Impact of Authority Figures on Morals

Ida McGrath

Ms. Pahomov and Ms. Rymer

English 2

26 March 2019

Impact of Authority Figures on Morals

The morality of humans has been debated since before we can remember. The majority likes to believe that humans are good-natured, and that only very few people are truly evil. Yet both murder and war still often occur. This leaves us to wonder what is really true at all? This idea lies at the center of the novel “Lord of the Flies” by William Golding. The allegorical story follows a group of boys from the ages of 7 to 12 as they struggle to keep in touch with their humanity while stranded on an island. The book sparked a massive debate on the psychology behind one's morals, but the idea behind it has been around for centuries. Many have questioned just how far one can be pushed before their morals kick in, which brings up the factor of authoritative pressures. The guidance of authoritative figures has a massive impact on one's' morality and their ability to inflict harm on others.

The theory that authoritative pressures play a role in someone’s morality is a major part of the plot of “Lord of The Flies.” The group of boys are left without any supervision on the island, so they voted for a chief, choosing between two of the older boys, Ralph and Jack. Ralph wins the election by a landslide and Jack is quite upset by it. Further into the book, Jack split off from the group after an intense quarrel with Chief Ralph. He invited others to join his rebellion, which the majority of the boys did. He ruled the new group with an iron fist by using their fear as a tactic to control them. Even before they had officially deemed him as their leader he was doing it. In the begining of the book during an assembly, Ralph tried to tell the rest of the boys that the beast isn’t real, Jack assured them that it is real as he knewhe could use it to his benifit, “He gave a wild whoop and leapt down to the pale sand. At once the platform was full of noise and excitement, scramblings, screams and laughter. The assembly shredded away and became a discursive and random scatter from the palms to the water and away along the beach, beyond night-sight.”(Golding 70) Jack knew that the beast wasn’t real, he had admitted it just moments before. But, as he saw the assembly start to become dissorganized, and the other boys’ lack of respect for Ralph’s rules, he took advantage of his opportunity. He knew that the destruction of the current system they had built could create a new opportunity for him to be leader. This shows the reader once again that he puts his own desires before the actual good of the group and their basic survival. This pattern of Jack maniplulating the other boys continues throughout the book and adds to the pressures he continues to put on them to do what he says.

After WWI and WWII the idea that average citizens were capable of committing such henious acts was terrifying to people. So the idea that they were simply taking orders was brought up. Which then produced one question, could any person be pushed to this extreme under the right conditions? A psychologist at Yale University named Stanley Milgram decided to study this. He designed an experiment with a range of 40 males aged from 20 to 50. Those men were sent into a room with two actors, one playing a "learner" and the other the "experimenter". The men being tested were to be a “teacher”, placed on the opposite side of a wall as the actors and were to ask the learner a series of questions. If the learner got a question wrong, they were to administer a shock with an increasing level of volts each time. There were 30 different levels, the lowest being 15 volts, a slight shock, and the highest being 450 volts, which is a dangerous amount. If the teacher refused to do it, the experimenter had a series of 4 commands to get them to continue. “Please continue’, ‘The experiment requires you to continue, ‘It is absolutely essential that you continue’ and ‘You have no other choice but to continue.” (SimplyPsychology) By using language like this, it added the threat that if something went wrong it would be their fault and that this was something that needed to be completed. Even if the men had no relation to this man giving them instructions, the respect we are told to have for authority figures compelled the men to believe the Experimenter and do what they were told, even if it was against what they believed in. At the end of the experiment, two-thirds of the men went all the way to 450 volts and every single one of them went up to at least 300 volts. This showed Milgram the shocking results that, your everyday, run of the mill people are able to follow orders of an authority figure even to the extent of killing someone.

This can be seen as a direct reflection of Jack’s relationship with the other boys. They of course, compared to the men in the experiment, are in a far more extreme situation. The boy's lives are potentially on the line, and can also see the direct effect of their actions play out in front of them. Contrary to the Milgram Experiment, where they were shielded behind a wall, only hearing the screams of the men they were hurting. But before any of this starts, we can already see the pressure that Jack holds above the boys and how he wields it. Without even being fully introduced to his character we start to get a sense of the way he interacts with others. During the election of their leader, Jack believed he should be in charge solely based off of the fact that he is, as he put it plainly, "Chapter chorister and head boy. I can sing C sharp."(Golding 17) Except for the choir boys, none of the boys had seen Jack represent any form of leadership so when it came down to the vote, Ralph won. “All right. Who wants Jack for chief?" With dreary obedience, the choir raised their hands.” (Golding 17) The reader watches as the non-choir boys all leaned towards voting for Ralph, as an internal battle took place in the Choir Boys. It seemed as though they too wanted to vote for Ralph, but felt the underlying pressure from Jack to vote for him. They ended up complying later on. This can be seen as a sneak peek into his methods of leadership as later on in the book, most of his followers simply follow him as they feel pushed to.

This is shown again towards the end of the book. After the boys had split up into two main groups the readers watch as the boys in Jack’s group tied up Wilfred for what seemed to be no apparent reason. "He's going to beat Wilfred.’ ‘What for?’ Robert shook his head doubtfully. ‘I don't know. He didn't say. He got angry and made us tie Wilfred up. He's been’ --he giggled excitedly-- ‘he's been tied for hours, waiting--’ ‘But didn't the chief say why?’ ‘I never heard him.” (Golding 124) We see as the boys have become so conditioned to simply follow orders that they don’t even question the reason behind their actions anymore. Similar to the men involved in the experiment, the boys are willing to inflict pain on the others even though they may have experienced something similar. We even see Robert, a boy who had just recently been faced with being the prey of the group's antics, now giggling about the similar situation he had just put Wilfred in. Which truly proves how numb they’ve become to the whole situation and concept of causing harm on another individual.

Milgram came to the conclusion that people have two different states of mind in social situations, the Autonomous State and Agentic State. The Autonomous State meaning, they take control and responsibility for their actions and the result of those actions. And the Agentic State meaning, they allow others to control them and then pass off the responsibility of the effects of their actions to the person who gave them the orders. During the experiment, one can watch the men participating going through the stages of each of these states. One man, after shocking a man with 180 vaults and hearing the actor cry out, says, “I can't stand it, I'm not gonna kill that man."(Vimeo) But that changes after the Experimenter tells him, that he as the Experimenter, takes full responsiblity if anything happens to the Student being shocked. It only takes him one more time for him to confirm this and for the man to remove all the guilt from his back, before then continuing on with the experiment. He even goes as far to continue to shock the Student while they are crying out to “get them out of here” with only slight hesitation. The man only completely stops once again once he reaches the 450 vaults, protesting that he thinks the Student has been hurt. Showing once again that even just with the slightest pressure from an authority figure or displacement of responsiblity a person is able to easily defy their personal morals.

The reader can see this theory clearly reflected through the different ways Piggy and Ralph react and cope with the death of Simon. The two boys had gotten caught up into acting out the ritual of killing the pig. All the boys had danced around chanting, “Kill the beast! Cut his throat! Spill his blood!” (Golding 128) During the frenzy of it all Simon returned from finding the “parachute man”, and the boys suddenly attacked him. He ends up being killed and the next morning Piggy and Simon sat on the beach trying to cope with their actions. Simon says, "Piggy.’ ‘Uh?’ ‘That was Simon.’ ‘You said that before.’ ‘Piggy.’ ‘Uh?’ ‘That was murder.’ ‘You stop it!’ said Piggy, shrilly. ‘What good're you doing talking like that?’ He jumped to his feet and stood over Ralph. ‘It was dark. There was that--that bloody dance. There was lightning and thunder and rain. We was scared!"(Golding 120) While Ralph tries to deal with the responsiblity of his actions and blames himself, representing the Autonmous State. Piggy on the other hand represents the Agentic State. The reader watches as Piggy trys to rationalize the situation, seeking to find anything and anyone to blame other then himself, much like the man in the experiment.

The idea behind Milgram’s experiment was highly inspired by war criminals defending their actions by simply saying they were only taking orders from their superiors. The idea behind simply giving soldiers consequences for their actions was suddenly made far more complicated then orignally perceived when the idea of free will was brought up. This can also be brought up when questioning the boys behavior and potential consiquences for their actions. “Lord of The Flies” ends with the boys being rescued by a group of Naval Sailors, leaving the aftermath up to interpretation. Will the boys tell what they did? Will their actions be excused?  It all comes back to the same basic question of how far one can be pushed.

Works Cited

matt. “The Milgram Experiment (Full Film).” YouTube, YouTube, 23 Dec. 2016,

“Milgram Experiment.” Vimeo, Vimeo, 26 Mar. 2019,

Mcleod, Saul. “The Milgram Experiment.” Milgram Experiment | Simply Psychology, Simply Psychology, 5 Feb. 2017,

“Milgram Experiment - Will People Do Anything If Ordered?” Milgram Experiment - Will People Do Anything If Ordered?, Explorable,