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According to Confucius and Jesus, obedience to the authority is requisite for a civil society. While both in Confucianism and in Christianity, it is allowed to suggest and make comments on the leaders' actions, it is requisite to obey them to your best ability.

The direct result of disobedience to those that should be obeyed is a conflict of power, and war, and bloodshed. Both Confucianism and Christianity admit that in many cases, it is okay to disobey when there is a conflict of interests. (For instance, if the gov't say "Go to war" and your dad says "No, stay at home", who do you support?)

Good leaders are able to motivate their followers to obey them because they want to. Bad leaders have to use physical force or emotional abuse to convince people to do what they say.

The key phrase in jgardin's writeup above is "those that should be obeyed". This implies that there is such a thing as a legitimate power structure in which it is right for some to have power over others.

Accepting this premise necessarily begs the question of from where authority derives and what exactly constitutes its legitimacy.

This question has been answered in many ways over the millennia. Some of the most popular answers have been:
The Mandate of Heaven - the idea that the gods/God/supernatural entities have chosen a particular person or group of people to be set above others. The supposed will of these entities being paramount, people have no correct choice other than to obey their rulers and, by extension, their supernatural superiors. This is also manifested as the divine right of kings.
The Will of the People - The theoretical basis for democracy; the concept that "the people" (the society, the community, the body politic) choose to surrender a measure of their personal power to the community at large via the agency of the state and the elected representatives which constitute the state. An outgrowth of the ideas expressed in Rousseau's Social Contract. An individual in an "enlightened", rationalist society obeys his/her rulers because he/she feels that the rulers' authority derives from the will of the people.

In our day and age, the latter of the above two legitimizing philosophies is considered to be more correct, rational and acceptable than the former.

However, the first philosophy cuts closer to the true source of authority and the basic reason for obedience to it: violence.

Authority = power, and power = a superior ability to inflict violence, regardless of what form the violence takes (physical, economic, emotional, psychological, etc.). At heart all systems of authority, all power structures devolve into that old adage: might makes right. Even the most democratic of states operates on the principle of the will of the majority: there are more of us than there are of you, so do what we say.

The feeling that power must be obeyed stems, probably, from the parent-child relationship. As children, we are compelled to submit to the will of our much more powerful parents. We are inculturated to bow to the greater force.

And so we have a society based obediance to authority. We've even whipped up the collective myth that there must be power structures, or there would simply be chaos (again, fear of violence). This ignores the massive human potential for mutual respect and mutual aid. A society based on cooperation is entirely possible and, considering what our current social organization has inflicted upon the world, entirely necessary for the survival of the species.

Obediance is the result of internalizing the idea that might makes right. Might does not equal right; might simply equals might. The mighty are nothing without those willing to submit.

Experiments on obedience find that people who are told to do something distasteful are more likely to do it than they otherwise would have been because they feel that it is not their actions, rather they are just carrying out the will of someone else.

Scenario: You enter into an experiment, not knowing what it is. You are told that the experiment is simply to see whether or not punishments affect the ability to learn. They sit you in front of a large machine that provides shocks of a range of 15 to 450 volts, with a verbal range of word designations such as shock, strong shock, very strong shock, DANGER, etc. The test you are giving the second person is simply a word-pair test, like happy days, jump rope, blue dog, etc, and the person has to indicate whether or not the words were previously paired together. You are told to increase the shock by one level every time he gets something wrong. However, as the experiment proceeds, the other person registers more and more pain on his face, and ends up begging, pleading to be released from the machine. The experimenter orders you to continue, however. Do you do as he says, or say no?

Here's how the experiment turned out:

"Before the experiment was carried out, people were asked to predict their own performance. The question was put to several groups: psychiatrists, psychologists, and ordinary workers. They all said virtually the same thing: almost no one would go to the end.

The results were very different. Despite the fact that many subjects experienced stress, despite the fact that many protested to the experimenter, a substantial proportion coninued to the last shock on the generator. Many subjects obeyed the experimenter no matter how painful the shocks seemed to be to the other person, and no matter how much the victim pleaded to be let out. This was seen time and time again, and has been observed in several universities where the experiment has been repeated."

What could cause these people, disregarding the one or two sociopaths in the experiment that I'm sure enjoyed it, to do this to their fellow man? For a fully socialized adult, there is a readiness to defer to authority that is astonishingly powerful. There are many factors involved, that were sudied, in whether or not the people obeyed, including: the effects of closeness to the victim, the importance of the institution that was doing the test, and showing other people obeying or following the same authority. Many times the person would ask "Am I responsible?" hearkening back to my previous statement about considering the actions not his own will. Once they were placated, they could proceed more easily.

While the conflict between the conscience of the person, and their feelings of desiring to oblige authority gives rise to strain, many psychological mechanisms can be viewed that help the people deal with the stress. For instance, some subjects only complied minimally: they touched the switch of the generator lightly; this gave them the feeling that they were really good people, and that they were just doing what they were told. Sometimes they would argue, but it served simply as a relief that in the person's own eyes they had opposed the orders. This relief in tension allowed the person to continue on with the experiment anyway. Many times the person would become engrossed in the minutia of the procedure, and attempt to lose sight of the consequences of their actions.

A full 65% of the people went to the very last button on the machine, the 450 volt one. While the people on the other side were simply actors (albeit really good ones), this statistic is pretty disturbing.

Stanley Milgram, the conductor of this famous experiment, concluded that these experiments showed conclusively the psyche of those nazi soldiers involved in the holocaust, and the vietnam soldiers that killed so many villagers. To them, they were just following orders. While to us it may seem atrocious, we might not have done any differently had it been us in their place.

Much credit goes to The Oxford Companion to the Mind, edited by Richard L. Gregory

Last night, as I lay thinking in my bed, Tux, (my Boston Terrier) sat with his paws against the sill staring out into the beckoning night. His eyes wide, his ears relaxed. Outside was just a quick leap away. What restrains him?
A slight breeze comes in and whispers something to him. He whines a little and fidgets.
I tell him to shut up, and he does
Another whisper finds it's way to him and he leans out a little more to sniff the air. I don't feel bad about keeping him on such a short mental leash.
'Ignorance is bliss' I tell him.He looks back questioningly.
I consider just letting him hop out. I know he can jump back in once he becomes bored or cold. But will he come back? Will the real world be too overwhelming for his small mind? Will the infinite possibilities send him into a panic to come running back into the safety of my room? It's dark and cool in here. There's no food and not a single scent he hasn't already filled his nose with in the several years he's been here. But, it is safe. It is familiar. I decide against it.
I'm confident the dog will eventually come back, but I don't want him to get killed in the process. I wouldn't terribly mind if he was dead. I would be a little sad and a little lonely when I get back from school, but I'd live. I don't want him to die because it will bring my family sorrow. They blame me and just bring more unwanted attention to me.
I don't want to fall asleep with the window open. The bewitching darkness and the fact that I could be asleep might be enough to push him out the window. I guess I don't trust him enough to not run out while I sleep. But can one ever reach that state of trust?
It wouldn't be all too bad if he did run away. At least he would've done whatever it takes to pursue his dream. And if he does get hit by a car and die, at least he did it on his own terms. At least he died a free dog, without a leash.

O*be"di*ence (?), n. [F. ob'edience, L. obedientia, oboedientia. See Obedient, and cf.Obeisance.]


The act of obeying, or the state of being obedient; compliance with that which is required by authority; subjection to rightful restraint or control.

Government must compel the obedience of individuals. Ames.


Words or actions denoting submission to authority; dutifulness.


3. Eccl. (a)

A following; a body of adherents; as, the Roman Catholic obedience, or the whole body of persons who submit to the authority of the pope.


A cell (or offshoot of a larger monastery) governed by a prior.


One of the three monastic vows.

Shipley. (d)

The written precept of a superior in a religious order or congregation to a subject.

Canonical obedience. See under Canonical. -- Passive obedience. See under Passive.


© Webster 1913.

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