This is the question asked in a recent article by Ronald Bailey at ReasonOnline.
The short answer? Yeah, probably.
Here at this very site, I've been engaged in a number of, um, *spirited discussions* about what people think they would do in a bad situation. Everyone wants to believe they'd save the day, whether it be saving a child from a beating to smuggling Jews to safety. But the truth is, most of us wouldn't, and, as Stanley Milgram stated back in 1974, "It is not so much the kind of person a man is as the kind of situation in which he finds himself that determines how he will act."
The original Milgram Experiment was conducted back in 1961. It involved regular people who were "teachers", told that they were doing research on how punishment effected learning. The were to shock the "student" (who was in on it) whenever they answered a question incorrectly. The switches administering the shock were labeled "Slight Shock, [/i]Moderate Shock[/i], and so forth, all the way up to Danger: Severe Shock. The final two switches were marked XXX." The volunteer "teacher" was then administered an actual 45-volt shock, so they understood what they were dealing with.
And so it began. Although the device was not administering actual shocks to the "student", the students screamed at scripted times, as if the shocks were real, to maintain the teacher's belief that he was inflicting harm. The complaints grew louder and louder until, at 300-volts, the student went silent. Now, it's not all bad - some people would get uncomfortable with what they were doing. At these points, the researcher would say things like, "The experiment requires you to continue," or "You have no other choice, you must go on." There was no established penalty, however, for quitting. The researcher held no power over the participants.
The results? Kind of horrific, if you ask me. 65% of participants went on to pull ALL the switches, including those labeled XXX. Simply put, 65% of us would kill another individual when instructed to by an authoritative figure in a structured environment.
But maybe we've learned something since then, as Americans. We've gone through the civil rights movement, we have the internet and media and we vocally oppose atrocities committed, be it by the government or our fellow man. Surely, we have grown since 1961!
Just recently, a professor at Santa Clara University recreated the experiment using individuals who were not familiar with the original. Again, the percentage remained approximately the same.
It's our structure of government that spares us such atrocity. Think about that the next time you're tempted to trade some freedom for security. We, as individuals, are not immune.