Blindly obeying authority often results in disobedience to one’s personal morality. Since rules were established and exist for the common interests of the general population, some would say adhering to the rules is obedient. However, when rules conflict with people’s morals, one has the right, and furthermore the responsibility to disobey.
Contrary to popular belief, disobedience does not center around ignorant rebellion. In fact, disobedience is the manner in which people shed enlightenment on the well-traveled path of benightedness, by offering another point of view. By the dictionary’s definition, disobedience is a violation or disregard of a rule or prohibition. Nevertheless, if people do not challenge their very surroundings, then they will never discover the many paradises that exist behind the garden gate of control and oppression. Through choosing to disagree, a person is exclaiming the fact that he/she will not negotiate the most personal aspects of his/her lives, such as his/her morals. Prime examples of two very different points of view are: the government drafting young men into the army, and the men being reluctant to go. Indeed, a pacifist is not going to be as patriotic as a navel-officer, however; the pacifist should not have to entertain the idea of killing a man, simply because he is expected to obey. This opinion is not just an act of rebellion to a higher authority; it is a commitment to one’s personal morals, simply because no higher authority exists beyond oneself. Edward Abbey, in his book Rain, Fire and The Will of the Gods, stated, “A patriot must always be ready to defend his country against his government” (Abbey 156). Through this quote, Abbey shows that he was a man of great wisdom, or perhaps he was just a history major. To clarify this idea, it is a known theory that history repeats itself, and still society today has neglected to acknowledge an
essential partner in the authentication of moral decisions. This essential partner is one’s own conscience.
By allowing one’s conscience to govern ideals and decisions, the community as a whole rises to a heightened understanding of its surroundings. As conscious individuals, humans acknowledge the fact that not everyone holds the same opinion, and therefore, not everyone is governed by the same rules. In Erich Fromm’s short essay entitled, Disobedience as a Psychological and Moral Problem he explains that there exist two forms of conscience. The first form being the authoritarian conscience (the authority society aims to please and avoids displeasing, also referred to as the “Super Ego” by Freud), and the second being the humanistic conscience (Milgram 151). Erich Fromm better explains the idea of the humanistic conscience when he says:
… the “humanistic conscience”; this is the voice present in every human being…and is based on the fact that as human beings we have an intuitive knowledge of what is conducive of life and what is destructive of life. This conscience serves our functioning as human beings. It is the voice which calls us back to ourselves, to our humanity. (Milgram 151)
Fromm is saying that while the community has established rules for people as a whole, people as individuals have established rules for themselves. The personally established rules automatically take precedence over broad rules, since they are the most significant to free human life. An example of how these ‘rules’ have been confused would be the Holocaust. Hitler wanted the Jews exterminated, and although many of the people (non-Jewish) felt this was inhumane and unjust, they remained silent and inert. The liberation of the Jews did not occur until Russia discovered the confusion between the broad rules and the moral rules. Once the Russians publicized how the ‘rules’ fell into sequence, (through the liberation of the Jews), society aspired not to regress into the mindset of ‘obedience before morals’, and essentially, to not allow history to repeat itself. Since society is committed to progress, they have altered the way in which they address sensitive issues. Now, society has become so politically correct that citizens feel inhibited to say, “I disagree.” However, these two simple words, though seeming antagonistic, by nature are words of freedom.
By obeying society’s powerful authority, people sign over their freedom, and accept their loss of agency with a smile. Perhaps citizens are waiving their freedom because they are unaware of its suppression. An example of this would be Stanley Milgram’s experiment in trying to determine why the Holocaust occurred. In the book Reading across the Curriculum, Behrens and Rosen explained Milgram’s study, “… under a special set of circumstances the obedience we naturally show authority figures can transform us into agents of terror” (Milgram 115). The procedure entailed observing the people, (‘the teachers’) and the extent to which they would obey authority by inflicting severe electrical shock upon other humans when instructed to do so. The results of Milgram’s research was appalling. Although the test subjects were able to leave the experiment at any time, few challenged the authority. The few that did question the “teacher’s” motives were dismissed from the testing (Milgram 117). Milgram conducted this experiment to learn how people could become so inhumane upon request, (the Holocaust), even though his ethically challenged experiment remains a roaring debate of morals today.
Upon the completion of his experiment, Stanley Milgram debriefed his subjects, and then asked the people in question (‘teachers’) to evaluate their reactions (Milgram 117). One of the subjects, while laughing uncontrollably after administering several severe electrical shocks, responded, “This isn’t the way that I usually am. This was a sheer reaction to a totally impossible situation” (Milgram 122). The test subject failed to recognize that he indeed had a choice (shocking the “learner”, or leaving the experiment); therefore, the situation conversely, was not impossible. Many people will deny their alternatives simply because it involves going against the majority and higher authority; but one fact is undeniable- everyone has a choice. The choices to either disobey or obey occur simultaneously, because when a person obeys a higher authority, (such as the government), he/she often disobeys his/her morality.
In short, obedience and therefore disobedience will never singularly exist. If a person obeys a higher authority, he/she often disobeys the unacknowledged higher authority known as ones conscience. Henry David Thoreau supported this claim when he stated in his story called Walden and Civil Disobedience:
There will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual as the higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly. (Thoreau 256)
Thoreau highlights the fact that society will never see morals as more important than the written law and civilization as a whole, therefore, will never progress. With the endless variation of mainstream religions and fluctuating trends, morals remain a rare constant. For this reason, citizens should value and obey their personal morals over the ideals of authority figures, so that those in power will be more conscientious of their societal surroundings.
Work Cited Page
Abbey, Edward. Rain, Fire, and The Will of God. Dunlap, NJ: Second Chance Press,
Fromm, Erich. “Disobedience as a Psychological and Moral Problem”. Reading Across
the Curriculum. Behrens/Rosen. Logman Publishers USA. 1999. (149-153).
Milgram, Stanley. “The Perils of Obedience “. Reading Across the Curriculum.
Behrens/Rosen. Logman Publishers USA. 1999. (115-127).
Thoreau, David Henry. Walden and Civil Disobedience. Cambridge, Mass: The
Riverside Press Cambridge, 1849