Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Perils Of Obedience

Have you ever experienced being an unwitting participant in the Milgram experiment at work? If you've been practicing pharmacy for any length of time, I'd bet you've experienced being at both ends.

One similarity that I've noticed in all of the different aspects of pharmacy practice in which I've worked over the years, is that many pharmacists are given supervisory or management positions without ever having had any education, training or prior experience in management.

In many of these instances, the pharmacists seeking these positions do so only in order to escape the absurdity that comes with working the front lines of pharmacy, or because they are unable or incapable of working the front lines for an extended period of time.

And why is that a bad thing? Because, IMO, it perpetuates a problem.

As Milgram points out - ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process.

Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority. They just can't seem to say that one simple word - "No".

I've seen many newly licensed, untrained, or inexperienced pharmacist managers blindly follow the same absurd, corrupt, or reckless orders of their superiors - the same orders they hated when they were working the pharmacy front lines - out of fear of losing their jobs or for fear of being transferred back to the front lines, where they can't cope.

And so, the vicious cycle of abuse continues.

Is there an absolute solution to the problem? Of course not. Each individual pharmacist will have to decide their own actions for themselves.

However, it is my opinion that Milgram's book, Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View, should be required reading for every pharmacist considering a supervisory or managerial position.


  1. “My only regret would be if I carried out a questionable order to save my career.”

    At Auschwitz, future U.S. military leaders learn what not to do

  2. "Everyone has to make a living."

    This behavior doesn't just happen in your profession only. It's an everyday phrase, an excuse for whatever action is required of an employee working for someone else. Some situations require workers to check their morality at the door and to leave compassion in the parking lot. In this manner, a person who can be a victim of some unfair business practices turns around, in his or her day job, to become a creator of new victims.

    Where does one's personal morality end and one's responsibility to a company (or law firm) start? This is a fundamental problem in our nation. People are required, by their employer, to make victims of others as part of their daily work. Just doin' the job, of course.

  3. "Sorry Luke, I'm just doing my job. You gotta appreciate that."

    At some point you have to stop unawarely enabling the efforts directed against your own interests and freedoms. The source behind the Guardian's NSA files talks to Glenn Greenwald about his motives for the biggest intelligence leak in a generation.

    Source: NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden: 'I don't want to live in a society that does these sort of things' – video

  4. If you're a frequent reader of The Cynical Pharmacist, then you'll know that I often discuss the topic of "enabling", especially in the context of criminal actions.

    I've said it many times before that many crimes, especially crimes of genocide, would never have been committed without the cowardly criminal leaders convincing some foolish, frightened, or greedy lower-level "enabler" to commit those crimes on their behalf.

    And just like I've pointed out in previous posts, those cowardly criminal leaders usually get away with their crimes because they didn't actually "perform" those crimes, leaving the foolish enablers to pay the consequences. And it's always after getting caught for committing those crimes when the enabler cries that he/she was only following orders.

    It never fails, just like the Milgram experiment. Even when many people know what they're doing is wrong, they just can't bring themselves to say "NO!" beforehand.

    Now, I only mention these things because I've had to make these tough choices a few times in both my life and in my career, and want you to be prepared when it happens to you. Most of the time these situations catch you off guard, when you least expect it. The perpetrators use that element of surprise to their advantage in order to get you to quickly make a decision without giving it further thought.

    So, it's imperative that one thinks about these type of situations beforehand, deciding upon which path to choose beforehand, and to be prepared for the inevitable day when such a situation occurs. Believe me, it will happen to you. Being prepared for it empowers most of us to say "NO!" more easily when that time comes.

    But, don't just take my word for it. In order to back up my claims again, and to specifically describe a very recent example of enabling gone bad, I present you with this link to a NY Times story of Jon Corzine and the crimes he's been accused of committing. Boss’s Remark, Employee’s Deed and Moral Quandary

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