Obedience as an act can be traced back to the very beginnings of human history. The common belief has always been to obey authority at all cost. This act has never been questioned because authority corresponds to the common belief that respecting authority and obeying them will lead you to success in all aspects of life. Obedience is not defined to specific situations and its context can be portrayed in various ways. For example, Erich Fromm writes in his essay, “Disobedience as a Psychological and Moral Problem; “Human history began with an act of disobedience, and it is not unlikely that it will be terminated by an act of disobedience. This statement suggests that everything which we perceived to be true about obedience could ultimately lead to our demise as the human race. The thin line between obedience to authority has been a subject of numerous studies and debate that aim at revealing proving wrong information of how the human psyche works. Lee Ross’ and Richard E. Nisbetts’ essay, “The Power of Situations”, discusses results from experiments that aim to explain the situations that determine behavior, opposed to personal qualities or beliefs. Through these papers we are able to look more closely at the factors that decide whether obedience to authority is good.
In his essay, Fromm argues against the act of disobedience and its potentially dooming effect on society. From writes, “The act of disobedience set Adam and Eve free and opened their eyes (Fromm 683)”. Fromm supports his conclusion that obedience to authority is detrimental to society by showcasing various instances in human history were social uprising has taken place that led to positive change. He cites the Greek myth of Prometheus and the Hebrew myth supported by the prophets but more specifically focuses on story of Adam and Eve as a turning point in liberation for man from the Garden of Eden.
Fromm goes on to explain that these very acts lay the foundation for the evolution of the human psyche. The human psyche is divided into two categories by Fromm; living technically and living emotionally. Living technically refers to the advances in science that has propelled us to the atomic age. However living emotionally refers to the Old Stone Age view on ideas about politics, state, society. Fromm makes a very remarkable point when he states, “If a man can only obey and not disobey, he is a slave; if he can only disobey nd not obey, he is a rebel(not a revolutionary); he acts out of anger, disappointment, resentment, yet not in the name of a conviction or a principle (Fromm 685)”. This statement leaves little doubt that we cannot come up with an accurate definition or reason behind obedience to authority. Essentially there is no gray area between obedience and disobedience. At this point in the essay, Fromm is very close to convincing the reader that obedience is a psychological and physical problem through the various examples in history he has cited.
Fromm continues to make his case that disobedience is detrimental to society by explaining the two types of conscience that develop within the human psyche when confronted with a important decision. The first type of conscience is authoritarian conscience which deals with the internal voice that aims to please an authority figure out of fear. The second type, humanistic conscience, can be explained as the voice in the back of your head that allows you to tell what is human and inhuman.
The complexity of defining which conscience ultimately decides your actions can be explained by the following statement from Fromm, “Obedience to the ‘authoritarian conscience’, like all obedience to outside thoughts and power, tends to debilitate ‘humanstic conscience’, the ability to judge one self. With this in mind, the acts of terror in the world, whether they be big or small can be explained because there perception of themselves in respect to others is skewed by many factors. These factors include power and greed but do not include obedience. The question of whether obedience to authority is good remains.
Decisions derive from situations from which one places him or herself in. The common belief is that major decisions come from the source of personal morals. Ross and Nisbett explain observations taken through there experiments; undergraduates taking a course in psychology react positively to the class because they are introduced with new material that is new and rewarding for them. However, as graduate students immerse themselves more into the teachings of psychology they find that the studies which they found intriguing before, consume them with new ways of thinking.
This knowledge challenges what they perceived about human behavior, society and ultimately reveals that the nature of the world is incomprehensible. Ross and Nisbett conclude that; “peoples inflated belief in the importance of personality traits and dispositions, together with their failure to recognize the importance of situational factors in affecting behavior, has been termed the ‘fundamental attribution error’. ” This statement gives us a new perspective upon the subject of obedience to authority. It reveals that people react to different situations based on factors that do not include personal traits.
Obedience to authority cannot be defined by one defining character. Situational distinctions must be taken into account in order to avoid the error that we have commonly done in the past. This error believes that the moral and humanistic concepts are one with the act of obedience to authority. Fromm hits base upon a barrage of subjects closely related to obedience which help to infer that obedience is not always a good thing. His writings look at the human, psychological aspects and the role that they play in the decision making of obeying authority.
Ross and Nisbett takes us through the “fundamental attribution error” concept which explains that people’s reactions to situations is based on factors that do not include personal traits. Obedience to authority is based on situational factors and cannot always be deemed as a positive act. Works Cited Behrens, Laurence and Leonard J. Rosen. Writing and Reading across the Curriculum. Eleventh Edition. New York: Longman, 2011. Print Fromm, Eric. “Disobedience as a Psychological and Moral Problem” Behrens and Rosen 683-687. Ross, Lee. Nisbett, Richard. “The Power of Situations” Behrens and Rosen 688-690.