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Obedience and Disobedience to Authority Research Paper

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Updated: Jun 24th, 2020


Obedience has always been disregarded as a subject of study in the social science as a result of its ever-present nature. However, without studying and accepting the role played by obedience in nurturing human behaviour, its importance can not be understood. Obedience can make individuals perform tasks they hate or loathe the most once commanded to. From the psychological point of view the concept of authority can be translated into personal experience. Obedience can be as a result of cooperative mood of the people or fear of punishment depending on the system of rule or authority in place. Obedience can also be constructive or destructive; in a nut shell, obedience is one of the fundamental facets that ensure social well being and stability within a society.


Obedience is a fundamental constituent in any social life’s structure. Every society or community expects its members to be obedient to the authority unless an individual lives in exclusion from others (Passini 2). Obedience is a very significant aspect of an individual’s life and defines a person’s behaviour. Since time immemorial millions of people have been slaughtered or put in a gas chamber for questioning authority in place. Analyst argues that these monstrous killings may have not occurred if some of these subjects opted to obey the order (Feldman 3).

Obedience is a psychological instrument that connects a person to the political principle. Obedience is the dispositional adhesive that attaches the mass to the system of authority in place. Recent studies show that in the majority of the masses obedience is an extremely infused behavioural characteristic overriding teaching in ethics, empathy and decent conduct (Twenge 1a 2). Obedience serves diverse useful functions. As a matter of fact, the well being of any society is dependent on its existence. Obedience may be dignifying and instructive and refer to acts of assistance and compassion, as well as devastation (Felman 4).

The idea of authority has fundamental significance in the field of social science, being the basic factor in the governance of the social life. The use of authority is also a type of social influence which provides the mechanism for sustaining the norms or values of a society or coercing people to change to these norms or values. Therefore, any form of communal life must have a structure of authority which may be run either through institutions or hierarchy (Burger 3).

Some level of accountability and compliance to authority is necessary for the existence of every collective group of people (Campbell 23). However, from the historical point of view many people have defied these authorities and committed crimes or unethical acts. Orders from the authorities can either be implicit or explicit depending on the system of governance. For instance during the Nazi rule there were no direct orders and that is what made the movement so vibrant. As result of this it is very true that obedience also poses a great danger to the human existence (Burger 6).

Conventional studies on obedience have placed a lot of focus either on individual level or contextual level. Concentration has been on the process of extrication that is put in place to evade the feeling of responsibility for the actions that a person may have done in reaction to the requirements of the authority (Feldman 15). Even though the twofold nature of obedience has been witnessed even in the early studies, the exceptional study of a link between obedience and obedience crimes has always generated a twisted epistemological supposition. As a matter of fact, on one side, psychology may jeopardize itself by justifying uncritical obedience (Passini 4). On the other hand, setting up the authority’s relationship with its not so good side presents a limited account for the phenomenon.

Socio- psychology generates accounts for social incidences that are often adopted by other disciplines thus accountable for any explanation produced. Obedience is more correlated to authoritarian leadership than the democratic leadership (Rothbard 2). This is based on the findings of several studies which explain the depressing correlation between the authority and obedience and major support for the democratic leadership. Destructive obedience is also one of the multidimensional aspects of the relationship existing between the people and authority (Twenge 1b 3).

Obedience is a significant facet of social life and contributes immensely sustaining the social order and stability within a society/community. Obedience is connected to an overt or implicit command of an authority which may serve to substantiate certain actions of the subject who identify by their code. Rothbard 5 does not support the notion that ordinary individuals may take part in any immoral or criminal act without being aware or opting for the same. Somewhat, harmful obedience is carried on by individuals who are well aware of the consequences.

RothBard (12) argues that types of authority do not necessarily influence obedience by the subjects. Dictatorial authority can only succeed in asserting its authority on the citizens if it enjoys majority support or popularity. General acceptance by the subject is the only guarantee for long term endurance of any government.

RothBard (23) also explains that “popularity is not the only way to attain obedience from the subjects. One of the ways besides popularity is emphasize the on ideological misinformation or intentional mystification”. For instance, among the traditional rulers all over the world some were seen as having supernatural powers ad therefore were feared very much by their subject. In our contemporary society, this is still being practised by some leaders especially Fidel Castro of Cuba who appeared rarely on media. Some Cubans believed that Castro was more than just a president.

The dual-sided obedience

According to several studies, the socialization process of obedience is of great importance. From the childhood age people get to learn about the significance attached to obedience no matter how unpleasant the name may sound and told to trust the authenticity of the authorities even if they abuse the trust people bestow on them(Passini 6). The same studies pointed out that the authority should be recognized as a particular form of social influence otherwise known as authentic influence. “This influence is believed to be authentic by merit of the diverse status enjoyed by the leadership and every person expects all the members to abide by the rules, regulations, and demands of the authority” (Passini 7).

Legitimate influence gives the authority power to exercise its demands and regulations upon its subjects. In this case, the authority’s relationship with the subjects is not coercive (voluntary). Researches have shown that subjects are more submissive to the orders of the leadership when they feel that these orders have been reached at fairly and equitably by the authority (Campbell 6). In short, subjects are more willing to take orders which they feel are authentic and that authenticity of any authority depends in conformity with the social norms, values and objectives of the society (Rothbard). Therefore, legitimate authority is based on social standards and not the top-down model of leadership. This type of leadership takes into account all aspect of the society but there is till cases of obedience ad disobedience within the same group.

Burger 20 posits an exciting model that takes into account both the background and personal differences, concentrating on the relationship between subjects and the authority. The model highlights the fundamental function of the authority as a result of its influence, change of subject behaviours, and imposes respect for rules or obedience to the authority’s commands. Subjects feel obligated at diverse levels to obey as demanded by the authority depending on the basis on which the society bases their relationship (Burger 21).

The subject’s relationship with the authority is productive when they comply with the enacted rules set up on common societal values and should fear punishment if the don’t comply (Passini 8). Respect for the rules and demands of the authority and the authority’s legitimacy creates constructive and destructive obedience (Campbell 24). Constructive obedience arises when the citizen questions the legitimacy of the request and not the legitimacy of the authority. Constructive obedience does not jeopardize the relationship between the authority and the subjects as it only questions an illegitimate demand. In constructive obedience, subjects disobey the demands of the authority but obey the societal common values discharge on a particular situation (Passini 12).

In the case of constructive obedience, disobedience and obedience do not contrast each other but concurrently present and refer to diverse dimensions in the subject –authority relationship. Disobedience is to the authority’s request and not to the authority. This type of obedience shuns destruction by always questioning the authority’s agenda but does not threaten their relationship but enhances it (Twenge 1a 6). In this case, constructive obedience acts as account of self responsibility where an individual assesses the legitimacy of the request and takes full responsibility of their actions (to obey or not to obey).

Destructive obedience refers to lack of responsibility by the subjects as they do not question any of the authority’s demand even if it contravenes the societal values since they have full trust in the authority (Passini 10). There are two major factors that distinguish constructive obedience ad destructive obedience. The first point is the consciousness and account of responsibility for the request made. The second one is exclusion or inclusion of the benefits of the authority’s demand. Destructive obedience assumes that the identification with the leadership or authority triumph over the authenticity of the authority’s request and that the effect of the action offer benefit only to a restricted group of people (Passini 15).

In a nut shell, the concept of obedience also correlates with the role of disobedience. Disobedience may be considered as oppositions that undermines the legitimacy of the authority. On the other hand, disobedience may signify a mechanism for regulating the authority’s orders, thus acts as a shield against authoritarian leadership. Current studies have pushed for a more constructive understanding of disobedience bearing in mind that protests is part and parcel of democracy as well (Feldman 18).

The role played by disobedience

According to some scholars disobedience plays an important part in evading crimes of obedience. They believe that norms that prescribe disobedience should be enforced especially when orders and commands from the authority are perceived to lack authenticity. For this reason, disobedience is viewed as an individual’s right that any democratic system of governance must uphold and the citizens must take upon them as their responsibility. This illustrates that obedience and disobedience is not extreme cases but have a multifaceted dimension (Burger 24).

Piaget theory states that moral development is conveyed as a progressive movement from total freedom (anomy) to regulation by others (heteronomy) to self regulation (autonomy) (Campbell 23). Heteronomy is the one related to obedience where an individual where individuals are regulated by set up rules and values or the authority. Kohlberg expanded the Piaget’s theory where the heteronomy and autonomy were placed in a system of hierarchy.

According to Kohlberg theory an individual can manifests heteronymous orientation within the context of hierarchy and autonomy within the context of peer support. However, other studies show that children of about ten years of age can exhibit both heteronomy and autonomic traits in relation to the authority (Rothbard 25). This disconfirms Kohlberg’s assumption of persistent and mono-faceted moral orientation.

Hence, disobedience may be connected to particular moral subjects which be traced back to the so called common qualities of goodness in opponents to the predictability of evil (Campbell 16). This in other words means that evil escalates when it is predictable thus stops goodness. Passini 12 have accounted for disobedient behaviour as a state of autonomy attained by a person as a result of perceiving substitutes to the prevailing social context. When the existing state of affairs is not popular among the subjects, the legitimacy of the authority’s commands are always questioned. As a result, in the case harmful commands the subjects are always alert and will disobey them. Analysts also warn individuals for taking disobedience as an act of heroism and suggest use of social movements instead to question any illegitimate command (Burger 14).

Cons of disobedience

Disobedience also has the negative side too. In a number of cases, disobedience can create an authoritarian system of governance. For instance the act of disobedience has led to many governments being overthrown by military regime which turn to be authoritarian from the original democratic governance (Passini 8). Besides, there are non-political types of disobedience such as civil strive which are not positive. Some of the leader who took part in the rebellious movements includes the celebrated figures like Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Junior among others. These leaders can not be regarded as representative of blanket civil disobedience, but contributed in disobedience acts that later change people’ life (Passini 9).

Some studies suggest that the ability of a person to disobey and endure the commands and maltreatment of the authority is not a personal trait but a social creation from the shared values and relationships (Campbell). Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Junior utilized their earlier interaction with their moral development ad explored alternatives experiences with the masses of people.

In order for an individual to effect social change geared towards social quality, the disobedience individual should adopt the social-oriented responsibility and the social structure when undertaking some actions (Twenge 1b 6). Therefore, constructive disobedience is dominated by the nous of social responsibility on others and attitude of moral insertion. Moral inclusion is the complement of moral exclusion as tend to keep off outsiders. Moral inclusion together with social responsibility distinguishes between anti-social and pro-social disobedience which are destructive and constructive respectively (Twenge 1b 8).

Pro-social obedience is enacted for the entire society encompassing various levels of factions. Pro-social disobedience encourages social transformation targeting all and sundry. On the other hand, anti-social disobedience is endorsed majorly in favour of a particular clique or group of people to achieve the rights of these individuals. As a result, anti-social disobedience is a strain which despite promoting social change only directs it to certain group, thus creates societal inequality (Passini 10).

Social psychology has been very helpful in differentiating between anti-social disobedience and pro-social disobedience by highlighting the psychological processes. For instance ant-social disobedience is believed to adopt processes that exclude them from the others so as to take part in immoral acts and justify it group wise (Burger 8). On the other side, pro-social disobedience disobeys the authority to encourage social democratic changes and is all inclusive (on-discriminatory). In short, the group of people practicing pro-social disobedience applies the process of a comprehensive self- classification, whereas anti-social disobedient group classifies others as outsiders (Burger 9).

Other studies emphasized that pro-social disobedience is different from anti-social disobedience in their relationship with the authority. Anti-social disobedience group rejects both the relationship and obedience to the authority (Campbell 12).

Alternatively, pro-social disobedience identifies the significance of obedience the society while recognising the boundary of the authority and their commands. In this case pro-socialists do not consider obedience to the authority as a negative step therefore only disobeys within a specific situation especially when the authority’s demands are not thought to be democratic. People enforcing anti-social disobedience attempts to avoid sanctions from the authority while the pro-social disobedience acknowledges these sanctions as part of disobedience process (Campbell 14).


Obedience is a fundamental element in a human’s social life. Obedience can also be constructive and destructive depending on the level of responsibility of the individual subjects. The destructive aspect of obedience has been merged in the study of both the constructive and destructive concepts of obedience and disobedience to the authority. Many hypothetical connotations may perhaps stem from the consideration of the dynamic facet of the obedience-disobedience relationship.

Obedience is highlighted as one of the contributor to the authoritarian system of leadership. Authoritarian attitude grows among the populace under the democratic rule who do not criticize their authority, thus the authority takes advantage of them. Whenever the authority’s demands are not questioned, the subject –authority relationship risks subsiding.

In other words, when the subjects fall short of questioning the authority’s legitimacy and the legitimacy of their demands, the authority is bound to use force and influence to implement their policies. The obedience –disobedience concepts incorporates the issues of responsibility and morality. Obedience-disobedience concepts also have very serious implication to the authority and democratic principle. The authority and subject relationship has significant effect on the social justice, social stability and social transformation. The concept of obedience and disobedience are considered as essential constituents of authority relationship.

Works Cited

Burger, Milligram. Replicating Milgram: Would people still obey today? American Psychologist, 64, 1–11; 2009.

Campbell, Buffardi. The lure of the noisy ego: Narcissism as a social trap. In J. Bauer & H. Wayment (Eds.). Quieting the ego: Psychological benefits of transcending egotism (pp. 22–32). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2008. Print.

Feldman, Stanley. Enforcing social conformity: a theory of authoritarianism. Political Psychology, 24, 41–74; 2003.

Passini, Stefano and Morseli, Davide. Authority relationships between obedience and Disobedience. New Ideas in Psychology 27, 96–106; 2009.

Rothbard, Murray. The politics of obedience: the discourse of voluntary servitude Auburn. Alabama: Ludwig Von Mises Institute, 2008. Print.

Twenge, Jean (1a). Changes in the need for social approval. Journal of Research in Personality, 41, 171–189; 2007.

Twenge, Jean (1b). Change over time in obedience: The Jury’s Still Out, But It Might Be Decreasing. American Psychological Association, Vol. 64, No. 1, 28–31; 2009.

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