Obedience to Authority

Obedience to authority describes our tendency to please authority figures. We may place too much emphasis on that goal and, consciously or subconsciously, subordinate the goal of acting ethically.

Discussion Questions

1. Does the claim that an excessive desire to please authority may cause people to act unethically ring true to you?

2. Can you think of a situation where you deferred to authority and later regretted it? Perhaps because you facilitated a stupid decision that you could have stopped?  Perhaps because you facilitated an unethical decision that you could have stopped?

3. Which is scarier—that Joe might not have the courage to stand up to a superior requesting unethical action because Joe doesn’t want to lose this job, or that Joe might not even see the ethical issue because he is so intent upon pleasing the boss?

4. Does Bud Krogh’s explanation for how he went off the ethical rails sound plausible to you?

5. How can people guard against suspending their own ethical judgment in order to unduly defer to authority?

6. Following is a description from Prof. Jesse Prinz of Stanley Milgram’s famous experiment on obedience to authority.  Read the description and then tell the class how you think that you would have acted had you been one of the subjects of the experiment.

“Subjects in this experiment were instructed to ask another volunteer, located in an adjacent room, a series of questions. Each time the second volunteer failed to answer a question correctly, the subject asking the questions was asked to administer an electric shock using a dial with increasing voltages.  Unbeknownst to the subject the second volunteer was really a stooge working with the experimenter, and the voltage dial was a harmless prop.  The stooges were instructed to make errors so that the subjects would have to administer shocks.  At preplanned stages, the stooges would express pain, voice concerns about safety, make sounds of agony, pound on the wall, or, ultimately, stop making any noise at all.  If a subject conveyed reluctance to continue increasing the voltage, the experimenter would reply that it was crucial for the experiment to continue. The experiment ended if and when a subject persistently refused to continue.”

Case Studies

Stangl & the Holocaust

Franz Stangl was born in Austria in 1908. From a working class family, Stangl trained as a master weaver. Unsatisfied in his career, at the age of 23, he applied to become a police officer. In 1936, despite his position in law enforcement, he joined the ranks of the then-illegal Nazi Party. When Germany invaded Austria, and subsequently annexed it in March 1938, he became a Gestapo agent. In 1940, under the order of Nazi leaders, Stangl was appointed as head of security at Hartheim Castle. At the time, Hartheim was one of the secret killing centers used by the authorities to administer “mercy deaths” to sick and disabled persons. A special unit within the German administration, codenamed T4, carried out this so-called “euthanasia” program. T4 employed doctors, nurses, lawyers, and police officers, among others, at killing centers in Germany and Austria. In all, historians estimate that the staff at Hartheim killed 18,269 people by August 1941.

After a brief stint in Berlin, Stangl transferred to German-occupied Poland in the spring of 1942. Nazi authorities appointed Stangl to be the first commandant of the killing center at Sobibór. By September 1942, having distinguished himself as an effective organizer, Stangl was transferred to what would become the most horrible of these death camps, Treblinka. While there, he managed and perfected a system of mass murder, using psychological techniques to first deceive then terrify and subdue his victims before they entered the gas chambers. In less than 18 months, under Stangl’s supervision, between 870,000 and 925,000 Jews were killed at Treblinka.

After the war, Franz Stangl and his family emigrated to Brazil where he lived and worked under his own name for decades. He was extradited to West Germany in 1967 and tried for his role in the murder of 900,000 men, women, and children during the Holocaust. During his trial, Stangl claimed that he was doing his duty and was not a murderer. Stangl defended himself by making three main claims. First, that he did not get to choose his postings, and that disobeying an order would put himself and his family at risk. Second, that once in a position, it was his nature to do an excellent job (he became known as the best commandant in Poland). And third, that he never personally murdered anyone. He saw himself as an administrator. Stangl claimed that his dedication to his work was not about ideology or hatred of Jews.

On October 22, 1970, the court found Stangl guilty of crimes against humanity and sentenced him to the maximum penalty, life in prison. During an interview while in prison, he stated, “My conscience is clear about what I did, myself. …I have never intentionally hurt anyone, myself. …But I was there. …So yes, in reality I share the guilt.” He continued, “My guilt…is that I am still here. That is my guilt.” On June 28, 1971, less than a day after this interview, Stangl died of heart failure in prison.

Discussion Questions

1. How did obedience to authority affect Franz Stangl’s perception of his responsibility? Explain. What other factors, biases, or pressures may have affected his perception?

2. Based on Stangl’s description of guilt while in prison, do you think he believed his previous claims in court? Why or why not?

3. What might have helped Stangl at the time to see his actions for what they were? Do you think this would have led Stangl to act differently? Why or why not?

4. Can you think of other historical examples in which obedience to authority may have played a significant role in the actions of individuals? Explain.

5. What do you think the moral responsibility of an individual is within a bureaucracy? Explain.

6. Does one’s position in a hierarchy affect one’s moral responsibility? Why or why not?


The Astros’ Sign-Stealing Scandal

Major League Baseball (MLB) fosters an extremely competitive environment.  Tens of millions of dollars in salary (and endorsements) can hang in the balance, depending on whether a player performs well or poorly.  Likewise, hundreds of millions of dollars of value are at stake for the owners as teams vie for World Series glory.  Plus, fans, players and owners just want their team to win. And everyone hates to lose!

It is no surprise, then, that the history of big-time baseball is dotted with cheating scandals ranging from the Black Sox scandal of 1919 (“Say it ain’t so, Joe!”), to Gaylord Perry’s spitter, to the corked bats of Albert Belle and Sammy Sosa, to the widespread use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) in the 1990s and early 2000s.  Now, the Houston Astros have joined this inglorious list.

Catchers signal to pitchers which type of pitch to throw, typically by holding down a certain number of fingers on their non-gloved hand between their legs as they crouch behind the plate.  It is typically not as simple as just one finger for a fastball and two for a curve, but not a lot more complicated than that.

In September 2016, an Astros intern named Derek Vigoa gave a PowerPoint presentation to general manager Jeff Luhnow that featured an Excel-based application that was programmed with an algorithm. The algorithm was designed to (and could) decode the pitching signs that opposing teams’ catchers flashed to their pitchers. The Astros called it “Codebreaker.”  One Astros employee referred to the sign-stealing system that evolved as the “dark arts.”[1]

MLB rules allowed a runner standing on second base to steal signs and relay them to the batter, but the MLB rules strictly forbade using electronic means to decipher signs.  The Astros’ “Codebreaker” blatantly violated these rules.

According to Wall Street Journal writer Jared Diamond:

The way Codebreaker worked was simple:  Somebody would watch an in-game live feed and log the catcher’s signals into the spreadsheet, as well as the type of pitch that was actually thrown.  With that information, Codebreaker determined how the signs corresponded with different pitches.  Once decided, that information would be communicated through intermediaries to a baserunner, who would relay them to the hitter.

Starting around June 2017, the system was embellished by Astros players.  They started watching a live game feed on a monitor near the dugout and then would bang on a trash can to communicate the coming pitch to the batter.  The “banging scheme” lasted through the 2017 World Series, which the Astros won over the Los Angeles Dodgers.[2]

This all occurred despite the fact that late in the 2017 season, MLB caught the Boston Red Sox relaying signs from their video room to an Apple watch worn by a trainer sitting in the dugout. MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred fined the Red Sox and issued a strong warning to all teams against illegal electronic sign-stealing.[3]

However, the Astros’ scheme lasted into the 2018 season in away games as well as home games, despite the fact that other teams were very suspicious that the Astros were stealing signs. Other teams often changed their own signs several times a game in an attempt to thwart the Astros suspected sign stealing.  An executive for an opposing team was quoted as saying “The whole industry knows they’ve been cheating their asses off for three or four years.  Everybody knew it.”[4]  Indeed, many teams had complained to MLB’s executives about the Astros’ cheating. Some suspect the cheating continued through the 2019 season although others think not, and MLB found no convincing evidence of it.[5]

Sign-stealing might not seem like it would give a big advantage.  After all, even if a batter knows that a certain pitch is coming, he still has to hit it.  And it is not easy hitting a 100-mph fastball or a major league-caliber slider, even if you know it’s coming.  Nonetheless, the advantage is substantial.  According to the Washington Nationals’ pitching coach Paul Menhart, “It’s the worst feeling in the world stepping on that mound and having an idea that the hitter knows what’s coming.  It’s one of the most unnerving feelings.  You feel helpless.  You just get ticked off to the point where you lose total focus and confidence.”[6]  The Washington Nationals won the 2019 World Series over the favored Astros. They won, at least in part, by assuming that the Astros would be attempting to steal their signs, and putting into place elaborate countermeasures, including multiple sets of signs for each pitcher.[7]

There is no question that many of the Astros players were actively involved in the scheme.  The Astros manager, AJ Hinch, clearly knew about it.  There is substantial, though perhaps not airtight evidence, that General Manager (GM) Rob Luhnhow also knew of the scheme.  Carlos Beltran, a Hall-of-Fame caliber player near the end of his 20-year playing career was a leader in the scheme.  And bench coach Alex Cora was a primary instigator.  Owner Jim Crane appears not to have known of the dark arts being practiced by his club.[8]

The scandal became public on November 12, 2019, when former Astros’ pitcher Mike Fiers blew the whistle in an interview published in “The Athletic.”[9] Although some current MLB players praised Fiers for coming forward about the scandal, other players criticized him for violating baseball’s presumed “code of silence,” also called the “clubhouse code.”[10]  MLB then launched an investigation that granted the Astros players immunity in return for their fessing up. Commissioner Rob Manfred soon issued a nine-page report that found that most of the Astros players knew of the scheme and many participated in it. The report said that manager Hinch knew of the scheme and that GM Luhnow should have prevented it.[11]  Commissioner Manfred suspended both Hinch and Luhnow, who were quickly fired by Astros’ owner Crane.  MLB fined the Astros $5 million, and stripped the club of its first- and second-round draft picks in both 2020 and 2021.[12]

There was other fall-out, too.  Beltran, who had just been hired as manager of the New York Mets, was fired.  Cora, who had subsequently become the manager of the Boston Red Sox, was also fired.  In late April 2020, Manfred found that the Red Sox had done some illicit sign-stealing in the 2018 season. Surprisingly, though, he concluded that manager Cora and most of the Red Sox players did not know about it. Manfred imposed a modest punishment on the Red Sox organization in the form of a lost draft pick. But again, none of the players who participated in the scheme were penalized.[13]

Manfred’s decision not to punish players was harshly criticized by many. He claimed that granting immunity in exchange for information was the best way to quickly discover the truth. This approach was praised by some,[14] but other observers were unconvinced.[15] He also argued that it was difficult to determine how much advantage the cheating scandal had given the Astros. However, many major league players – including the game’s best player, Mike Trout – suggested that they would love to know what pitch was coming.[16] Manfred also claimed that with so many players involved to different degrees, it would be difficult to apportion blame appropriately. Additionally, MLB had stated in its 2017 warning about sign-stealing that it would hold management responsible for violations.[17]

Some suggested that Manfred was simply trying to minimize damage to MLB’s image. The game got a black eye from the PED scandal, which is brought back into the spotlight every year as Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and others are refused entry to the baseball Hall of Fame by sportswriters who insist on punishing their cheating in ways that MLB never did. And Astros players such as Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve, and Justin Verlander will probably have a better chance to enter the Hall of Fame than if they had been suspended for cheating.[18]

The damage done by the Astros is significant.  Former major leaguer Doug Glanville said the Astros’ “selfish act makes everyone question the validity of the future and the truth of the past,” concluding that MLB now faces an “existential crisis.”[19]  Veteran catcher Stephen Vogt said, “The integrity of our game is what we have, and now that’s been broken.”[20]

The impact on the Astros and its players, beyond a new manager and general manager, is as yet unknown.  The Astros worry that opposing pitchers will feel some degree of freedom to throw at Astros hitters.  A former major league pitcher, Mike Bolsinger, sued the Astros. He claimed that a particularly bad outing he had was caused by the Astros’ cheating, and that it effectively ended his MLB career.[21]  The effect of their cheating ways can be seen in non-professional baseball, too, with some little leagues banning the use of “Astros” as a team name.[22] Regardless of league level, gaming the system to advantage one’s own team is not the kind of play that, in the long run, makes for good sport.

Discussion Questions

  1. Why do you think the Astros began using the “Dark Arts”?

[See videos on the self-serving bias (https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/self-serving-bias) and framing. (https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/framing)]

  1. Shortly before the Astros began their sign-stealing scheme, the team’s database was hacked by Chris Correa, the rival St. Louis Cardinals’ scouting director. He was later sentenced to 46 months in prison.[23]
    1. How might this transgression by Correa have helped motivate the Astros’ decision to cheat?
    2. Could it have given the Astros a rationalization for their own cheating? What do you think that rationalization would be?

[See video on rationalizations. (https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/glossary/rationalizations)]

  1. How much responsibility would you place on the players? On the manager?  On the general manager?  On the owner? Explain your reasoning.
  2. One writer asked: “Given an open road, a sports car and the assurance no law enforcement would be present, how fast would you drive?”[24] He then noted the relative lack of enforcement by MLB, despite widespread rumors and complaints about the Astros’ (and perhaps some other clubs’) illegal sign-stealing. Would more surveillance, of the type MLB used in the 2018 and 2019 playoffs when watchdogs were placed in baseball clubhouses during the games, have made a difference? Why or why not?
  3. Although some MLB players applauded Mike Fiers for coming forward about the scandal, others criticized him for violating baseball’s supposed “code of silence.”[25]
    1. Is that code common in professions or organizations other than MLB (and the Mafia)? Support your answer with examples.
    2. Is it part of the problem? Why or why not?
    3. How might it be reformed or even ended?

[See videos on the conformity bias https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/conformity-bias https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/glossary/conformity-bias and In-group/outgroup. https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/glossary/in-groupout-group]

  1. In 2017 “The Athletic” reported that small groups of Astros players expressed misgivings about the cheating. One player approached Carlos Beltran, who was a ring-leader in the scheme and a 20-year veteran with a Hall of Fame-caliber career behind him. Beltran “disregarded [the appeal] and steamrolled everybody.”  “Where do you go if you’re a young, impressionable player with the Astros and this guy says, ‘We’re going to do this.’  What do you do?”[26] What does this revelation tell us about obedience to authority? [See videos on obedience to authority.  https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/obedience-to-authority; https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/glossary/obedience-to-authority]
  2. On the other hand, Astros shortstop Carlos Correa said: “We didn’t feel scared of Beltran; we didn’t feel intimidated. He was the nicest guy we could ever have. He was the best teammate we could ever have.  Beltran was obviously a leader of the clubhouse, but we all had a say in everything we were doing in there.”[27]  How does this affect your conclusions on the previous question?
  3. In a press conference, Astros’ owner Jim Crane said: “Our players should not be punished for these actions. These are a great group of guys who did not receive proper guidance from their leaders.”[28]  It does appear that GM Luhnhow did know generally of the scheme, that field manager Hinch definitely knew about it (and did not like it) but did little or nothing to stop it, and that bench coach Alex Cora and team elder Carlos Beltran were active leaders of the scheme.  Does that absolve the other players? Why or why not?
  4. Former Astro J.D. Davis later explained: “I was a rookie, and I was going up and down the system, and I was fighting for my life. … As a 24-year-old at the time, I was pretty star-struck at the time being around some of the veteran guys and being around the big-league clubhouse and everything. I had never been part of a major-league clubhouse.  Maybe what they did was the norm, I have no idea.  I had never been in another big-league clubhouse.”[29]  Does this sound like the conformity bias in action, or just another excuse? Explain your reasoning.
  5. There were clearly Astros players who were uncomfortable with the cheating. Why didn’t they speak out?  What about the Astros players, other than Fiers, who left the club knowing of the scheme, but never reported it?  Why didn’t they speak out?

[See videos on moral muteness  https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/moral-muteness and the Giving Voice to Values video series. https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/series/giving-voice-to-values]

  1. It is perfectly legal to watch the opposing teams’ pitcher and catcher with the naked eye, even when you’re a runner standing on second base with a primo view of the catchers’ signals. And it’s legal to try to detect those signals and send them to your teammate in the batter’s box in an attempt to give him an edge.  Is the use of electronic means to do the detecting so close to the traditional means that it doesn’t seem so bad? Explain.
    1. How might this line of reasoning be influences by the slippery slope?

[See videos on incrementalism. https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/incrementalism https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/glossary/incrementalism]

  1. Why didn’t MLB punish the players who were involved?
    1. Should the players have been punished as well as the manager and general manager? Why or why not?
    2. Why do you think the managers were allowed to keep their share of the World Series prize money ($400,000 each)? Is this fair? Why or why not?
  1. Did Rob Manfred take a deontological or a utilitarian approach to investigating and punishing the Astros? Was it the best approach? Explain your reasoning.

[See videos on deontology https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/glossary/deontology and utilitarianism. https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/glossary/utilitarianism]

  1. In the wake of the scandal, Pete Rose – who is one of the best players in history and was banned from the game because he gambled on baseball – asked for reinstatement.[30] Does the failure to punish the Astros’ players provide grounds for mercy toward Rose? Why or why not?
  2. Commissioner Manfred refused to strip the Astros of their championship, saying: “Once you go down that road of changing what happens on the field, I just don’t know how you decide where you stop.”[31] Do you think the Astros should be stripped of their championship? Explain your reasoning.


[1] Jared Diamond, ‘Dark Arts’ and ‘Codebreaker’: The Origins of the Houston Astros Cheating Scheme, Wall Street Journal, Feb. 7, 2020, at https://www.wsj.com/articles/houston-astros-cheating-scheme-dark-arts-codebreaker-11581112994.

[2] Id.

[3] Tom Verducci, Why MLB Issued Historic Punishment to Astros for Sign Stealing, Sports Illustrated, Jan. 13, 2020, at https://www.si.com/mlb/2020/01/13/houston-astros-cheating-punishment.

[4] Barry Svrluga & Dave Sheinin, The World Just Learned of the Astros’ Cheating. Inside Baseball, It was an Open Secret, Washington Post, Feb. 11, 2020, at https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/mlb/astros-cheating-open-secret/2020/02/11/1830154c-4c41-11ea-9b5c-eac5b16dafaa_story.html.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7]  Nick Moykin, Nationals Reportedly Knew of Astros Sign-Stealing Scandal During the World Series, WUSA, Feb. 12, 2020, at https://www.wusa9.com/article/sports/nationals-knew-astros-were-stealing-signs-during-world-series/65-b3ae89ef-58c3-4374-be49-ee591c38384c.

[8] Rob Manfred, Statement of the Commissioner, Jan. 13, 2020, at https://www.crawfishboxes.com/2020/1/13/21064270/mlb-commissioner-rob-manfreds-full-statement-on-the-houston-astros-sign-stealing-investigation.

[9] Ken Rosenthal & Evan Drellich, The Astros Stole Signs Electronically in 2017—Part of a Much Broader Issue for Major League Baseball, The Athletic, Nov. 12, 2019, at https://theathletic.com/1363451/2019/11/12/the-astros-stole-signs-electronically-in-2017-part-of-a-much-broader-issue-for-major-league-baseball/.

[10] Susan Slusser, A’s Mike Fiers Says He’s Received Death Threats, Plans to Keep Astros Ring, San Francisco Chronicle, Feb. 20, 2020, at https://www.sfchronicle.com/athletics/article/A-s-Mike-Fiers-I-ve-dealt-with-death-15071066.php.

[11] Manfred, supra note 8.

[12] Erik Boland, “Yankees Won’t Be Returning to the Scene of Astros’ Crime,” Newsday, May 14, 2020, at https://www.newsday.com/sports/baseball/yankees/astros-yankees-sign-stealing-scandal-minute-maid-park-1.44641481.

[13] Boston Herald Staff, “Calling Foul over MLB Report on Sox Sign-stealing Scandal,” Boston Herald, April 26, 2020, at https://www.bostonherald.com/2020/04/26/calling-foul-over-mlb-report-on-sox-sign-stealing-scandal/.

[14] Thomas Fox, The Astros Cheating Scandal and Compliance—Part 5: The Whistleblower and the Amnesty, Thomas Fox’s FCPA Compliance & Ethics Updates, Jan. 21, 2020, at https://www.jdsupra.com/legalnews/the-astros-cheating-scandal-and-55519/.

[15] Christopher L. Gasper, Players Should Be Punished Too in Baseball’s Sign-Stealing Scandal, MSN.com, Jan. 18, 2020, at https://www.msn.com/en-us/sports/mlb/players-should-be-punished-too-in-baseball-s-sign-stealing-scandal/ar-BBZ4tCM?fbclid=IwAR0znzAliQdUxJAbpO7v6wMlvL3txqWK6cwIpvmYGSWt3laBhA9hQ-1zI5A.

[16] Allen Kim, Angles Star Mike Trout Rips MLB for Astros Cheating Scandal, Said He ‘Lost Respect’ for Players, CNN, Feb. 17, 2020, at https://www.cnn.com/2020/02/17/us/houston-astros-mike-trout-spt-trnd/index.html.

[17] Dalton Johnson, Rob Manfred Explains Why He Didn’t Strip Astros’ World Series, Punish Players, NBC Sports, Feb. 16, 2020, at https://www.nbcsports.com/bayarea/athletics/rob-manfred-explains-why-he-didnt-strip-astros-world-series-punish-players.

[18] Howard Bryant, “Why the Houston Astros’ Cheating Scandal Could Be Worse for MLB than the Steroid Era,” ESPN, Mar. 8, 2020, at https://www.espn.com/mlb/story/_/id/28841940/why-houston-astros-cheating-scandal-worse-mlb-steroid-era.

[19] Doug Glanville, Baseball’s Existential Crisis, New York Times, Jan. 21, 2020, at https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/21/opinion/the-astros-cheating.html.

[20] Tyler Kepner, The Rise and Sudden Fall of the Houston Astros, New York Times, Jan. 18, 2010, at https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/18/sports/houston-astros-cheating.html.

[21] Nancy Armour, Pitcher Mike Bolsinger Says Cheating Houston Astros Changed Course of His Career, USA Today, Feb. 10, 2020, at https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/columnist/nancy-armour/2020/02/10/mike-bolsinger-sues-houston-astros-says-cheating-changed-his-career/4712164002/.

[22] Tim Daniels, California Little Leagues Ban Astros as Team Name After Cheating Scandal, Bleacherreport, Feb. 15, 2020, at https://bleacherreport.com/articles/2876498-california-little-leagues-ban-astros-as-team-name-after-cheating-scandal.

[23] Adam Wells, Chris Correa Sentenced to 46 Months for Hacking Astros’ Computer System, Bleacherreport.com, July 18, 2016, at https://bleacherreport.com/articles/2652751-chris-correa-sentenced-to-46-months-for-hacking-astros-computer-system.

[24] Gene Laques, Injured Parties, Defiant Execs and a Tainted Title: Houston Astros’ Sign-stealing Scandal Checks All the Boxes, USA Today, Jan. 15, 2020, at https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/mlb/columnist/gabe-lacques/2020/01/15/houston-astros-cheating-scandal-mlb/4465982002/.

[25] Susan Slusser, A’s Mike Fiers Says He’s Received Death Threats, Plans to Keep Astros Ring, San Francisco Chronicle, Feb. 20, 2020, at https://www.sfchronicle.com/athletics/article/A-s-Mike-Fiers-I-ve-dealt-with-death-15071066.php.

[26] Rosenthal & Drellich, supra note __.

[27] James Crabtree-Hannigan, Carlos Correa Denies Astros Were Intimidated by Carlos Beltran, Sporting News, Feb. 13, 2020, at https://www.sportingnews.com/us/mlb/news/carlos-correa-denies-astros-were-intimidated-by-carlos-beltran/1qids459hddeo1k53f8nabl8z6.

[28] Scott Davis, The Astros Said Their Cheating Scheme ‘Didn’t Impact the Game’ and Players Shouldn’t Be Held Accountable in a Cringeworthy Press Conference, Business Insider, Feb. 13, 2020, at https://www.businessinsider.com/jim-crane-astros-cheating-didnt-impact-game-press-conference-2020-2.

[29] Bob Nightengale, Former Astros Outfielders J.D. Davis, Jake Marisnick Apologize for Their Roles in the Sign-stealing Scandal, USA Today, Feb. 14, 2020, at https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/mlb/columnist/bob-nightengale/2020/02/14/former-astros-outfielder-jd-davis-ashamed-sign-stealing/4759911002/.

[30] Randy Miller, Pete Rose Feels Astros’ Cheating Worse Than His Bets, Questions Players Getting Off ‘Scot-free, NJ.com, https://www.nj.com/yankees/2020/01/pete-rose-feels-astros-cheating-worse-than-gambling-questions-players-getting-off-scot-free.html.

[31] John Perrotto, Rob Manfred Won’t Tolerate Retaliation Against Houston Astros, Feb. 17, 2020, at https://www.forbes.com/sites/johnperrotto/2020/02/17/rob-manfred-wont-tolerate-retaliation-against-houston-astros/#10a4a13f3b67.

Teaching Notes

This video introduces the behavioral ethics bias known as obedience to authority. Obedience to authority describes our tendency to please authority figures. We may place too much emphasis on that goal and, consciously or subconsciously, subordinate the goal of acting ethically. We all need to monitor ourselves to ensure that we are not unduly suspending our own independent ethical judgment in order to please our superiors. If students are not aware of this vulnerability, they cannot guard against it. Many white-collar criminals trace their downfall to an excessive obedience to authority. Many successful students are “pleasers,” so they can understand how strong the motive to please authority can be.

The “Milgram experiment” offers a glimpse into the effects of obedience to authority. Psychologist Stanley Milgram studied whether Americans might be as obedient to authority as Germans seemed to be under Hitler. The question addressed was whether subjects would deliver apparently painful electric shocks to another person who had missed a question in an apparent test of whether negative reinforcement through electric shocks would improve memory, just because someone in a white lab coat told them to do so. Although people predicted before the experiment that very few American subjects would show excessive obedience to authority, in actuality, as Professor Francesca Gino writes:

“All of Milgram’s participants—who were well-adjusted, well-intentioned people—delivered electric shocks to victims who seemingly were in great pain, complaining of heart problems, or even apparently unconscious. Over 60 percent of participants delivered the maximum shock.”

Perhaps this should not have been too surprising. The pleasure centers of our brains light up when we please authority. We are trained from childhood to please authority figures—parents, teachers, and police officers.

Law and order are generally good things, so some level of obedience to authority is definitely a good thing. But if people go too far and suspect their own independent ethical judgment, either consciously or unconsciously, they are dropping the ball.

Employers, we argue, pay employees for their brains, their education and training, and their judgment. Employers are short-changed if employees do not use their best strategic judgment, their best operational judgment, and their best moral judgment, because errors in any of the three areas can be quite costly.

To learn about related behavioral ethics concepts, watch Conformity Bias and Role Morality.

The case study on this page, “Stangl & the Holocaust,” explores an extreme example of obedience to authority, in which Nazi officer Franz Stangl, who was responsible for the killing of nearly one million Jews, claimed he was simply following orders. For a related case study that examines the dangers of conformity bias during the Holocaust, read “Reserve Police Battalion 101.”

Terms defined in our ethics glossary that are related to the video and case studies include: conformity bias, obedience to authority, and role morality.

Behavioral ethics draws upon behavioral psychology, cognitive science, evolutionary biology, and related disciplines to determine how and why people make the ethical and unethical decisions that they do. Much behavioral ethics research addresses the question of why good people do bad things. Many behavioral ethics concepts are explored in detail in Concepts Unwrapped, as well as in the video case study In It to Win: The Jack Abramoff Story. Anyone who watches all (or even a good part) of these videos will have a solid introduction to behavioral ethics.

Additional Resources

Ariely, Dan. 2012. The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone—Especially Ourselves. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

Bazerman, Max H., and Ann E. Tenbrunsel. 2011. Blind Spots: Why We Fail to Do What’s Right and What to Do about It. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

De Cremer, David (Editor). 2009. Psychological Perspectives on Ethical Behavior and Decision Making. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

De Cremer, David, and Ann E. Tenbrunsel (Editors). 2012. Behavioral Business Ethics: Shaping an Emerging Field. New York: Routledge.

DeSteno, David, and Piercarlo Valdesolo. 2011. Out of Character: The Surprising Truths about the Liar, Cheat, Sinner (and Saint) Lurking in All of Us. New York: Crown Publishers.

Dienhart, John William, Dennis J. Moberg, and Ronald F. Duska (Editors). 2001. The Next Phase of Business Ethics: Integrating Psychology and Ethics. Bingley, UK: Emerald Group Publishing.

Gino, Francesca. 2013. Sidetracked: Why Our Decisions Get Derailed, and How We Can Stick to the Plan. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press.

Heffernan, Margaret. 2011. Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril. New York: Walker Publishing Company.

Matousek, Mark. 2012. Ethical Wisdom: The Search for a Moral Life. New York: Anchor Books.

Mayhew, Brian W., and Pamela R. Murphy. 2014. “The Impact of Authority on Reporting Behavior, Rationalization and Affect.” Contemporary Accounting Research 31 (2): 420-443.

Messick, David M., and Ann E. Tenbrunsel (Editors). 1996. Codes of Conduct: Behavioral Research into Business Ethics. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Milgram, Stanley. 1974. Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View. New York: Harper & Row.

Rhode, Deborah L. (Editor). 2006. Moral Leadership: The Theory and Practice of Power, Judgment, and Policy. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Werhane, Patricia H., Laura Pincus Hartman, Crina Archer, Elaine E. Englehardt, and Michael S. Pritchard. 2013. Obstacles to Ethical Decision-Making: Mental Modes, Milgram and the Problem of Obedience. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

The latest teaching resource from Ethics Unwrapped is an article, written by Cara Biasucci and Robert Prentice, that describes the basics of behavioral ethics, introduces the videos and supporting materials along with teaching examples, and includes data on the efficacy of Ethics Unwrapped for improving ethics pedagogy across disciplines. It was published in Journal of Business Law and Ethics Pedagogy (Vol. 1, August 2018), and can be downloaded here: “Teaching Behavioral Ethics (Using “Ethics Unwrapped” Videos and Educational Materials).”

For more resources on teaching behavioral ethics, an article written by Ethics Unwrapped authors Minette Drumwright, Robert Prentice, and Cara Biasucci introduces key concepts in behavioral ethics and approaches to effective ethics instruction—including sample classroom assignments. The article, published in the Decision Sciences Journal of Innovative Education, may be downloaded here: “Behavioral Ethics and Teaching Ethical Decision Making

A detailed article by Robert Prentice with extensive resources for teaching behavioral ethics, published in Journal of Legal Studies Education, may be downloaded here: “Teaching Behavioral Ethics

An article by Robert Prentice discussing how behavioral ethics can improve the ethicality of human decision-making, published in the Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics & Public Policy, may be downloaded here: “Behavioral Ethics: Can It Help Lawyers (And Others) Be their Best Selves?”

A dated but still serviceable introductory article about teaching behavioral ethics can be accessed through Google Scholar by searching: Prentice, Robert A. 2004. “Teaching Ethics, Heuristics, and Biases.” Journal of Business Ethics Education 1 (1): 57-74.

Transcript of Narration

Written and Narrated by

Robert Prentice, J.D.
Business, Government & Society Department 
McCombs School of Business
The University of Texas at Austin

“When we are young, we naturally wish to please our parents, our teachers, our ministers and rabbis. Even as adults, we desire to please authority figures, such as our boss at work. However, if obedience to authority causes us to ignore our own ethical standards, big trouble can result.

When people in organizations make decisions, they are often much more concerned about the acceptability of the decision to the people to whom they are accountable than they are about the content of the decision itself. Studies show that CFOs are more likely to illicitly manage earnings when it profits their CEOs than when it profits themselves. In other words, they act unethically primarily to please their bosses, not to put money in their own pockets.

Private e-mails sent by stock analysts during the dot.com boom often indicated that the analysts wished they had the courage to stand up to their superiors and “call them like they saw them.” But usually these analysts failed to do so. Instead, they continued to knuckle under to supervisory pressure to hype questionable stocks so that their firms could gain investment banking business.

Most of us simply do not realize how much our desire to please superiors and our consequent tendency to defer to authority will cloud our ethical judgement when the time comes to make decisions.

A study of nurses by Hofling and Brotzman found that when members of one group of nurses were asked whether they would follow a physician’s instructions to give a patient an injection of an obviously excessive dose of a drug that was not even on the hospital’s approved list, almost all the nurses said that they would not do so. But when a second group of nurses were actually given such instructions, virtually every one of them was prepared to do so before they were stopped by the experimenters.

More concerning than people consciously acting unethically in order to stay in their boss’s good graces is the fact that sometimes employees are so intent upon pleasing their superiors that they do not even notice the ethical aspects of a decision. Egil “Bud” Krogh, who became infamous as head of the “Plumbers Unit” operating out of President Nixon’s White House, was instructed to oversee a break-in at the office of the psychiatrist of Daniel Ellsberg, who had leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times, embarrassing the Nixon Administration. Krogh later explained that he was so intent upon pleasing his superiors who were, after all, among the most powerful people in the world, that he never even activated his own ethical sense to judge the morality of what he was trying to accomplish. He did not see the ethical dimensions of his situation until it was too late.

Bud Krogh’s experience should be a warning to us all. While it is usually a fine thing for us to please our supervisors, we must keep a lookout for ethical issues and we must never defer so completely to our bosses that we substitute their orders for our own ethical standards.”