The virtue of obedience

The Marxist psychologists seek to discredit the virtue of obedience by conflating it with a certain psychological disposition.  The disposition in question is one we all feel to some extent.  We tend to conform to our social environment and feel distress when we find ourselves out of step with this.  Part of this conformity is the tendency to obey whoever this environment singles out as a commanding figure.  (I will not say an authority figure, because authority is a distinctly moral category, and we are now considering only the pre-rational level of psychological pressure.)  The psychologist then cites the Frankfurt School portrayal of the “authoritarian personality type” or Professor Milgram’s ghastly experiments to argue that we obviously need less respect for authority, where by “authority” they mean the residual rivals of their own power:  fathers and priests, never professors and newspapermen.

Now, the disposition to conform and obey is itself a generally positive thing.  In everyday life, the psychologically easy thing to do is usually also the correct thing to do, and I doubt even the liberals’ own order could last a day without this basic instinct to obey.  However, this instinct is not the virtue that we call “respect for authority” or “obedience”.  Obedience is a part of the virtue of justice, and it requires that we obey licit orders from legitimate authorities simply because this is a moral duty.  It may or may not be psychologically easy.  Usually it is, but we shouldn’t hold this against the virtue.  Virtuous acts are usually pleasant, or at least less unpleasant than the alternative.  This only sounds counterintuitive because our moral energies concentrate on those rare times when desire and duty clash.  Ordinarily, eating, wearing clothes, being friendly, paying taxes, and pulling over when the cops signal are the right things to do, but we don’t need to moralize ourselves into them because self-interest suffices.  However, like the other virtues, obedience shows itself most clearly when it is unpleasant, when the virtue is performed for its own sake.  Thus, the best image of obedience is the menial sailor who remains loyal to his captain even when the whole rest of the crew is crying mutiny and demanding he join them; the sailor does this, moreover, not because he particularly likes the captain, but because he knows that the captain is the one he has a duty to obey.  In such a situation, the one with a mere disposition to obey will not remain loyal; he will line up behind the powerful and charismatic leader of the mutiny.

The psychologists slander obedient men as being psychologically weak and ethically shallow, but this is the opposite of the truth.  A true appreciation of authority is only possible to one with a strong moral sense.  It cannot be a substitute for a personal sense of justice since this is its very foundation, and it in no way inclines a man to obey immoral orders.

Finally, I admit to being more than a little put off by these partisans of the anti-authoritarian status quo telling the dissidents that we need to stop being such mindless followers.

12 Responses

  1. There’s been a strong theme in several movies I’ve seen lately about how it’s a virtue to disobey authorities because we know more than them. Lego movie, Hunger Games, Harry Potter…..

  2. Bonald:

    Finally, I admit to being more than a little put off by these partisans of the anti-authoritarian status quo telling the dissidents that we need to stop being such mindless followers.

    Unfortunately that very irony points to the intractability of the problem. As long as people in general are relatively prosperous they will act based on their natural psychological disposition to do what they are told in a manner loyal to the dominant culture. So conforming to nonconformism is here to stay as long as the trains keep running on time.

    Jenny:
    That theme goes all the way back to the American founding and beyond.

  3. That theme goes all the way back to the American founding and beyond.

    I.e. to the Protestant Revolution.

  4. I generally agree with the spirit of this. The image of the sailor who stands by his captain against the mutinists is especially beautiful.

    Disobedience is, however, a necessary trait during certain phases in life, notably during adolescence when it helps push the young adult out of his parents’ household, encouraging him to stake out his own existence and independence. Then, once the dust has settled, he grows out of the rebellion and comes to realize once again the value of order–and his place in that order.

    For me this happened right on cue, a few months after I got married in my mid 20s. I have a feeling my experience is actually quite common.

  5. Hello NZ,

    This is something I’ve been wanting to learn more about so that I can speculate on it intelligently. Some sort of rite of passage to make a clean break between boyhood and manhood status is certainly important during adolescence. In a saner culture, we would have a ritual where a boy takes his place with his father as a man of the tribe. I suspect the West is uniquely crazy in encouraging rebellion against parents for this purpose (and also putting off the recognition of adulthood for far too long). Is adolescent rebellion really a cross-cultural universal phenomenon?

  6. Is adolescent rebellion really a cross-cultural universal phenomenon?

    I don’t have the expertise to say. I have heard, though, that during adolescence certain hormones–or unusual hormone balances?–flare up, resulting in a tendency towards disobedience to authority figures. This suggests that it is evolutionarily advantageous at that particular stage. (This also jives with my experience: looking back on it now, the wild and embarrassing extent of my teenage rebellion seems explainable only through anomalies in my brain chemistry.)

    I’m glad you’ve brought up rites of passage, since they are important in mitigating, or maybe at least guiding, these chemical flareups.

  7. Oh yeah, one of the reasons I made my point about adolescent rebellion being natural to begin with is because I’ve witnessed the problems that happen when people don’t go through much of a teenage rebellion but then have the “disobedience urge” while they’re in their 20s or even 30s.

    A personal anecdote: my mom says her only act of rebellion was marrying my father, which she did in her early 30s just before I was born. (To give you an idea, the closest archetype to this would be the nice girl marrying the artist hippie sigma-male–in this case one with three children from two previous wives).

    My parents’ marriage was fraught with deceit, infidelity, and even some violence, and it only lasted about 7 years. I am personally opposed to divorce and I believe even theirs may ultimately have been more harmful on my long-term outcome than if they had stayed together, but that says nothing about the matter of whether my mother should have chosen more wisely in the first place. Perhaps going through a normal rebellion as a teenager would have helped that happen.

    Meanwhile, consider the sterilized, overly structured, technologically saturated existence that many teenagers live these days. I can’t imagine that saying rude things on the internet constitutes a fulfilling act of adolescent rebellion. What happens when these kids reach their 20s and haven’t ever really stood up against anyone or anything that wasn’t an anonymous collection of pixels on a screen?

  8. One more thing I’ll say about adolescent rebelliousness during my teenage years: me and my generation had a particularly easy set of targets in our parents’ (the Baby Boom) generation, who pioneered most of the awful degradations we see in our society presently.

  9. […] much love or leadership.  What should our response to such difficult times be?  In his essay The virtue of obedience (I highly recommend reading this in its entirety), Bonald writes (all highlighting […]

  10. This lines up with something I was thinking – despite the constant promotion of “critical thinking” and “think outside the box” and “questioning authority” and suchlike, 99 out of 100 times, uncritical, inside-the-box and authority-accepting attitudes are useful, practical and pleasant and generally contribute to living in a functional, rich and civilzed society.

    For example driving in a country where other drivers are meek, conformist and accept autihority is generally safe and pleasant, although perhaps boring. Driving in countries where people think critically about the need for using turn signals, bravely question the authority of stop lights, and think outside the box of speed limits as long as they don’t see any cameras inside the orange boxes is a hair-raising experience.

    But I know the problem! Functional conformism is not exciting. It just works. Thus it bothers people who seek excitement over functionality, such as teenagers, and the perpetual teenagers called liberals.

    Note that this is one of the things where religious and atheistic conservatives could work together. How can we explain to teenagers and liberals that there is a huge overlap between boring conformism and avoiding unnecessary suffering, grief and pain?

  11. […] We value truth rather than self-expression, piety rather than novelty, unity rather than diversity, obedience rather than freedom.  You will say that this is all because I have a childish need for certainty, […]

  12. […] We value truth rather than self-expression, piety rather than novelty, unity rather than diversity, obedience rather than freedom.  You will say that this is all because I have a childish need for certainty, […]

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