Obedience is Not the Cause of Historical Atrocities
In the first part of this series, I mentioned the common objection that if we teach obedience, we encourage children to do things that are wrong or dangerous simply because an authority figure told them to.
Carried further, isn’t this how terrible things like the Holocaust happened? Because people were, “just following orders”?
This objection is based on a failure to understand the hierarchy of authority. Atrocities like the Holocaust happened because people were disobedient to the higher authorities of the natural, moral, and divine laws. Instead, they obeyed lower authorities, like civil and military authorities.
Put another way, sometimes civil disobedience is a form of natural and moral obedience. The natural law tells us that man has intrinsic value, worth, and dignity. The moral law tells us that it is wrong to violate that dignity. Thus, civil disobedience such as that seen in the Civil Rights movement and participation in the Underground Resistance during World War II are expressions of the virtue of obedience; obedience to the demands of the natural and moral law.
When “basically good people” value lower goods (security, material prosperity, etc.) above higher goods (charity, generosity, courage, the dignity of the human person), bad things happen. When things are out of order, you get disorder.
So wouldn’t it be better if we did away with hierarchal structures and authority figures? Bad people wouldn’t have the opportunity to exploit others and we wouldn’t have to worry about the consequences of a false sense of obedience.
This idea has been proposed in varying forms, but it simply does not work. Some sort of hierarchical structure of authority is absolutely necessary for the functioning of any group.
Human society can be neither well ordered nor prosperous unless it has some people invested with legitimate authority to preserve it’s institutions and to devote themselves as far as is necessary to work and care for the good of all.
Recall the Occupy Wall Street movement. It’s youthful participants boasted that they were an egalitarian group, with no hierarchy, no authority figures to dictate the behavior of others. Of course, they did have members authorized to speak to the media on behalf of the group, to define and explain their position. They had to, because groups require leaders to do anything. The Occupy movement essentially dissolved, and fairly quickly, in large part due to their aversion to hierarchy and authority. Without a definition of who belongs to the group, what their mission and purpose is, and how they will act to accomplish it, there is no real group and no discernible function. You would be hard pressed to argue that Occupy Wall Street effected any meaningful social change.
Compare this with the Salvation Army. The Salvation Amy provides material assistance to 25 million Americans, annually. They serve in 127 countries and have over 1.5 million members. They are over 150 years old. They also have a highly structured organization with clearly identifiable roles and authority figures.
(The point here is not whether one agrees with the theology of the Salvation Army. I have issues with it myself. The point is that a well-organized group accomplishes far more and lasts far longer than a chaotic group where no one is in charge.)
Let’s extrapolate this to human life as a whole. We must have structure and authority roles if we hope to have a functional society. Those in positions of authority must have the obedience of those in their charge in order to exercise authority and leadership.
So how do we guard against the abuse and exploitation of authority to serve one’s own interests or harm others?
We teach- and learn- from childhood to know the highest goods over lower goods. We value things rightly. We appreciate health and success, but know that sacrificial love is more important and that lower goods should be sacrificed for higher goods when need be.
By teaching obedience, we allow our children to grow in prudence. We give them the skills to discern good and evil, and to act accordingly. Obedience is not the problem. It is not why bad people prevail and why good people sit by and do nothing, or capitulate and play along. Failure to understand the hierarchy of goods, and failure to live out that knowledge is.
We give our children the opportunity to learn wisdom and practice courage when we teach them what is right, and insist that they act accordingly.
Far from being the cause of brutality and barbarism, the virtue of obedience is a safeguard against them.
You can find Part I here, and Part II here.