since this happened neuroscientists and psychologists tried to conduct experiments to find whether Eichmann’s defense was valid. In the same year, psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted some trials to point out if simple individuals would harm other human beings just by following orders. Back then, the results revealed that people are capable of inhumane actions when they are coerced by an authority figure.
The new research is mainly based on the experiments conducted by Milgram in 1962. Currently, experts explained people experience a lower sense of responsibility for their actions when the authority tells them to do something perceived as wrong. Actually, this was the strategy used by most of the Nazi defendants in the criminal trails in the aftermath of the World War II.
Scientists at UCL and Université Libre de Bruxelles in Belgium used the example of those trials, attempting to find out why following orders interfere with human’s sense of responsibility. In finding the answer, experts claimed they focused on a phenomenon known as ‘sense of agency’. This phenomenon is related to the awareness which makes someone feel they are controlling their own actions and behavior.
For their research, the experts conducted a series of tests, measuring the sense of agency in individuals who took part in the tests. One of the experiments was based on ordering people to give a mild shock to another human being. The other one, the harm caused to another person was rewarded with a financial penalty. When causing harm to someone else, the participants were simply pressing a key which enabled a tone.
After this, individuals had to tell experts how much time they think it passed from pressing the key to the occurrence of the tone. According to scientists, the sense of responsibility was lower in people who perceived a longer period of time. This showed they didn’t control their actions and felt less responsible for what they had caused. Patrick Haggard from University College claimed:
“People appear to experience a sort of distance from the outcome of their actions when they are obeying instructions. It’s important to distinguish between how our minds generate our subjective feelings of responsibility and the objective facts of responsibility”.
Even though experts found scientific basis for the Nuremberg Defense, Haggard’s said this doesn’t legitimate the process. Moreover, he continued saying that people who claim they were just following orders ought to be viewed with skepticism.
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