The Inevitability of Obedience

If you have children, or if you spend a significant amount of your time around children, you understand the importance of instilling the concept of authority in a person’s development.  A four year old has no point of reference why s/he shouldn’t be allowed to eat cake for breakfast, and your rationalization that it will prove to have negative consequence for her/him down the line is bound to ring hollow, since–from the child’s narrow perspective–all such arguments filter down to the old parenting byline, “Because I said so.”  You’re not going to get far trying to convince a person with yet-undeveloped reasoning faculties about why it is/isn’t reasonable to do X,Y, or Z.  Hence, it is simply more effective to refer to one’s higher authority on the matter:  “I know best, because I’m the parent/adult and you are not,” or (in childspeak) “Because I said so.”

If you happen to be the child in this scenario (as most of us at some point undoubtedly have been), you will eventually learn to obey such commands for no other reason than that you’ve being ordered to do so.  Just from a survival standpoint, it is far more pressing for you to know not to do something (like wander onto moving traffic) than it is to understand why you shouldn’t be doing something.  (The latter may be part of the lesson, but the former is really where the emphasis will lie.)  It is for these sort of reasons that the function of authority, and its practical influence in one’s daily life, doesn’t require much explanation; you’ve grown up with it, and (the argument can be made) managed to survive comfortably this long because of it.

Whether we like it or not, this shows that there exists a practical place for a select dose of commanding authorities (and by extension coercion) to direct our decisions for us.  This is an unavoidable outcomes of being social organisms; no matter how much one might wish to philosophize it away, some base sort of authority will always exist as long as society involves a large group of people interacting with one another (i.e. as long as society exists–period).  While you might readily think of yourself as a self-sufficient lone wolf for rejecting some traditional source of authority, you will–and you do–obey the basic authoritative entities of your society, because if you won’t/don’t you’re almost certainly reading this from a jail cell right now (where you also have no choice but to obey an authority; whether it be the prison’s or the prison’s gang hierarchy).  From a Hobbesian perspective, one could summarize this in terms of the individual accepting some rudimentary coercion on her/his person from society, for the sake of the benefits that is offered by obeying the authorities of said society.

A dilemma occurs, however, when we conflate the idea that legitimate authorities exist and exhibit a noticeable level of coercion over our decisions [and how this is unavoidable], with the fact that not every pronouncement made under the guise of authority is worth obeying.  You shouldn’t question your parents’ authority if they tell you not to walk onto moving traffic, nor should you readily dismiss a physician whose telling you that you run the risk of only having under a year to live [though you should probably confirm the diagnosis with a second, third, and fourth doctor, just for the sake of certainty].  But what if a parent asks you to do something that you know to be ethically unsound (and potentially criminal)?  What if a physician uses his position of authority to prescribe to you cures to ailments you know that you don’t have?  Do you question, or obey?  If the Milgram experiment is to be believed, you (and I) will most likely obey the orders of recognized authority figures, for no other reason than that we recognize them as authority figures.  There just appears to be a cognitive misfiring in our reasoning here, where no matter what our personal conscious tells us, we are still more than ready to set it aside for the sake of satisfying the command of a perceived greater entity’s demands.

The large part of the history of the modern world is one in which individuals struggled for the privilege to have, and to freely voice, a dissenting opinion to the power structure of the society they reside in.  Although many would disagree (for varying reasons), in the First World much has been put into legislation to protect the individual’s right to voice dissent.  (You may still not have any alternative than to follow the rules you openly dislike, but you are legally able to say you dislike them; often people overlook how the presence of the former does not necessary undermine their right to the latter.)  The issue of whether it is enough to simply be able to speak one’s disdain for an existing authority structure, while still having to obey the rules decreed by this authority, is (in my opinion) not so much an unanswerable conundrum, than an answerless one.  Because society is largely–or wholly–a collection of guidelines by which its members are to loosely–or strictly–orientate their actions and interactions, it is pointless to demand for an authority-devoid social structure to be constructed for the sake of some idealized hope for absolute equity amongst the various social structures that make up society [show me any group of people, and I will find at least one individual among them whose decisions are being coerced by the influence of some quasi-authority base or another].

This is why the oft heralded call from more…oh, let’s call them…”politically passionate” members of society to question the current power base, and defy authority-at-larger for the sake of [insert noble cause], usually begins to decay even before the marker scribbles on the first protest poster dries.  Despite what common wisdom would have us believe, most people aren’t all that stupid when it comes to this sort of stuff.  And they can tell that a call for the undermining of one authority, is almost guaranteed to result in a replacement rather than removal of coercive forces; implemented by the very people most vocally complaining about the current authorities (it is quite apropos to note how sociopolitical revolutions tend to end in a transfer of power, and never an all out dismantling of it).  The reason for this is that the emergence of authorities is not a corruption or degradation of society–it is society.  It may not be a desirable consequence for some, but something being undesirable doesn’t make it any less true, or practical.

My purpose here is neither to inspire public outrage nor complacency toward authority figures.  It is to get the point across that there are certain traits which are too imbedded in the human psyche to be cast off with a nifty awareness campaign, or full-blown revolution; the instinct for obedience to an authority structure is one of them (no matter how loosely you wish to define your favored authority source).  Hence, while it is important to focus our energy on learning how to critically scrutinize between the contending authorities vying for our obedience, it is equally vital for us to recognize that we are bound to listen to someone’s authoritative claims no matter what our broader stance on the concept of authority happens to be.  Accepting this shortcoming in our reasoning faculties may or may not help us detect the charlatans and demagogues in our midst, but it is a much more productive step for honest discourse that dreaming of benign revolutions and advocating for some undefinable social “great awakening” that defies practical feasibility.


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