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Obedience and Disobedience as Behaviour Forms Research Paper

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Updated: Jun 6th, 2020


God’s first test for Adam was a measure of obedience, and we all know Adam failed in that test. What would have happened if he obeyed and did not eat the fruit offered by the devil through Eve? Well, the simple answer, which may not be theological, is that they would have remained in Paradise. But by being disobedient, they were sent out from that “bliss,” which we all assumed a place without problems, and they entered a place of no return.

They became free and with that freedom, theologians say it was the beginning of sin. The Christian states that the original sin is disobedience. Obedience, or disobedience, is a complex phenomenon. It is a trait, and we all pay a great price for it. But the greater price needed is for disobedience, which requires enough courage to be effective.

A man commits evil when he consciously violates the moral law. Organizations which have questions of legitimacy hold discipline of members as key factor to their survival, as if the members violated the moral law. That is why they institute extreme measures for those who disobey as it is a kind of treachery to their “unwritten codes”.

This essay will explore the kinds of obedience we ought to practice and the “little” disobedience needed to make men free. Why is it easy to obey and it takes too much effort and courage to disobey? In particular, this essay will investigate significant obedience practices of members of the once notorious organization known as the mafia, and experiments like the Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE).

In the mafia style of obedience, that organized crime syndicate organization in the seventies, notorious for its illegal activities, gambling dens, drugs, extortions and summary execution of disobedient members and enemies, obedience is a measure of allegiance to the organization. Disciplined members are rewarded; those who disobey deserved to be “terminated”. For the “Mafiosi”, disobedience is “radical evil,” something that is unforgivable. Men are unable to forgive what they cannot punish and they are unable to punish what has turned out to be unforgivable (Ophir 2). This underground organization first gained notoriety in Italy and spread throughout Europe and the United States.

Letizia Paoli pointed out in her book that the Italian mafia was in the underworld known as the Cosa Nostra, which executes members and terrorize rival organizations and those who do not pay “taxes” to their organization. Members of the Sicilian network were called “men of honor” (or Mafiosi) who were allied with a New York group, the Bonanno (Paoli 12). Most of their illegal activities involved trafficking of heroin and distribution.

Jacobs and colleagues cited law enforcement investigation that resulted in a police operation dubbed the Pizza Connection (qtd. in Paoli 10). Just how this network existed and how they maintained strict discipline is a major topic of this essay. The Sicilian Cosa Nostra manipulated and won public contract bids to support salaries of members. They used threats and violence to obtain contracts and positions in cartels dominated by politicians and also legitimate businessmen.

Writers and social researchers conducted investigation on the mafia phenomenon in the 1960s up to the early 1980s, and they disclosed, albeit with unclear conclusions, that the word mafia was a kind of behaviour and power. The social scientists found out that even if there were individual Mafiosi who were given some kind of function in the community, the mafia organization that we know did not exist in the areas in Italy. The researchers came into a movement known as “sicilianismo,” but they found out that it was more involved in cultural and political activities, which was opposed to criminalizing of Sicilians by police authorities and the public at large. However, the movement also secretly worked for consolidation of the upper class of society which was under threat by Italy’s unification in the late nineteenth century (Paoli 25).

Obedience and Discipline of the Mafiosi

The original Mafiosi with Italian background is not a criminal, but the conception of the Mafiosi, and the mafia in general, was borne out of the police investigations in the mid-nineteenth century and other subsequent investigations. Members of organizations which could be classified as mafia by law enforcement investigations were members of brotherhoods and such other foggy organizations that existed in Italy and spread to cities and different parts of the world (Paoli 25). The investigations also found documents that revealed the existence of unwavering and solemn mafia organizations, whose members were disciplined “men of honor,” who could give blind loyalty and obedience to the organization.

An organization is composed of a family, with a chief who presides and supervises over the operations, e.g. vices, drugs, and many other extortion activities. The chief imposes force, suspicion, and other traditional practices that make him powerful and gain blind obedience of subordinates (Paoli 94). In the 1980s, the popular Corleonesi family rose to power, following this kind of practice of force and intimidation. The family’s common practice was to set other families at odds with each other, that is to say, divide and rule. Members doubted each other’s loyalty.

The traditional method of enforcing loyalty and secrecy was through rituals and symbols. The older Mafiosi would spend much time for novices and new subordinates for instructions and provide the feeling of belongingness. But this technique has waned through the years. New affiliates only subscribe to mafia membership as a social status and to acquire contracts with the help of older members who have connections.

Obedience to somebody other than the self has to be explained by differentiating “rational” and “irrational authority”. Rational authority may refer to mentor-student relationship, whereas irrational is expressed in the master-slave bond. These two types are based on the fact that the authority of both the teacher and the master is recognized by the student and slave, respectively. But, as we can see, they are not the same. The teacher and the student are focused on the aim of the student to succeed in attaining education, whereas in the master-slave relationship, the master has all the opportunity to exploit the slave due to the ownership principle.

The teacher expresses satisfaction on the success of the student. On the other hand, the slave seems to feel like an object owned by the master. The goal of one is not the goal of the other, contrary to the teacher-student relationship. Rational authority is practiced based on reason and this is, according to Fromm, universal. Irrational is not based on reason but it is only effective because it uses force or suggestion. A free person will not allow himself to be exploited by someone who is not his master; else, it will become voluntary.

The obedience of the mafia members is anchored on irrational authority. Mafia is an illegal organization and the members are bound to obey the command of the “boss,” the “chief,” or perhaps, the godfather, like in the movie “The Godfather”. The members obey because they are part of the group, which gives them security in the form of financial and personal security from the opposing “family,” who is ready to overpower or kill them.

This kind of relationship in the mafia fits well to Fromm’s definition of irrational authority. Obedience to the chief makes the members feel strong, even in the presence of another strong enemy. Fromm adds that it is always the organization, or strong men, who use violence to claim power. Obedience makes one own power. To make mistakes or commit error is not part of that relationship because the authority is watching.

The only way to disobey is to be alone, to be able to think, or ponder, about the outcome of the relationship. This is what happened to the mafia organizations of the seventies, particularly the Cosa Nostra from Sicily. Witnesses came out as they became isolated, which made them to think about their situation, or their predicament. They lost the security sense of feeling and the power of the boss waned as he could no longer force and intimidate the members who were coming out one by one to testify against the organization.

SPE: The Psychology Class Experiment

An example of a phenomenal case of obedience that we can further discuss is the Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE), conducted by the psychology department of Stanford University, under Philip Zimbardo (Mcleod 1). McLeod, in his online article, explains that the experiment created a mock prison with college students acting as prisoners and prison guards. The students were arrested in the streets around Stanford, subjected to the usual police process, and stripped of their clothes, liberty, and their precious privacy. Eleven of the students were assigned as guards, ten as prisoners. They were recruited through newspaper advertising, attracting them of a measly sum of $15 payment daily, for their participation in the mock prison, which aimed to study the psychological effects of putting ordinary individuals into a prison cell.

The university basement served as the prison, complete with a long corridor, metal barred rooms, guard rooms and other amenities of a prison cell. Somebody from the staff served as the “warden,” with Professor Zimbardo serving as the “superintendent”. The experiment was secretly recorded; meaning audio- and video-taped, with the staff observing what was happening minute-by-minute. The experiment employed consultants, such as an ex-convict, parole officers and prison officials.

The prisoners were made to wear smocks and nylon stockings to simulate baldness, identified through ID numbers, and their personal belongings were confiscated and placed in a separate room. The cells had no windows, which prohibited the prisoners to tell the time of day. The guards wore uniforms and sunglasses, and such real-prison guard tools like clubs, handcuffs and whistles for warning prisoners.

There were unexpected moments during the experiment which express this essay’s subject matter – obedience and disobedience. The behaviour of the prisoners and the guards were watched over by the staff. The guards asserted their authority and the prisoners, who seemed depressed and hopeless over their unexpected predicament, obeyed. But there was also a time of disobedience. One guard testified that during one inspection, he went to one of the cells to mess up the things of one prisoner, but the prisoner grabbed him by the throat, which forced him to hit him with the stick.

The guard got mad and wanted to avenge himself by going back into the cell, but he was pacified by another guard. Another guard, who made an account of his experience, said that he was surprised of what he had done in the mock prison. He forced the prisoners to call each other names and made them clean the toilets without using any gloves. He also thought of the prisoners as animals. Another guard said that he agitated the prisoners to fight and let them feel that he was the boss, and the prisoners obeyed because they were afraid.

The second day was a day of disobedience. The prisoners thought that they could not bear their predicament: they were having a real prison experience and they felt it was not an experiment. They removed the things that identified them as prisoners and barricaded the cells using their beds. The guards and the prisoners encountered, met force by force, but the guards overpowered the prisoners. As punishment, the guards forced the prisoners to follow unimportant rules, or involve in boring and useless tasks, such as carrying cartons to and from the closets, and so forth. The prisoners, feeling the power of the united guards, obeyed every command, aiding their dehumanizing situation.

Zimbardo explained that human beings have the tendency to do evil, to obey or disobey, which is an example of the Lucifer effect (Zimbardo 3). Lucifer was a beautiful angel of God, who rebelled and thrown to hell as punishment. While in heaven, he disobeyed God. Zimbardo theorized in his book that we, as humans, can experience the Lucifer effect. There is something inside us that nothing can fill or satisfy, and we rebel from existing situation. Going back to the prison experiment, the prisoners rebelled because they became bored even if they were informed that it was only an experiment. The guards also turned evil like Lucifer, disobeying the guidelines set by the experiment staff.

We can relate this to the subject of individuals’ character or behaviour, which should be moulded while a person is still young, or can be moulded like clay. The “character project” can be traced to the ancient times when Aristotle worked and experimented on it. This is also the subject of George Reed’s article, which will be discussed in brief. Aristotle promoted the philosophy that “good habits of character” can be attained by conscientious effort and imitation of the honourable and fair (Reed 22). The process of acquiring good habit or character begins with understanding what is good, and then apply it in real life by practicing it until it is part of one’s second nature. In other words, ethical conduct goes through a development process which starts when a person constantly practices it. We can sense the good behaviour of a person based on how he or she steadily thinks and acts, probably irked by the situation but he is able to control it.

What is blind obedience?

In Erich Fromm’s opinion, obedience can mean submission if it is to follow the will of another person or institution, as it means the renunciation of one’s independence and receiving the other person’s will or judgment. On the other hand, obedience can also mean “affirmation” if it is done to follow one’s own reason or conviction (Fromm 685). Fromm adds that a person’s conviction and judgment belongs to him or her, but if you follow others, it simply means you are being yourself. This brings to the subject of conscience, in Fromm’s analysis.

Conscience may refer to two important phenomena. One is the context of “authoritarian,” which points to the voice of someone who has authority and whom we want to satisfy or do not want to get angry or displeased because of our action. Authoritarian conscience refers to the Super-Ego, the subject of Freud’s psychoanalytic theory. The context of authoritarian conscience occurs when we follow our conscience, or when there is an internal voice that prohibits us to do something, for it was there implanted in us by our parents or guardians when we were children.

Another kind of conscience, according to Fromm, is the “humanistic conscience,” which is different from authoritarian. The humanistic conscience represents the voice present in every human being, which did not come from external source. This type of conscience is based on intuition, i.e. anchored on innate knowledge of being human, our instinct of self-preservation and not our own destruction. Super-Ego is internalized obedience and the power is external source.

What about military obedience? A member of a country’s armed forces finds himself confronted with many regulations and orders and he is obligated to follow. At times, this military officer refuses to comply as he feels the orders invade his freedom. But disobedience can mean “insubordination” and is contrary to his oath and training. A soldier is obliged to obey because he volunteered to be a part of that organization. His reason for his entry into the military can be career choice; unless he became a part of the organization by force.

In Wenker’s doctoral dissertation, he argues that the military is different from any organization in the sense that the organization is established to train people to obey so that they can perform their duties for the protection of the state (Wenker 11). The military officer is disciplined to obey; this is a part of his career. This is also different from the mafia organization, in which the chief intimidates the members to obey. Wenker’s dissertation is important in distinguishing organizations, which are institutions of learning and discipline, and other organizations that exist to extort money.


It takes just a little nod to obey but too much courage to disobey. For Adam, it cost him and Eve paradise. An individual’s environmental background helps in developing courage. This individual must be free from the influence at home so that enough courage is attained to disobey.

Transgressions or crimes are often the result of legendary bad apples. Obedience or disobedience is a form of behaviour, moulded when we were young. We were trained to obey what our parents considered good for us. But we learn to disobey as we mature and as we think and able to discern the nature of things and circumstances. However, we are influenced by the “good teachings” of our parents, of our childhood environment. Again, we say that it takes courage to disobey. Disobedience may not be bad all the time since, based from the discussion above, we have to disobey when we feel we are doing the right thing. Disobedience can lead to freedom, from which we can conclude, based on Fromm’s analysis, that creation was completed through the disobedience of our first parents.

Works Cited

Fromm, Erich. n.d. . n.d. Web.

Ophir, Adi. “Between Eichmann and Kant: Thinking on Evil after Arendt.” History and Memory, 8.2 (1996): 89. ProQuest. Web.

McLeod, Saul 2008, . Web.

Paoli, Letizia. Mafia Brotherhoods: Organized Crime, Italian Style, Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. Print.

Reed, George. “Character vs. Situational Imperatives as the Primary Driver of Unethical Conduct: Implications for the Study of Leadership.” Journal of Leadership, Accountability and Ethics, 9.4 (2012): 21-29. ProQuest. Web.

Zimbardo, Philip. The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, New York: Random House, 2007. Print.

Wenker, Kenneth Herbert 1978, “The Morality of Obedience to Military Authority.” PhD thesis, The Ohio State Univ., 1978. Requirements for the Degree Doctor of Philosophy. Web.

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