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Authority through Obedience or Disobedience: Who makes the Calls?

Updated on May 28, 2011

THIS IS a student's work

Authority through Obedience or Disobedience: Who makes the Calls?

Just like the theme of loyalty and betrayal, the issue of obedience, disobedience, as well as the time to disobey has troubled humanity since the beginning of time. Since Plato and his masterpiece The Republic, until the present time, the stated theme has been the battlefield of several heated debates. And whether the stated theme concerns obedience as submission to a higher authority or moral conviction, the question has never lost its significance. And hence, as humans we can never reach our farthest capabilities unless we exercise this right with complete awareness of its consequences. And as we do so, we must balance between the urge to blindly obey out of suppression and the urge to disobey out of opposition which if not accompanied by a vision and a set of goals might lead to anarchy and chaos.

In 1963, Erich Fromm recognized disobedience as a psychological and moral problem for those trying to escape slavery, handle rebellion, and achieve revolution. Accordingly, Fromm’s understanding of slavery excluded the ability to disobey from individuals programmed to obey. Meanwhile, the antecedent of the former equation, incorporated rebellion which is driven by anger, disappointment, or resentment yet void of conviction or principle (Fromm 1963). By relying on distinguishing between submission which is accompanied with obedience and affirmation; he highlighted the gap between autonomous obedience and heteronomous obedience. According to Fromm, the two kinds of obedience differ in their foundation. Whereas autonomous obedience refers to personal conviction and judgment; the heteronomous case submits the individual to another’s reason and principles. In this respect, the humanistic conscience serves as a balance between what is conductive to life from what is destructive to it. In contrast, the authoritarian conscience internalizes outer thoughts and principles to exist and judge an individual’s existence which is a form of outer power that constitutes the authoritarian conscience.

As far as history goes, heteronomous obedience has been linked to submission to a higher authority or power which is usually manifested in the ruling government and its laws and the regulations that rule daily life. Those advocates of complete submission to the higher authority manifested in the ruling party refer to obedience as a civil duty where an ideal citizen repays his government by obeying its rules.

Yet, if a citizen blindly obeys the authority and its laws without assessment he is no different from a slave who has his rights taken away. Although through the traditional meaning of slavery we know that a person has his rights taken away, a complete obedient citizen has thus fallen into intellectual slavery. As his rights to question, assess, and evaluate the authority have been consciously or unconsciously taken away, this doesn’t deny the fact that he is in a case of complete and blind submission to the higher authority he submits to intellectual domination.

As we dig deeper, the need for mental liberation surfaces in order to free submissive and obedient people from the complete dominance of authorities over them. Fromm for instance calls for mental liberation, from economical exploitation and conceptual slavery exercised by the commercial oligarchy and irrational authority to uncover or bring to light new thoughts into a holistic methodology (Polantras, 1983, p.7). This is clear when Fromm states in his text, “In order to disobey, one must have the courage to be alone, to err, and to sin. But courage is not enough. The capacity for courage depends on a person’s state of development. Only if a person has emerged as a fully developed individual and thus has acquired the capacity to think and feel for himself, only then can he have the courage to say “no” to power, to disobey” (Fromm, 1963, pp9 ).

In essence, Fromm’s work boils down to legalizing rational authority that acts out of reason and emergency not out of utilization of force or suggestion to exploit. He urges for disobedience in scenarios of exploitation from an irrational authority enslaving individuals mentally just because they can’t say no to power or don’t have the courage to be labeled as sinners who have committed disobedience once they have reached a state of development.

On the other hand, those who openly defy the higher authority which is usually linked to the laws and the government are labeled as rebels and not revolutionists since they oppose the natural flow cycle of things. For instance, Martin Luther King Jr’s movement towards attaining equality between blacks and whites was considered an open call for rebellion against the government and the higher authority. Though King strove to benefit his people and ultimately society as a whole, he was still categorized as a disobedient citizen since he opposed the normal flow of interaction between the higher authority and its subordinates which ultimately got him killed.

Another fine example portrayed in English literature in is Sophoclese’s Antigone. For instance the conflict between Creon who is the manifestation of power and authority in Thebes and Antigone who resembles a normal citizen or subordinate is the issue of obedience. Creon claims that no law is higher than the laws of Thebes that are held dear and superior. Yet Antigone asserts her belief in burying her brother by stating that the laws of the gods and moral conviction surpass mortal laws and hence, disobedience is necessary when the conflict arises between human authorities and moral and divine authorities. The point that we are trying to make clear here is that blind obedience is never favorable since it takes away a person’s free will to think and hence, as aware citizens we must exercise this right consciously. Yet on the contrary, complete disobedience that lacks planning and a goal doesn’t benefit humanity since it leads to disruptions of normal life. Hence, blind obedience and disobedience that lacks foresight and a vision is not favorable either. So how is balance attained?

To start off where we left, there are three different types or models for obedience and disobedience. Fromm’s approach of coining the choice between obedience and disobedience with freedom and courage to face connotations of sin and virtue; reminds us of the dialogues between the characters of Alice in Wonderland. In that story, the Queen says: “Now, I give you fair warning, either you or your head must be off, and that in about half no time! Take your choice!” (Carroll, 2006). He presents us with three models: slavery the ugly face of exploitation, rebellion through emotions gone berserk, and revolution the virtuous approach for continuing civilization in a liberal manner. In his essay he anchors civilization’s continuity on man’s common best interest individually and eventually societal welfare. Topically, we sense an empirical need for justice and power to coexist to eventually empower justice and justify power. And hence, society can’t survive or proceed unless it finds a balance between these three models.

Hence, the rise of a civil community can’t occur unless our humanistic conscience prevails over the political society as well as higher authority, yet nourishes and watches over it. And thus the implication of Fromm’s quote asserts that each person is given the right to both obey and disobey. But in exercising this right, a citizen must do it with complete understanding of his choices’ implications. For if society only obeys without questioning the ultimate authority as stated earlier falls under intellectual slavery, and if it disobeys without trying to perceive the future or set up a methodology for his disobedience, these acts may disrupt the normal life and cause the degeneration rather than the evolution of society.

For instance, disobedience due to the oppression by unjust governments has lead to various rebellions in the Arab region. Although the goals were noble, such as freeing themselves from tyrannical authorities, these rebellions lacked goals, visions, methodologies, as well as courses of actions. And due to that, they have lead to nothing but chaos and no unity between people in face of injustice. Therefore, we conclude that based on the three types explained above, an aware citizen must learn to free himself from mental slavery and incase of disobedience he should adapt a vision as well as a methodology with noble goals.

Looking back, many might argue that Fromm through his words “If a man can only obey and not disobey, he is a slave; if he can only disobey and 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”, shows the same flaws as Karl Marx. Being the radical he is, Fromm’s exposure to the Marxist influence is very clear when compared to Karl Marx’s interpretation of the political universe. (Marx 1976, p.30).For instance, one of Fromm’s downfalls is only relating disobedience through the economic factor mainly through production relations as the chief trigger for political struggles. Although political struggles are of societal hierarchy, the latter aren’t the only explanation for ethnic, religious, and racial feuds that spark major political struggles and races to power, these causes make a great portion of the reasons for conflict.

As a sum up, Fromm is right in asserting the importance of humanistic conscience to determine communal welfare that is distinguishable from individual, constitutional societal groups, the state’s welfare as a sovereign, because communal welfare should reflect the evolutionary intellectual independence of individuals as constitutional founders of the legitimate empowered authoritative state. In conclusion, we agree with Fromm in his understanding of power being the ability to conclude collective change from the presence of an opposition. He is right to deduce that authority should be in service of an ideology that spurs from a conscious society seeking communal welfare. And in the end each person must learn to balance the right to exercise obedience and disobedience in order to nourish society and insure its advancement.


Lewis, C. & Kincaid, E. (2006). Alice in Wonderland / by Lewis C., illustrated by Eric Kincaid Five Mile Press, Rowville, Vic.

Fromm, E. (1963) Disobedience as a Psychological and Moral Problem

Marx, K., (1976) German Ideology, Damascus Prints

Polantras, N., (1983). Political Authority and Social Brackets, Ibn Khaldoun Prints


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    • Uriel profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Lebanon

      well Freya, disobedience is not Vice, for the right reasons and the right beliefs, with the right purpose no one can blame you. I do understand your point about ethics and how people have become driven by money and all life's materialitic offerings and all what i can do in your case is offer you support as well as my prayers. Indeed no one said life is going to be easy on us, we have to endure and fight for what we believe in.

      Concerning the arab world, trust me i KNOW, for i have to live within the chaos every day. Well corruption has reached its maximum here, people can't breath and act based upon their urges. Had they taken one step backwards, breathed and evaluated the situation, things would have turned out better:)

      Until then, i bid you farewell, and do take care of your health sister!

    • Freya Cesare profile image

      Freya Cesare 

      7 years ago from Borneo Island, Indonesia

      I am disobedience to my boss because she lack of ethic, doesn't have manners, has tendency to break; which is maybe in her head categoryzed as 'little unnecessary' rules, and a stupid liar, and I have no fear in saying that in from of her. What that make me? Rebellion? LOL

      Relationship between government and citizen being tied by unwritten consensus. If most of citizen no longer want to following it, what happened and still happening in Arab Region today will be hard to avoid. They indeed moved without profer purpose which susceptible to caused chaos and easy to be provocate, but unless their threat can be great reminder for government to not going out of the line.


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