Obedience: The moral virtue that inclines the will to comply with the will of another who has the right to command. Obedience is virtue that teaches us to be humble. The spirit of obedience helps us to shed our ego and our pride.[do action=”vfquote” quote=”Let the child’s first lesson be obedience, and the second will be what thou wilt.” author=”Benjamin Franklin”/]
The duty of obedience requires all to give due honor to authority and to treat those who are charged to exercise it with respect, and, insofar as it is deserved, with gratitude and good-will.[do action=”vfquote” quote=”The ship that will not obey the helm will have to obey the rocks.” author=”English proverb”/]
Compliance with a command, prohibition or known law and rule of duty prescribed; the performance of what is required or enjoined by authority, or the abstaining from what is prohibited, in compliance with the command or prohibition. To constitute obedience, the act or forbearance to act must be in submission to authority; the command must be known to the person, and his compliance must be in consequence of it, or it is not obedience. Obedience is not synonymous with obsequiousness; the latter often implying meanness or servility, and obedience being merely a proper submission to authority. That which duty requires implies dignity of conduct rather than servility. Obedience may be voluntary or involuntary. Voluntary obedience alone can be acceptable to God. Government must compel the obedience of individuals; otherwise who will seek its protection or fear its vengeance?[do action=”vfquote” quote=”Heroism works in contradiction to the voice of mankind and in contradiction, for a time, to the voice of the great and good. Heroism is an obedience to a secret impulse of an individuals character. Now to no other man can its wisdom appear as it does to him, for every man must be supposed to see a little farther on his own proper path than any one else. Therefore just and wise men take umbrage at his act, until after some little time be past: then they see it to be in unison with their acts. All prudent men see that the action is clean contrary to a sensual prosperity; for every heroic act measures itself by its contempt of some external good. But it finds its own success at last, and then the prudent also extol. Self-trust is the essence of heroism. It is the state of the soul at war, and its ultimate objects are the last defiance of falsehood and wrong, and the power to bear all that can be inflicted by evil agents. It speaks the truth and it is just. It is generous, hospitable, temperate, scornful of petty calculations and scornful of being scorned. It persists; it is of an undaunted boldness and of a fortitude not to be wearied out. Its jest is the littleness of common life. That false prudence which dotes on health and wealth is the foil, the butt and merriment of heroism. Heroism, like Plotinus, is almost ashamed of its body. ” author=”Ralph Waldo Emerson”/]
Obedience, in human behavior, is the quality of being obedient, which describes the act of carrying out commands, or being actuated. Obedience differs from compliance, which is behavior influenced by peers, and from conformity, which is behavior intended to match that of the majority. Obedience can be seen as both a sin and a virtue. For example in a situation when one orders a person to kill another innocent person and he or she does this willingly, it is a sin. However when one orders a person to kill an enemy who will end a lot of innocent lives and he or she does this willingly it can be considered a virtue.
Humans have been shown to be surprisingly obedient in the presence of perceived legitimate authority figures, as demonstrated by the Milgram experiment in the 1960s, which was carried out by Stanley Milgram to discover how the Nazis managed to get ordinary people to take part in the mass murders of the Holocaust. The experiment showed that obedience to authority was the norm, not the exception. A similar conclusion was reached in the Stanford prison experiment.
Obedience is the tendency to follow orders given by an authority figure.
Forms of human obedience include:
- obedience to laws;
- obedience to social norms;
- obedience to a monarch, government, organization, religion, or church;
- obedience to God;
- obedience to self-imposed constraints, such as a vow of chastity;
- obedience of a spouse or child to a husband/wife or parent respectively;
- obedience to management in the workplace.
Obedience is regarded as a virtue in many traditional cultures; historically, children have been expected to be obedient to their elders, slaves to their owners, serfs to their lords in feudal society, lords to their king, and everyone to God.
In some weddings, obedience was formally included along with honor and love as part of a conventional bride’s wedding vow. This came under attack with women’s suffrage and the feminist movement. Today its inclusion in marriage vows is usually optional.
As the middle classes have gained political power, the power of authority has been progressively eroded, with the introduction of democracy as a major turning point in attitudes to obedience and authority.
Since the democides and genocides of the First World War and Second World War periods, obedience has come to be regarded as a far less desirable quality in Western cultures. The civil rights and protest movements in the second half of the 20th century marked a remarkable reduction in respect for authority in Western cultures, and greater respect for individual ethical judgment as a basis for moral decisions.
Learning to obey adult rules is a major part of the socialization process in childhood, and many techniques are used by adults to modify the behavior of children. Additionally, extensive training is given in armies to make soldiers capable of obeying orders in situations where an untrained person would not be willing to follow orders. Soldiers are initially ordered to do seemingly trivial things, such as picking up the sergeant’s hat off the floor, marching in just the right position, or marching and standing in formation. The orders gradually become more demanding, until an order to the soldiers to place themselves into the midst of gunfire gets an instinctively obedient response.
Studies on Obedience
Obedience has been extensively studied by psychologists since the Second World War—the Milgram Experiment and the Stanford Prison Experiment are the most commonly cited experimental studies of human obedience.
The Milgram experiments, the first of which was carried out in 1961, were the earliest investigations of the power of authority figures as well as the lengths to which participants would go as a result of their influence. Milgram’s results showed that, contrary to expectations, a majority of civilian volunteers would obey orders to apply electric shocks to another person until they were unconscious or dead. Despite the significance of the Milgram experiments, they were regarded as tainted by their breach of ethical standards, in that the participants’ right to abdicate was removed. It is worth noting, however, that those being shocked were in reality actors and the shocks simulated.
The 1971 Stanford prison experiment studied the behavior of people in groups, and in particular the willingness of people to obey orders and adopt abusive roles in a situation where they were placed in the position of being submissive or dominant by a higher authority. In the experiment, a group of volunteers was divided into two groups and placed in a “prison,” with one group in the position of playing “prison guards,” and other group in the position of “prisoners.” In this case, the experimenters acted as authority figures at the start of the experiment, but then delegated responsibility to the “guards,” who enthusiastically followed the experimenters’ instructions, and in turn assumed the roles of abusive authority figures, eventually going far beyond the experimenters’ original instruction in their efforts to dominate and brutalize the “prisoners.” At the same time, the prisoners adopted a submissive role with regard to their tormentors, even though they knew that they were in an experiment, and that their “captors” were other volunteers, with no actual authority other than that being role-played in the experiment.
The Stanford experiment demonstrated not only obedience (of the “guards” to the experimenters, and the “prisoners” to both the guards and experimenters), but also high levels of compliance and conformity.[do action=”vfquote” quote=”They may torture my body, break my bones, even kill me-then they will have my dead body, not my obedience.” author=”Mahatma Gandhi”/]
Arabian horses go through rigorous training in the deserts of the Middle East. The trainers require absolute obedience from the horses, and test them to see if they are completely trained. The final test is almost beyond the endurance of any living thing. The trainers force the horses to do without water for many days. Then he turns them loose and of course they start running toward the water, but just as they get to the edge, ready to plunge in and drink, the trainer blows his whistle. The horses who have been completely trained and who have learned perfect obedience, stop. They turn around and come pacing back to the trainer. They stand there quivering, wanting water, but they wait in perfect obedience. When the trainer is sure that he has their obedience he gives them a signal to go back to drink. Now this may be severe but when you are on the trackless desert of Arabia and your life is entrusted to a horse, you had better have a trained obedient horse. We must accept life’s training and hard knocks obediently because more often than not, the lessons learned will serve a higher purpose than satisfying our own thirst.[do action=”vfauthor” author=”Source Unknown”/]
The Perils of Blind Obedience to Authority
By Glen Greenwald
There are multiple institutions that are intended to safeguard against the ease of inducing blind trust in and obedience to authorities. The most obvious one is journalism, which, at its best, serves as a check against political authority by subjecting its pronouncements to skepticism and scrutiny, and by acting in general as an adversarial force against it. But there are other institutions that can and should play a similar role.
One is academia, a realm where tenure is supposed to ensure that authority’s most sacred orthodoxies are subjected to unrelenting, irreverent questioning. Another is the federal judiciary, whose officials are vested with life tenure so as to empower them, without regard to popular sentiment, to impose limits on the acts of political authorities and to protect the society’s most scorned and marginalized.
But just observe how frequently these institutions side with power rather than against it, how eagerly they offer their professional and intellectual instruments to justify and glorify the acts of political authority rather than challenge or subvert them. They will occasionally quibble on the margins with official acts, but their energies are overwhelmingly devoted to endorsing the legitimacy of institutional authority and, correspondingly, scorning those who have been marginalized or targeted by it.
It is difficult to overstate the impact of this authority-serving behavior from the very institutions designed to oppose authority. Most people are too busy with their lives to find the time or energy to scrutinize prevailing orthodoxies and the authorities propagating them. When the institutions that are in a position to provide those checks fail to do that, those orthodoxies and authorities thrive without opposition or challenge, no matter how false and corrupted they may be.
As much as anything else, this is the institutional failure that explains the debacles of the last decade. There is virtually no counter-weight to the human desire to follow and obey authority because the institutions designed to provide that counter-weight – media outlets, academia, courts – do the opposite: they are the most faithful servants of those centers of authority.
Second, it is very easy to get people to see oppression and tyranny in faraway places, but very difficult to get them to see it in their own lives (“How dare you compare my country to Tyranny X; we’re free and they aren’t”). In part that is explained by the way in which desire shapes perception. One naturally wants to believe that oppression is only something that happens elsewhere because one then feels good about one’s own situation (“I’m free, unlike those poor people in those other places”). Thinking that way also relieves one of the obligation to act: one who believes they are free of oppression will feel no pressure to take a difficult or risky stand against it.
But the more significant factor is that one can easily remain free of even the most intense political oppression simply by placing one’s faith and trust in institutions of authority. People who get themselves to be satisfied with the behavior of their institutions of power, or who at least largely acquiesce to the legitimacy of prevailing authority, are almost never subjected to any oppression, even in the worst of tyrannies. Why would they be? Oppression is designed to compel obedience and submission to authority. Those who voluntarily put themselves in that state – by believing that their institutions of authority are just and good and should be followed rather than subverted – render oppression redundant, unnecessary.
Of course people who think and behave this way encounter no oppression. That’s their reward for good, submissive behavior. As Rosa Luxemburg put this: “Those who do not move, do not notice their chains.” They are left alone by institutions of power because they comport with the desired behavior of complacency and obedience without further compulsion. But the fact that good, obedient citizens do not themselves perceive oppression does not mean that oppression does not exist. Whether a society is free is determined not by the treatment of its complacent, acquiescent citizens – such people are always unmolested by authority – but rather by the treatment of its dissidents and its marginalized minorities.
In the US, those are the people who are detained at airports and have their laptops and notebooks seized with no warrants because of the films they make or the political activism they engage in; or who are subjected to mass, invasive state surveillance despite no evidence of wrongdoing; or who are prosecuted and imprisoned for decades – or even executed without due process – for expressing political and religious views deemed dangerous by the government.
People who resist the natural human tendency to follow, venerate and obey prevailing authority typically have a much different view about how oppressive a society is than those who submit to those impulses. The most valuable experiences for determining how free a society is are the experiences of society’s most threatening dissidents, not its content and compliant citizens.
The temptation to submit to authority examined by Compliance bolsters an authoritarian culture by transforming its leading institutions into servants of power rather than checks on it. But worse, it conceals the presence of oppression by ensuring that most citizens, choosing to follow, trust and obey authority, do not personally experience oppression and thus do not believe – refuse to believe – that it really exists.[do action=”vfquote” quote=”Obedience keeps the rules. Love knows when to break them.” author=”Anthony de Mello”/] [do action=”vfquote” quote=”It is for each of us freely to choose whom we shall serve, and find in that obedience our freedom.” author=”Mary Richards”/]
There are some people who trust lawful authority to direct them without fail. When faced with a directive, they neither seek to know options and consequences nor deliberate their choices. They simply trust that lawful authority will stay within the bounds of its power. This attitude is not true “obedience” nor is it virtuous. Because of the freedom we share in humanity, we have an obligation to know the legitimate boundaries of lawful authority in our lives. We have an obligation to know the basic laws of humanity and what our obligations to those laws are. Only with knowledge of the basic laws of humanity and the legitimate boundaries of their lawful authority can we obey. Without such knowledge, we fall prey to manipulation, coercion, or simply conformity to peers. Likewise, lawful authority has an obligation to prove their position and to remain within the lawful bounds of their power. If one in authority does not do this, he violates the natural rights of his subjects. To paraphrase a Principle of Law identified by Pope Boniface VIII, one with authority must prove his authority. He cannot simply claim it. We are not bound to obey someone who cannot prove his authority. Only when lawful authority stays within the bounds of its power do we have to obey. However, such obedience is not blind. Rather, the person who obeys recognizes that the directive given is within the bounds of the authority held, knows that it is not contrary to higher obligations, and freely chooses to follow it for the sake of giving authority its due.[do action=”vfquote” quote=”The ultimate aim of government is not to rule, or restrain, by fear, nor to exact obedience, but contrariwise, to free every man from fear, that he may live in all possible security; in other words, to strengthen his natural right to exist and work without injury to himself or others. No, the object of government is not to change men from rational beings into beasts or puppets, but to enable them to develop their minds and bodies in security, and to employ their reason unshackled; neither showing hatred, anger, or deceit, nor watched with the eyes of jealousy and injustice. In fact, the true aim of government is liberty.” author=”Benedict de Spinoza”/]
There is no more certain route to personal disaster than obeying only oneself. We are not so wise or self-sufficient that we can afford to shut our minds to all others and find our way through life solely by listening to and obeying ourselves. How many of us can say that he even knows himself? And if an individual presumes to be self-sufficient, why should he not expect to exercise his authority over others? Moreover, would a society of closed and self-sufficient individuals be able to cooperate with each other? Or would they engage in rancorous and incessant feuds with one another to the detriment of civility and social cohesion? Obeying only oneself is a formula for both alienation as well as anarchy.
Those who see obedience as a vice really see nothing as a virtue. And, if there is nothing that is truly virtuous, one might as well listen only to his own voice. But there is a world of meaning, authority, and virtue. Self-sufficiency is an illusion. And this is why obedience can be a virtue.
Like any other virtue, obedience must be regulated by prudence. No virtue — obedience, courage, generosity, or anything else — is virtuous without prudence, which is the virtue of being realistic. One should not obey himself in all matters, no more than one should obey his horoscope, his enemy, or a manipulator. Obedience needs prudence in order to be virtuous, just as a student needs a teacher in order to learn. One must know whom he should obey.
The person who loves is happy to serve, eager to obey the needs and desires (legitimate ones, of course) of the beloved. Obedience allows a person to transcend the narrow confines of egotism and respond to the good of those he loves with alacrity, enthusiasm, and cheerfulness.
While the secular mind has difficulty with the concept of obedience, it has no difficulty in regarding loyalty as an important virtue. Yet loyalty and obedience are very close to each other. Loyalty requires a strong allegiance, if not obedience, to a group. The loyal person must often make sacrifices on an individual level for the good of the group to which he belongs. Acts of disloyalty are more easily viewed as betrayal and selfishness than acts of individual growth. Disloyalty to the Mafia is sometimes seen as less tolerable than disobedience to God; likewise, disloyalty to one’s political party is less excusable than disobedience to one’s spouse.
It is most reasonable (prudent) to obey the person who loves you and knows the truth about your being. In this regard, a certain French philosopher speaks well when he writes, “Love makes obedience lighter than liberty.” The virtue of obedience is not contrary to freedom, nor does it represent a master/slave or dominance/submission relationship. It both presupposes and anticipates freedom. Moreover, it establishes and perfects a relationship of love.
Obedience, therefore, is closely allied to service. Hence the expressions “your will is my command” and “it is a pleasure to serve you.” The person who loves is happy to serve, eager to obey the needs and desires (legitimate ones, of course) of the beloved. Obedience allows a person to transcend the narrow confines of egotism and respond to the good of those he loves with alacrity, enthusiasm, and cheerfulness.
An Analogy of Obedience
Imagine, if you will, that you work for a company whose president found it necessary to travel out of the country and spend an extended period of time abroad. So he says to you and the other trusted employees, “Look, I’m going to leave. And while I’m gone, I want you to pay close attention to the business. You manage things while I’m away. I will write you regularly. When I do, I will instruct you in what you should do from now until I return from this trip.” Everyone agrees.
He leaves and stays gone for a couple of years. During that time he writes often, communicating his desires and concerns. Finally he returns. He walks up to the front door of the company and immediately discovers everything is in a mess–weeds flourishing in the flower beds, windows broken across the front of the building, the gal at the front desk dozing, loud music roaring from several offices, two or three people engaged in horseplay in the back room. Instead of making a profit, the business has suffered a great loss. Without hesitation he calls everyone together and with a frown asks, “What happened? Didn’t you get my letters?”[do action=”vfquote” quote=”You say, ”Oh, yeah, sure. We got all your letters. We’ve even bound them in a book. And some of us have memorized them. In fact, we have ‘letter study’ every Sunday. You know, those were really great letters.” I think the president would then ask, ”But what did you do about my instructions?” And, no doubt the employees would respond, ”Do? Well, nothing. But we read every one!” ” author=”Charles Swindoll”/] [do action=”vfquote” quote=”Obedience — Willingness to obey, to be controlled when necessary, to carry out orders.” author=””/] [do action=”vfquote” quote=”There is no shame in taking orders from those who themselves have learned to obey.” author=”William Edward Forster”/]
Right or Wrong
There exists a special dynamic between a master-servant, leader-follower, and dominant-submissive. In order to be effective at wielding power one must have a clear understanding of what it’s like have to none. It’s clear that the world would not be built if there were no followers. Too many chiefs and not enough Indians would ultimately disable the ability to have a joint venture, or cooperative progress. History has shown that any virtue could be used or abused. Obedience is no different. It can be put to proper use to improve ones condition and contribute to the world or exploited for the wrong ideals.[do action=”vfquote” quote=”When you think of the long and gloomy history of man, you will find more hideous crimes have been committed in the name of obedience than have ever been committed in the name of rebellion.” author=”C. P. Snow”/]
The Dangers of Obedience
The virtue of obedience does not come without a price. Blind obedience has caused many deaths, the fall of empires, and much pain and suffering. Take the Holocaust as an example. Some Nazis, like Hitler and Eichman, were complete monsters, as were many of the Nazi soldiers. Others were people with docile minds, too weak-minded to use their free will to make a choice that embraces morality. Our definition of obedience clearly states to be controlled when necessary. This is a judgment call. How could one brother join the Nazi party, while another help the Jewish people to escape certain death? How can one southern landowner captivate and exploit the African people for slavery while another aids their journey to freedom?
It is a blessed thing that in every age some one has had individuality enough and courage enough to stand by his own convictions, — some one who had the grandeur to say his say. I believe it was Magellan who said, The church says the earth is flat; but I have seen its shadow on the moon, and I have more confidence even in a shadow than in the church. On the prow of his ships were disobedience, defiance, scorn, and success.[do action=”vfquote” quote=”The strongest is never strong enough to be always the master, unless he transforms strength into right, and obedience into duty.” author=”Jean Jacques Rousseau”/]
Obedience is proper when it involves the greater good of the world, while upholding a strong moral character. Obedience can be correct in the harmony of a construction site, the workability of a corporation, and the agreeableness of a family unit. This same obedience is what creates things like the American constitution, democracy, and peace. A good leader is obedient to the greatest good of his subordinates and is a slave to doing what’s right. In this way, may you also find it within yourself to be obedient, when the time and place serves the greatest good of all.[do action=”vfquote” quote=”In a republic the first rule for the guidance of the citizen is obedience of the law.” author=”Coolidge”/] [do action=”vfquote” quote=”In the weakness of one kind of authority, and in the fluctuation of all, the officers of an army will remain for some time mutinous and full of faction, until some popular general, who understands the art of conciliating the soldiery, and who possesses the true spirit of command, shall draw the eyes of all men upon himself. Armies will obey him on his personal account. There is no other way of securing military obedience in this state of things.” author=”Edmond Burke”/]
Obedience is virtue that teaches us to be humble. The spirit of obedience helps us to shed our ego and pride. We should learn to be humble and to respect the wishes of others. Everything around in nature shows obedience. All the planets obey the laws on nature. If there is the slightest trace of disobedience, the entire universe will be totally destroyed. Obedience is thus the central point on which stands the entire universe. Everything else in nature obeys certain laws. Nothing can go against such laws. There is no life without obedience. Everyone of humanity should obey one or the other. People should obey their rules. The servant should obey his owner. The employees should show their obedience to their employer. Young boys like you should obey parents at home and your teachers at school. You should obey the elders in society. All of them pave the way for your bright career in future. Lack of obedience breeds indiscipline. Indiscipline leads to anarchy or lawlessness and unrest. At school, you have to follow so many rules and regulations. You have to be orderly and disciplined in your behavior inside the campus. You have to buy necessary books, pay the fees in time, and listen to your lessons. You have to study well, do your home work and other assignments properly. You have to maintain decency and decorum in your behavior in the campus. All these are properly done, if only you show obedience. If you follow all the rules scrupulously, you will win the love and respect of everyone. At home you have to obey your parents and other elders. You should listen to them carefully and act accordingly. You should never displease them with your behavior. You should please them, even if it is against your wish. You should not hurt their feelings. Then only you will be liked and appreciated by one and all. You should be an example to your younger brothers and sisters. They learn behavior from you. Don’t forget this fact.[do action=”vfquote” quote=”There was a time when we expected nothing of our children but obedience, as opposed to the present, when we expect everything of them but obedience.” author=”Anatole Broyard”/] [do action=”vfquote” quote=”A boy can learn a lot from a dog: obedience, loyalty, and the importance of turning around three times before lying down.” author=”Robert Benchley”/] [do action=”vfquote” quote=”Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.” author=”Thomas Jefferson”/]
Morality and Military Obedience
By Lieutenant Colonel Kenneth H. Wenker
During the Vietnam era, a common theme in both secular and scholarly writing was the danger of obedience to authority—especially military authority. The psychological findings of the experiments conducted by Stanley Milgram (in which persons appeared willing to torture others—even to the point of death—on the orders of an unknown, nebulous “authority”) were presented by the media as evidence of the immorality of obeying authority. Alleged war crimes in Vietnam were often presented as evidence of our immoral willingness to obey others. Parallels were drawn between the obedience displayed by various Nazi officials during World War II and the obedience displayed by our own military personnel in Vietnam. Our refusal in 1945 to accept the Nazis’ appeal to military obedience as a defense for their war crimes was seen as demanding, in a different era, that we grant primacy to personal freedom arid independence over obedience and the subordination of the individual to the group.
Times change. We have put an unpopular war behind us. We have entered the era of the all-volunteer force. We have, in various ways, emphasized the importance of the individual soldier and his or her autonomy. In fact, many say we have gone too far, that people have bought the plea for freedom, independence, and autonomy at the expense of proper functioning of the armed forces. Discipline, obedience, a sense of group identity, and the willingness to subordinate personal desires to the good of the whole seem to have weakened. Many now question whether we would be capable of defending our nation even if we had large numbers of well-equipped soldiers: our soldiers are seen by many as psychologically, morally, and spiritually inadequate. We must, it seems, reemphasize obedience and associated virtues.
The shift in our attitudes toward obedience reflects a dual tension. The first tension exists between the freedom and autonomy of the individual—traditionally valued in our country—and the need for individuals to subordinate themselves to group goals. The second tension is between the awesome evil that is possible through a misapplied obedience and the tremendous benefits to society as a whole that are possible if we cooperate as obedient citizens. If we obey, we run at least some risk of great evil, as in Nazi Germany; but if we do not obey, we lose the opportunity for good that results from working as a group rather than as individuals.
I suspect that these tensions can never be totally resolved, but they should not on that account be ignored. We can minimize these tensions through improved understanding of the issues and a commitment to moral maturity. A mature soldier can come to an obedience that is morally autonomous and yet refuse to participate in immoral group activity; the mature soldier could decide if he has a moral obligation to obey. Such a decision relieves the tension between moral autonomy and obedience because each person makes his own decision. And because it is a moral decision, the second tension is also alleviated.
Autonomous obedience is a fearful thing to both superiors and subordinates. Superiors fear it for two reasons. First, it is not something that can be imposed; it must be chosen. Second, it has limits, limits imposed by morality. On the subordinate’s side, autonomous obedience demands tough moral decisions rather than mere acceptance of previous conditioning. Unfortunately, as the existentialists remind us, such moral decisions and the responsibility associated with them are indeed fearful.
The purpose of this article is to shed light on the moral decision about obedience that the morally mature soldier must make. It is written from the perspective of the subordinate, which ultimately accounts for the approach to authority, obedience, and autonomy presented here. The question is whether a soldier has a moral obligation to obey.
Before any substantive discussion of the moral issue takes place, we must come to a common understanding of the terms obedience, authority, and autonomy. While this is a formidable task—given the extensive literature and controverted nature of these concepts—I believe that the perspective of this article points a way toward such an understanding. Consider a commander ordering a soldier to do something. The soldier’s question: Is there a moral obligation to obey the authority?
At this point academic quibbling could arise to the effect that military commanders are not really authorities and that it is not really obedience that is at stake, but that objection does not change the serious question of whether the soldier has a moral obligation to obey. Traditionally, the question was whether one should obey military authority. If one rejects this terminology, I endorse the use of whatever terminology covers the substantive issue at hand.
What, then, is a military authority? Given our perspective, it cannot be looked on as one who a priori ought to be obeyed—otherwise we trivialize the soldier’s very real moral dilemma. Furthermore, the authority is not necessarily an expert and does not necessarily have better judgment, knowledge, or experience. Charismatic leadership is not a necessity. Even the ability to reward or punish will often be insignificant—either because the subordinate feels he can disobey without getting caught or because it is not reasonable to believe that authority will use the power to reward or punish.
It is more desirable to look on military authority as filling a very specific societal role. Essentially, authority constitutes a societal decision procedure.1 What makes one an authority is the fact that his decisions become societal decisions. The commander of a military unit in the United States armed forces is an authority because his decisions, within societally (i.e., legally) established limits, are accepted by the citizenry as a whole as society’s decisions concerning the specific military unit. The force of the commander’s order is not that it is his or her order but that it is society’s order. A commander’s illegal orders have no clout, specifically because they are not the society’s orders. Society’s acceptance of authority as its decision procedure makes the authority’s decisions authoritative. The question, then, is whether there is a moral obligation to obey such societally authoritative orders.
Given this perspective on authority, one can see that there is no moral obligation to obey authority merely on the grounds that it is authority. (The Mafia chief is also an authority in the same sense, although in a different society.) A moral obligation to obey must rest on something more than the mere fact of authority.
But authority is not extraneous to obedience. Obedience is not merely doing what another decides but rather doing it because it is the decision of an authority. When the robber with a gun orders me to hand over my wallet, I willingly comply; but I do not obey, unless we use “obey” in a very broad sense. Complying is a matter of doing what another wants us to do—for whatever reason we decide to comply. Obedience, on the other hand, is a specific variety of compliance. It is a compliance based on authority. In other words, an authority is a necessary condition for obedience. When we obey, we do so because someone’s decision is authoritative.
But this does not mean that when we obey we do so just because someone’s decision is authoritative. For example, suppose that (1) a legitimate authority decides that a subordinate is to do something, x. Further suppose that (2) the subordinate has determined that doing x is valuable whenever the authority says to do x. Now suppose that (3) the subordinate does x because of (1) and (2). It would seem that the subordinate is obeying. He is doing x whenever the authority says to. In other words, he is doing x because x has been authoritatively decided but not just because it has been authoritatively decided. He is doing x because of (1) but not just because of (1). He is doing it because of (1) and (2).
It is important to reject this just because terminology, for rejecting the terminology allows us an obedience that is more than the blind response of a robot. If obedience were based only on authority, then it would not matter whether the authority is a Hitler in Nazi Germany, a Mafia chief, or a Boy Scout patrol leader. Any other consideration besides the existence of the authoritative order would then be extraneous. And since authority by itself cannot morally justify obedience, any obedience based only on authority would not be morally justified. Hence, it is not enough to say to the subordinate, “You should obey me because I’m the authority.” The intelligent subordinate will recognize that Hitlers and Boy Scout patrol leaders are authorities also. When trying to justify obedience, we must appeal to more than the fact of authority. Obedience should not be “just because” of authority. Otherwise the obligation to obey is equally strong for Hitler’s, chiefs of staff, and Boy Scout patrol leaders.
The moral person obeys because of the authoritative decision, but not “just because of it.
Another somewhat ambiguous term is autonomy. It can mean at least three different things: (1) deciding for oneself what one will do, (2) ‘‘doing one’s own thing’’ or (3) making one’s own moral decisions.
Suppose autonomy is interpreted as deciding for oneself what one will do. Then some people will notice a tension between autonomy and obedience because they see a dichotomy between what one decides to do and what others decide one will do. They suggest that if one goes along with a group decision, he is, by that very fact, not being autonomous. This is mistaken. Suppose that a group of friends decides to eat at a particular restaurant although one of the group does not enjoy the food there and tries to persuade them to eat elsewhere. Now the loner has to decide whether to cooperate in the group decision or act on his own. The decision is his. Whichever choice he makes is autonomous. In other words, the individual can autonomously choose to subordinate himself to the group decision. Similarly, in the armed forces, an individual can autonomously choose to subordinate himself or herself to the group decision. Since the group decision is arrived at by authoritative determination, such autonomous subordination is obedience. One can autonomously obey, in the first sense of autonomy.
Suppose autonomy is interpreted in the second sense, “doing one’s own thing.” If a person decides to go along with a group decision, then he is autonomous in the second sense only if his own desires and the group’s decision happen to coincide or if he is psychologically predisposed to obey. Normally one cannot obey and be autonomous in this second sense at the same time. But here the tension between obedience and autonomy is not a moral problem at all because there is no moral need to he autonomous in the second sense of the word. There is no moral need to “do one’s own thing,” which could include rape, pillage, and plunder. Further, sometimes “doing one’s own thing” should yield to group aims. While there is a tension between autonomy in the second sense and obedience, it is not a moral tension in that there is no moral need for this kind of autonomy.
If we interpret autonomy in the third sense, “making one’s own moral decisions,” then there is a moral need for autonomy—morality is normally understood as demanding that the moral agent make his own moral decisions. But then there is a tension only if we see obedience and authority in such a way that we obey authority just because the moral agent is an authority. And we have already seen fit to reject the just because terminology. Essentially, moral autonomy poses no problem for obedience because authoritative decisions as such are only societal or legal decisions. And what is legal does not define what is moral. Authoritative decisions establish societal responsibilities for the members of that society, but each member must autonomously determine whether those societal responsibilities generate corresponding moral responsibilities. There is no tension between obedience and the third kind of autonomy as long as we do not obey just because an authoritative decision has been made.
The commands of a military authority, then, are societal decisions. Those individuals who have reached such a level of maturity that they can be considered autonomous moral agents, when confronted by such decisions, must autonomously decide whether they should obey such decisions (and hence cooperate with the group) and whether they will obey. Making the moral decision requires an appeal to reasons. (See the Appendix for some common arguments allegedly supporting obedience, which are, in reality, not applicable to the issue.)
If we question whether there is a moral obligation to obey a societal authority and seek reasons for or against such an obligation, we are really asking whether we can derive an obligation to obey from other, more fundamental obligations. Ultimately, we would base the obligation to obey on the most basic principles of morality. Unfortunately, there is no general agreement about what constitutes the most basic principles of morality. The best we could hope to do would be to assume, in turn, specific ethical theories and show that the obligation to obey can or cannot be derived from each one. But then our conclusions would necessarily depend on the ethical theories considered, and to provide conclusions that would be widely accepted would mean deriving the obligation to obey from different ethical theories. Obviously, this would be an extremely tedious task.
Fortunately, that is not necessary. There are certain less basic rules of morality that are justified in one way or another by virtually every practical ethical theory one might be inclined to accept. “Do not lie,” “Keep your promises,” “Do not steal,” and many others are accepted by nearly everyone. Our approach will be to attempt to derive the obligation to obey from these generally accepted moral rules. We will make no attempt to determine the basic moral principles on which such generally accepted rules are based. This is not to suggest that there are no reasons for accepting such rules; rather, it reflects our intention of not accepting or assuming particular ethical theories. We are not interested in why promise-keeping, for example, is morally obligatory; we are interested in whether a moral obligation to obey can be derived from the obligation to keep promises.
The obligation to obey military authority can be derived from several different moral rules, each one of which is independent of the others. I will consider only three of these reasons and show that an obligation to obey can be generated from an obligation to keep promises, from an obligation to fulfill contracts, and from the obligation to act so as to achieve one’s moral goals.*
*There are additional reasons for the obligation to obey, for example, fairness and the golden rule. However, I will not treat these grounds, which are not so crucial to obedience as three that I am treating.
In all of these arguments we will be interested in establishing only that there is a prima-facie that is, one ought to obey, provided that obeying would not involve a greater wrong than disobedience. Any time we suggest that there is an obligation to keep a promise or to obey there is no intent to suggest that such obligations are absolute.
This reason for obeying is perhaps the simplest. It is based on the generally acknowledged moral commitment to keep promises. In general, as our promises become more and more solemnly made and as the subject matter of the promise becomes more and more important, the obligation to keep the promise becomes stronger and stronger. But all American military personnel have made a promise to obey in the form of the enlistment oath or the commissioning oath. Therefore, all American military personnel have an obligation to obey.
Great efforts are made to solemnize these oaths. All present stand at attention; the right hand is raised; a relatively high-ranking officer usually administers the oath; the flag is displayed prominently. Where a large number take the oath, there will often be a full parade. Normally those present will wear their dress uniforms. Speeches by dignitaries often help to emphasize the importance of the event. These extraordinary concerns for an action that takes less than a minute to perform serve to impress on all concerned the importance of this promise. On the whole, it would seem that if there ever is an obligation to keep a promise, there would be an obligation to keep this one, due to the special efforts made to solemnize it.
On the other hand, factors could apply in some situations that would tend to weaken the obligation to obey based on promise-keeping. Compulsion, ignorance, of fear can have a dampening effect on the obligation to keep a promise. This is particularly significant when we are dealing with draftees or with those in the current all-volunteer force who enlist out of economic necessity.
The Obligation to Keep Contracts
Ethicists consider the general obligation to keep promises to be an obligation of fidelity; but an additional obligation, an obligation of justice, arises when the promise is made in the form of a contract. Specifically, when a contract has been made calling for an exchange of goods and services and when one of the parties has fulfilled his or her part of the contract, then he other party is obligated injustice to pay for the goods or services. If a person accepts a loaf of bread from a baker, promising to pay for it the following week, the obligation to pay the money is much more than a matter of keeping a promise. It is a matter of paying what is owed, a matter of justice. To fail to pay is more like stealing than like breaking a promise.
When we enter the armed forces, we are not intending a purely gratuitous act. Of course, there may be elements of patriotism and a certain enthusiasm for the opportunity to display battlefield heroics; but normally we expect to be paid in a variety of ways. Of course, the taxpayer does not pay us out of generosity. We are expected to earn our benefits by accepting the assignments we are given, by doing the jobs the authorities decide we are to do, by separating from our families when the services decide we will and for the period of time the services decide we will, being ready to go to fight in a way and be shot at in circumstances over which we will have no control, etc. To look at it in another way, the individual member of the armed forces is paid to do a job, and the job description is contained in various regulations and in the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Since a person owes a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay, there is an obligation in justice to perform those tasks called for in the job description—including obeying authoritative military decisions.
The services try to make this obligation more obvious by placing a fairly precise statement of what they will provide the prospective service-man on the same form (DD Form 4) on which he promises to obey military authority. By putting both of these on one document, the reciprocal nature of the contract is emphasized.
We must recognize, however, that it is at least possible, especially with draftees, that some individuals want no part of the military’s pay and allowances. They may look on their pay as something that society has forced on them; it could be that they are the unwilling recipients of both the pay and the job. If so, we can grant to the extent that the contract has been forced, to that extent the obligation is less binding.
The majority, who accept their pay willingly and at least in some way understand that it is recompense for the job they are doing, have an obligation in justice to do that job as specified. To the extent that a serviceman looks on pay, allowances, and benefits as something due for a job, he or she should look on obedience as something due for the pay, allowances, and benefits.
Because of the various reasons supporting a prima-facie obligation to obey military authority (reasons considered here as well as others), the individual member of the armed forces, in nearly any normal situation, can count on obedience being the morally appropriate response to authoritative decisions. A member can develop the self-discipline required to be an obedient person and obey quickly and confidently in normal situations. But quick obedience is not blind obedience. One’s moral sensitivities must be kept alert to the possibility that all is not normal and that disobedience might be required by morality.
One of the reasons that individuals can obey so readily is that they have good grounds for trusting in their superiors and in the political and legal system within which the armed forces operate. Frequently the decision whether to obey will be an extremely difficult moral decision, with little more than suspicion, gossip, or rumor on which to base it. In such situations, if the individual cannot trust his or her superiors and the system within which they function, the best moral decision may well be to disobey. For this reason, if for no other, it is necessary for the armed forces, if they really want their people to obey out of a sense of moral duty, to ensure that the moral character and professional competence of their leaders be absolutely unquestioned. To the extent that we are justified in placing confidence in the moral character and competence of our leaders, we can resolve doubts about the moral correctness of obedience in a particular situation in favor of obedience.[do action=”vfquote” quote=”I have thought about it a great deal, and the more I think, the more certain I am that obedience is the gateway through which knowledge, yes, and love, too, enter the mind of the child.” author=”Anne Sullivan”/] [do action=”vfquote” quote=”Obedience is a word and concept from which the valiant look for their deliverance.” author=”Unknown”/] [do action=”vfquote” quote=”Obedience without faith is possible, but not faith without obedience.” author=””/] [do action=”vfquote” quote=”In schools all over the world, little boys learn that their country is the greatest in the world, and the highest honor that could befall them would be to defend it heroically someday. The fact that empathy that has traditionally been conditioned out of boys, facilitates their obedience to leaders who order them to kill strangers.” author=”Meriam Miedzian”/] [do action=”vfquote” quote=”When one has come to accept a certain course as duty he has a pleasant sense of relief and of lifted responsibility, even if the course involves pain and renunciation. It is like obedience to some external authority; any clear way, though it lead to death, is mentally preferable to the tangle of uncertainty.” author=”Charles Cooley”/] [do action=”vfquote” quote=”Being an extrovert isn’t essential to evangelism–obedience and love are.” author=”Rebecca Pippert”/]
A Dog’s Obedience
How we admire the obedience a dog shows to its master! Archibald Rutledge wrote that one day he met a man whose dog had just been killed in a forest fire. Heartbroken, the man explained to Rutledge how it happened. Because he worked out-of-doors, he often took his dog with him. That morning, he left the animal in a clearing and gave him a command to stay and watch his lunch bucket while he went into the forest. His faithful friend understood, for that’s exactly what he did. Then a fire started in the woods, and soon the blaze spread to the spot where the dog had been left. But he didn’t move. He stayed right where he was, in perfect obedience to his master’s word. With tearful eyes, the dog’s owner said, “I always had to be careful what I told him to do, because I knew he would do it.”
[do action=”vfauthor” author=”Our Daily Bread”/] [do action=”vfquote” quote=”Where our Captain bids us go, ‘Tis not ours to murmur no; He that gives the sword and shield chooses to the battlefield where we are to fight the foe.” author=”Source Unknown”/]
Roger Staubach who led the Dallas Cowboys to the World Championship in ’71 admitted that his position as a quarterback who didn’t call his own signals was a source of trial for him. Coach Landry sent in every play. He told Roger when to pass, when to run and only in emergency situations could he change the play (and he had better be right!). Even though Roger considered coach Landry to have a “genius mind” when it came to football strategy, pride said that he should be able to run his own team. Roger later said, “I faced up to the issue of obedience. Once I learned to obey there was harmony, fulfillment, and victory.”
[do action=”vfauthor” author=”Source Unknown”/]
Obedience is Humbling
When Christian Herter was governor of Massachusetts, he was running hard for a second term in office. One day, after a busy morning chasing votes (and no lunch) he arrived at a church barbecue. It was late afternoon and Herter was famished. As Herter moved down the serving line, he held out his plate to the woman serving chicken. She put a piece on his plate and turned to the next person in line. “Excuse me,” Governor Herter said, “do you mind if I have another piece of chicken?” “Sorry,” the woman told him. “I’m supposed to give one piece of chicken to each person.” “But I’m starved,” the governor said. “Sorry,” the woman said again. “Only one to a customer.” Governor Herter was a modest and unassuming man, but he decided that this time he would throw a little weight around. “Do you know who I am?” he said. “I am the governor of this state.” “Do you know who I am?” the woman said. “I’m the lady in charge of the chicken. Move along, mister.”
[do action=”vfauthor” author=”Bits & Pieces”/]
Ron R. was discussing the fragility of many marriages with his girlfriend and posed the following question, “What if you wake up one morning and don’t love me anymore?” She immediately responded, “There’s always obedience.”
[do action=”vfauthor” author=”Source Unknown”/]
The Problem with Civil Obedience
by Howard Zinn
Our problem is civil obedience. Our problem is the numbers of people all over the world who have obeyed the dictates of the leaders of their government and have gone to war, and millions have been killed because of this obedience. And our problem is that scene in All Quiet on the Western Front where the schoolboys march off dutifully in a line to war. Our problem is that people are obedient all over the world, in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity, and war and cruelty. Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves, and all the while the grand thieves are running the country. That’s our problem. We recognize this for Nazi Germany. We know that the problem there was obedience, that the people obeyed Hitler. People obeyed; that was wrong. They should have challenged, and they should have resisted; and if we were only there, we would have showed them. Even in Stalin’s Russia we can understand that; people are obedient, all these herd-like people.
Law is very important. We are talking about obedience to law. Law, this marvelous invention of modern times, which we attribute to Western civilization, and which we talk about proudly. The rule of law, oh, how wonderful, all these courses in Western civilization all over the land. Remember those bad old days when people were exploited by feudalism? Everything was terrible in the Middle Ages-but now we have Western civilization, the rule of law. The rule of law has regularized and maximized the injustice that existed before the rule of law, that is what the rule of law has done. Let us start looking at the rule of law realistically, not with that metaphysical complacency with which we always examined it before.
When in all the nations of the world the rule of law is the darling of the leaders and the plague of the people, we ought to begin to recognize this. We have to transcend these national boundaries in our thinking. Nixon and Brezhnev had much more in common with one another than – we had with Nixon. J. Edgar Hoover had far more in common with the head of the Soviet secret police than he had with us. It’s the international dedication to law and order that binds the leaders of all countries in a comradely bond. That’s why we are always surprised when they get together — they smile, they shake hands, they smoke cigars, they really like one another no matter what they say. It’s like the Republican and Democratic parties, who claim that it’s going to make a terrible difference if one or the other wins, yet they are all the same. Basically, it is us against them.
We must remember that our enemies are not divided along national lines, that enemies are not just people who speak different languages and occupy different territories. Enemies are people who want to get us killed.
We are asked, “What if everyone disobeyed the law?” But a better question is, “What if everyone obeyed the law?” And the answer to that question is much easier to come by, because we have a lot of empirical evidence about what happens if everyone obeys the law, or if even most people obey the law. What happens is what has happened, what is happening. Why do people revere the law? And we all do; even I have to fight it, for it was put into my bones at an early age when I was a Cub Scout. One reason we revere the law is its ambivalence. In the modern world we deal with phrases and words that have multiple meanings, like “national security.” Oh, yes, we must do this for national security! Well, what does that mean? Whose national security? Where? When? Why? We don’t bother to answer those questions, or even to ask them.
The law conceals many things. The law is the Bill of Rights. In fact, that is what we think of when we develop our reverence for the law. The law is something that protects us; the law is our right-the law is the Constitution. And that is good.
But there is another part of the law that doesn’t get ballyhooed- the legislation that has gone through month after month, year after year, from the beginning of the Republic, which allocates the resources of the country in such a way as to leave some people very rich and other people very poor, and still others scrambling like mad for what little is left. That is the law. If you go to law school you will see this. You can quantify it by counting the big, heavy law books that people carry around with them and see how many law books you count that say “Constitutional Rights” on them and how many that say “Property,” “Contracts,” “Torts,” “Corporation Law.” That is what the law is mostly about. The law is the oil depletion allowance-although we don’t have Oil Depletion Allowance Day, we don’t have essays written on behalf of the oil depletion allowance. So there are parts of the law that are publicized and played up to us-oh, this is the law, the Bill of Rights. And there are other parts of the law that just do their quiet work, and nobody says anything about them.
It’s a strange thing, we think that law brings order. Law doesn’t. How do we know that law does not bring order? Look around us. We live under the rules of law. Notice how much order we have? People say we have to worry about civil disobedience because it will lead to anarchy. Take a look at the present world in which the rule of law obtains. This is the closest to what is called anarchy in the popular mind-confusion, chaos, international banditry. The only order that is really worth anything does not come through the enforcement … of law, it comes through the establishment of a society which is just and in which harmonious relationships are established and in which you need a minimum of regulation to create decent sets of arrangements among people. But the order based on law and on the force of law is the order of the totalitarian state, and it inevitably leads either to total injustice or to rebel lion-eventually, in other words, to very great disorder.
We all grow up with the notion that the law is holy. They asked Daniel Berrigan’s mother what she thought of her son’s breaking the law. He burned draft records-one of the most violent acts of this century- to protest the war, for which he was sentenced to prison, as criminals should be. They asked his mother who is in her eighties, what she thought of her son’s breaking the law. And she looked straight into the interviewer’s face, and she said, “It’s not God’s law.” Now we forget that. There is nothing sacred about the law. Think of who makes laws. The law is not made by God, it is made by politicians, lawyers, lobbyists, and big corporations. If you have any notion about the sanctity and loveliness and reverence for the law, look at the legislators around the country who make the laws. Sit in on the sessions of the state legislatures. Sit in on Congress, for these are the people who make the laws which we are then supposed to revere.
All of this is done with such propriety as to fool us. This is the problem. In the old days, things were confused; you didn’t know. Now you know. It is all down there in the books. Now we go through due process. Now the same things happen as happened before, except that we’ve gone through the right procedures. The decorum, the propriety of the law fools us.
The nation then, was founded on disrespect for the law, and then came the Constitution and the notion of stability which Madison and Hamilton liked. But then we found in certain crucial times in our history that the legal framework did not suffice, and in order to end slavery we had to go outside the legal framework, as we had to do at the time of the American Revolution or the Civil War. The union had to go outside the legal framework in order to establish certain rights in the 1930s. And in this time, which may be more critical than the Revolution or the Civil War, the problems are so horrendous as to require us to go outside the legal framework in order to make a statement, to resist, to begin to establish the kind of institutions and relationships which a decent society should have. No, not just tearing things down; building things up. But even if you build things up that you are not supposed to build up-you try to build up a people’s park, that’s not tearing down a system; you are building something up, but you are doing it illegally-the police come in and drive you out. That is the form that civil disobedience is going to take more and more, people trying to build a new society in the midst of the old.
But what about voting and elections? Civil disobedience-we don’t need that much of it, we are told, because we can go through the electoral system. And by now we should have learned, but maybe we haven’t, for we grew up with the notion that the voting booth is a sacred place, almost like a confessional. You walk into the voting booth and you come out and they snap your picture and then put it in the papers with a beatific smile on your face. You’ve just voted; that is democracy. But if you even read what the political scientists say-although who can?-about the voting process, you find that the voting process is a sham. Totalitarian states love voting. You get people to the polls and they register their approval. I know there is a difference-they have one party and we have two parties. We have one more party than they have, you see.
What we are trying to do, I assume, is really to get back to the principles and aims and spirit of the Declaration of Independence. This spirit is resistance to illegitimate authority and to forces that deprive people of their life and liberty and right to pursue happiness, and therefore under these conditions, it urges the right to alter or abolish their current form of government-and the stress had been on abolish. But to establish the principles of the Declaration of Independence, we are going to need to go outside the law, to stop obeying the laws that demand killing or that allocate wealth the way it has been done, or that put people in jail for petty technical offenses and keep other people out of jail for enormous crimes. My hope is that this kind of spirit will take place not just in this country but in other countries because they all need it. People in all countries need the spirit of disobedience to the state and obedience to our humanity. We need a kind of declaration of interdependence among people in all countries of the world who are striving for the same thing.[do action=”vfquote” quote=”Wherever there is authority, there is a natural inclination to disobedience.” author=”Thomas Haliburton”/] [do action=”vfquote” quote=”Justice requires that to lawfully constituted Authority there be given that respect and obedience which is its due; that the laws which are made shall be in wise conformity with the common good; and that, as a matter of conscience all men shall render obedience to these laws.” author=”Pope Pius XI”/] [do action=”vfquote” quote=”God bless thee; and put meekness in thy mind, love, charity, obedience, and true duty!” author=”William Shakespeare”/] [do action=”vfquote” quote=”In obedience there is always fear, and fear darkens the mind.” author=”Krishnamurti”/]
Obeying Your Aging Parents
Youngsters are commonly taught to obey their parents and respect their elders. The concept of obeying our parents basically teaches that we are accountable for everything that we do in life—good and bad choices.
But what if your loved ones make what you believe to be bad choices? What if they are just plain wrong? After all, the Bible and the Quran says ‘obey your parents in everything.’ Does this mean if they do not agree with your recommendations or accept your efforts to help that you should simply roll over and do as they request? Not necessarily.
Asking yourself the following questions may help you know what to do.
- Are my aging parents or loved ones of sound mind and able to make informed decisions?
- Might they be acting out of fear?
- What are the risks if you do nothing and do not challenge them or even forcefully push your opinion?
Older people are often in denial of what may be best for them, set in their ways or resistant to accepting assistance. Words that adult children often associated with older people include “Independent,” “Prideful,” and “Stubborn.”
There is a tendency for older adults to want to do things their way and without assistance. Often times what aging parents might want may not appear to you to be a good choice, however, it is their choice. Failure to make good choices now might lead to choices being made for loved ones later in life or having fewer choices available in the future.
Recognize that change can be hard for anyone, especially an older person. If you believe your parent’s health indicates a “Need” for care, and they do not “Want” to accept assistance, do not panic.
Before you start encouraging change, try looking at the situation differently. Try to understand your parents’ perspective. Put yourself in their shoes. Help them to realize the risks, dangers or fallacies in their reasoning and the benefits of what you or others might be suggesting. In terms of risks, it is important to understand and give consideration to what might happen if you do not challenge your parents. For example:
- What if one of them should fall in their own home and not be able to get to a phone for help?
- What are the risks or possibility of them leaving the stove on and causing a fire?
- What if you have concerns for your parents driving and their ability to react to an unexpected situation?
As parents age and become less independent, we need to apply all the lessons we have learned throughout life to help us discern what is best or right for a particular situation.
Honoring our parents may be in conflict with obeying them. It may mean making tough decisions against their wishes. We should always keep their best interests in mind and not let our wants get in the way of their needs.
You know in your heart if your motivation is pure and honorable as you decide to intervene and make a decision directly contradicting your parent. You need to remember to be honest with yourself when examining your motives.
It may be helpful to consider the greater good. Often times the trade-off of being more forceful with your suggestions can be a loss of relationship. Which is more important to you? While we need to be careful not to enable our parents to endanger themselves or anyone around them, there is also the danger of becoming too controlling and alienating them from you. At this late stage in your parent’s life you really do need to carefully choose your battles (especially the ones you win) because the war isn’t going to last much longer….and that battle may be their last.
Obedience means listening with an open heart to those in authority. It does not mean going against our conscience or acting blindly to whatever those in charge want. True obedience in our relationships with others demands that we be conscience of our responsibility to find the truth through talking, listening, and mutual respect. Humble obedience is even more powerful than obedience alone. Humility supercharges obedience. Our pride is usually our own worst enemy. It makes us weak. If we want to be really strong we can practice humble obedience more. Kind of like doing power cleans to build our core strength, but we need to put away our self-will first.
Here are a few ways to become stronger through obedience:
Obedience to laws: Sometimes we think we are above the law, we whine and complain about it. When we do that, what kind of messages are we sending to the young people who are watching us, looking for a virtuous example in their life. If the sign says 25 mph, go 25 mph.
Obedience to a, government, organization, religion, or church: These are great arenas to find the truth through talking, listening, and mutual respect.
Obedience to a Creator: Do you serve an omnipotent divinity? If you do, then why don’t you follow his/her mandates? Self-will? Ingratitude?
Obedience to self-imposed constraints: Controlling your “Id” with your “Super-Ego”, be obedient to the rules you set up for yourself.
Obedience of a spouse or child to a husband/wife or parent respectively: Learning to put that self-will away and to say “ I will comply”, pick your battles and surrender often.
Obedience to workplace management: Obey first, then seek the truth through communicating, and always remember whose bank account your paycheck is drawn on.
Finally, humble obedience entails not feeling superior to anyone, but placing yourself at the service of all. We need to learn to always think of others before we think of ourselves.
To truly lead a virtuous life, we need to learn to live in humble obedience …….whether we like it or not.