Here’s an extraordinary story to ponder

In April 2004 the manageress of a McDonalds restaurant in the US received a phone call from a man claiming to be a police officer, ‘Officer Scott’, telling her that one of her employees had been accused of stealing a purse. He said the girl could be searched at the store or taken to jail and searched there. The manageress agreed to perform the search in her locked office, directed at every step by Officer Scott. The ‘thief’ was stripped naked and her clothes removed from the office. The manageress asked why it was taking the police so long to turn up but Officer Scott said they were very busy. The ‘thief’ later said she was scared to leave because she felt she had to obey a higher authority.

It transpired that this case was one of a string of over 70 such incidents and eventually the real police did manage to identify the culprit, Dave Stewart, who was charged but acquitted of the offences (though no further calls of this nature have been made since his arrest). However it was not just Stewart who was charged. In the case described above the manageress, Donna Summers, and her fiancé, Walter Nix, were also prosecuted. Nix was sentenced in 2006 to 5 years in prison, Summers was put on probation and Ogborn sued McDonalds and won $6.1 million. You can read numerous accounts of this case, for example here and here and here (with references to Milgram and Zimbardo’s research).

The question is – who was responsible? Stewart? Summers? Nix? Or even the young ‘thief’, Louise Ogborn? Is it reasonable for someone to say “but I was just following orders” or do we have a duty to examine what those orders are and to refuse if they are unreasonable? What would Milgram have made of this?

What do you think?