The virtue of obedience

Originally posted at Throne and Altar.

The Marxist psychologists seek to discredit the virtue of obedience by conflating it with a certain psychological disposition.  The disposition in question is one we all feel to some extent.  We tend to conform to our social environment and feel distress when we find ourselves out of step with this.  Part of this conformity is the tendency to obey whoever this environment singles out as a commanding figure.  (I will not say an authority figure, because authority is a distinctly moral category, and we are now considering only the pre-rational level of psychological pressure.)  The psychologist then cites the Frankfurt School portrayal of the “authoritarian personality type” or Professor Milgram’s ghastly experiments to argue that we obviously need less respect for authority, where by “authority” they mean the residual rivals of their own power:  fathers and priests, never professors and newspapermen.

Now, the disposition to conform and obey is itself a generally positive thing.  In everyday life, the psychologically easy thing to do is usually also the correct thing to do, and I doubt even the liberals’ own order could last a day without this basic instinct to obey.  However, this instinct is not the virtue that we call “respect for authority” or “obedience”.  Obedience is a part of the virtue of justice, and it requires that we obey licit orders from legitimate authorities simply because this is a moral duty.  It may or may not be psychologically easy.  Usually it is, but we shouldn’t hold this against the virtue.  Virtuous acts are usually pleasant, or at least less unpleasant than the alternative.  This only sounds counterintuitive because our moral energies concentrate on those rare times when desire and duty clash.  Ordinarily, eating, wearing clothes, being friendly, paying taxes, and pulling over when the cops signal are the right things to do, but we don’t need to moralize ourselves into them because self-interest suffices.  However, like the other virtues, obedience shows itself most clearly when it is unpleasant, when the virtue is performed for its own sake.  Thus, the best image of obedience is the menial sailor who remains loyal to his captain even when the whole rest of the crew is crying mutiny and demanding he join them; the sailor does this, moreover, not because he particularly likes the captain, but because he knows that the captain is the one he has a duty to obey.  In such a situation, the one with a mere disposition to obey will not remain loyal; he will line up behind the powerful and charismatic leader of the mutiny.

The psychologists slander obedient men as being psychologically weak and ethically shallow, but this is the opposite of the truth.  A true appreciation of authority is only possible to one with a strong moral sense.  It cannot be a substitute for a personal sense of justice since this is its very foundation, and it in no way inclines a man to obey immoral orders.

Finally, I admit to being more than a little put off by these partisans of the anti-authoritarian status quo telling the dissidents that we need to stop being such mindless followers.

12 thoughts on “The virtue of obedience

  1. Surely it misses the point to focus on generalities about whether an attitude of obedience is superior or necessary in comparison with other attitudes? Even if obedience was best in 99% of situations, the exception might be crucial.

    That is the Anti Christ idea. The AC says mostly Christian stuff, but includes just a few things sufficient to damn his followers.

    Bottom line is that, as of here and now, obedience is not a safe path to salvation – although I think there were times and places when it was sufficient.

  2. Over on that post at Throne and Altar the first comment says: “There’s been a strong theme in several movies I’ve seen lately about how it’s a virtue to disobey authorities because we know more than them. Lego movie, Hunger Games, Harry Potter…..” This highlights the problem, and how both sides are behind the times. Hollyweird still pushes the “disobedience is great” message even while they are the “authority” (lol) and “conservatives” push the “obedience is great” message even though they haven’t been in power since really before I was born. Its kind of like how Christians with “turn the other cheek” defend self-defence and even carry to church while Jews with a Torah full of “genocide the goyim” oppose self-defence and even lambast Asher Meza for carrying to synagogue. The great mass of men are stuck in cognitive dissonance mode. Which highlights why obedience must be provisional for anyone who isn’t stuck in cognitive dissonance mode; it cannot be otherwise.

  3. I’ve read St. Benedict’s rule but have to disagree with unquestioning obedience to an abbot being a virtue. Obedience is not a virtue unless it be directly to God. Obedience to human authority, even ecclesiastical, is simply obedience but whether its a virtue or not depens entirely on what they command and not merely on it being obedience.

  4. [L]ike the other virtues, obedience shows itself most clearly when it is unpleasant, when the virtue is performed for its own sake. …

    One of the many things I appreciated about C.S. Lewis’s brilliant Perelandra is that it really highlights this insight. Ransom speaking to the Eve character:

    “This man has said that the law against living on the Fixed Island is different from the other Laws, because it is not the same for all worlds and because we cannot see the goodness in it. And so far he says well. But then he says that it is thus different in order that you may disobey it. But there might be another reason… I think He made one law of that kind in order that there might be obedience. In all these other matters what you call obeying Him is but doing what seems good in your own eyes also. Is love content with that? You do them, indeed, because they are His will, but not only because they are His will. Where can you taste the joy of obeying unless He bids you do something for which His bidding is the only reason? …We cannot walk out of [God’s] will: but He has given us a way to walk out of our will. And there could be no such way except a command like this. Out of our own will. It is like passing out through the world’s roof into Deep Heaven. All beyond is Love Himself. I knew there was joy in looking upon the Fixed Island and laying down all thought of ever living there, but I did not till now understand.”

    Thanks for reposting this essay and the excerpts from your Conservative Vision of Authority.

  5. “However, like the other virtues, obedience shows itself most clearly when it is unpleasant, when the virtue is performed for its own sake.”

    Of course. It is deeply unpleasant to report my good friend and fellow officer, A. Solzhenitsyn, to the authorities but I’m really enjoying the emotional frisson of virtuous obedience to licit orders right now.

    The United States of America is an anarcho-tyrannical regime which no more merits a duty of loyal, religious obedience than a Mafia don by terrorized shopkeepers, as I’m about to demonstrate.

    “Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 (Fair Housing Act), as amended, prohibits discrimination in the sale, rental, and financing of dwellings, and in other housing-related transactions, because of race, color, religion, sex (including gender identity and sexual orientation), familial status, national origin, and disability.” — hud.gov

    Bank of America has just rolled out a program “aimed at bolstering homeownership ​​opportunities in Black and Latino communities, with plans to offer zero down payment and zero closing cost mortgage options in certain neighborhoods.” (thehill.com) This is race-based discrimination of course, and violates the Fair Housing Act. But don’t hold your breath waiting for the US government to prosecute BoA for racial discrimination in the financing of dwellings and other housing-related transactions.

    The Second Gulf War was launched by the US government and its virtuously obedient minions under false pretenses and resulted in the deaths and maimings of hundreds of thousands of people.

    Afghanistan was a 20-year party for the Military-Industrial Complex and its virtuously obedient shareholders and senior execuitves.

    City governments across the US renounced their duty to defend the civil order in the Summer of 2020 in response to the ambiguous death of a net tax eater because of (or not because of) the actions of a group of policeman in one neighborhood of Minneapolis.

    Businesses, whole ways of life have been destroyed over COVID hysteria, the largest and most blatant government propaganda and overreach in my lifetime. And nobody even got a vote.

    We both know if you want other examples I could rain them down across this page. I could also invoke Godwin’s Law, and cite the duly elected Nazi regime whose citizens virtuously obeyed their crazed head of state.

    I pay my taxes because I’ll lose my ability to provide for people who rely upon me if I don’t. I don’t lie, cheat or steal or drive drunk or drag race on public roads because it’s the right thing to do, not because the State proscribes it. But I have my lines in the sand even if Continental Catholics don’t.

    Again, I think conservatives are flat out losing it because the reality is too awful to bear: the US State and its patrons–with the support of an electoral majority–are ratcheting towards totalitarianism. So the conservatives weep and don sackcloth and ashes and say of the State, “Yea though it slay me, yet will I trust in it.”

    • “I think conservatives are flat out losing it because the reality is too awful to bear: the US State and its patrons–with the support of an electoral majority–are ratcheting towards totalitarianism.”

      No, we are losing because we are powerless. Even “our” politicians work for the enemy, our Churches, our institutions.

      We lost the power with the bourgeois revolutions. After that, the liberal power maintained the facade of elections, but the power was elsewhere and took society to increasing levels of liberalism. Conservatives accepted liberalism more and more and, hence, we fooled ourselves thinking that our defeats were victories to try to forget we are slaves.

      In my country, the right-wing party was against divorce. Then in favor of divorce but against abortion. Then in favor of abortion but against gay marriage. Then in favor of gay marriage but against transgender and climate change. Now they accept transgender and climate change

      The right-wing party has won many elections but its conservative voters have not seen any reversion of these policies, because the power never was in the democratic process but elsewhere. We have always been slaves. The difference is now they are being sincere

      • I didn’t say “losing,” I said “losing it.” Conservatives are becoming unhinged and building elaborate justifications to cope with the fact that politics are no longer ideological, politics are territorial. Behind all these elaborate arguments about obedience and virtue and Divine mandate lies a simple fact: the stupid, evil people have the nukes. To acknowledge this is to agree that it’s all about power now, and Boomer ideologues (albeit conservative ideologues) don’t like admitting that. Current events also raise uncomfortable questions about the purported merits of ethnic and racial diversity and the fact that culture (including religion) is downstream of people.

        BTW, there is no Divine mandate in a democratic republic; there’s no King as head of State and no religious coronation. We just count up who has the most rifles and agree to go home instead of duke it out like we did in the War between the States.

      • I’m with you on this antignostic. Conservatives are fighting a war with outdated maps. They insist on using words that name things that no longer exist in the phenomenal world. And they endow these words with magical powers. My recent post on the Athenian invasion of Melos was meant to stimulate some serious thinking about this, but most readers are more interested in authoritarian nostalgia.

      • @JMSmith – years ago, I knew a blogger under the pseudonym Porter who wrote the Kakistocracy blog. He used to call the US Constitution the conservatives’ “ghost-shirt,” a ritual cloth for George Will to wear during the Ghost Dance, invoking the spirits of Washington and Jefferson to drive the demon-liberals into the sea.

        The extent of the transformation is too frightening for people like George Will to think about. And if you live in a neighborhood with a $1.5 million admission fee, like George Will, you really will not see it. For that matter, even if you live in an affluent Atlanta suburb with a $500,000 admission fee, you won’t see it if you don’t want to.

        https://www.lewrockwell.com/2022/09/no_author/its-even-later-than-you-thought/

        Porter was deep in the belly of the beast and worried about being uncovered and losing a very lucrative business that supported an upper-middle class life, so he took his whole blog down some time ago.

      • JMSmith,

        “…most readers are more interested in authoritarian nostalgia.”

        This is a tendentious way of putting it. I doubt anyone here advocating obedience to authority is doing so because of a misguided nostalgia – we’re talking about submitting to a thoroughly disenchanted, desacralized managerial bureaucracy after all, not some monarch who still maintains some vestiges of tradition or inspires a sense of awe – but rather because we think we have a moral obligation to do so. I certainly would prefer not to be so obliged towards our modern-day authorities, who have set their face against God and who call evil good, and good evil.

  6. “They insist on using words that name things that no longer exist in the phenomenal world.”

    Yes, I would agree that many mainstream conservatives have a model of the world that was true at one time, but is no longer accurate.

    I believe that the main hope of many of them is that at some point, people will say that things have gone too far and there will be a reaction. And so the mainstream conservatives’ goal is to write or say things that will persuade a critical mass of people to go against the agenda. But conservative have been hoping for a critical mass to refuse to comply for a long time and it hasn’t happened, so the question then is, why not?

    As far as I can see, there are two (non-exclusive) ways that this can happen. Either there can be some cohesion among a critical mass of people so that when they refuse to comply, they refuse as a group, not as individuals who can easily be intimidated into submission. This cohesion can take various forms, such as a leader, a common culture, a common religion, etc. Or, individuals can have sufficient courage and motivation that they even if there is no cohesion among them, they simultaneously refuse to comply. Of course, it’s even better if you have both.

    And it’s clear that there is both far less cohesion and that people are both far less motivated and courageous than they were even one generation, to say nothing of two, three or four generations ago. And so that’s why this hasn’t happened. But, if people were still the way they were when many of these thinkers were growing up, things would never have gotten to this point. And that’s the mindset the mainstream conservatives are stuck in, they think people are still as they were when these thinkers were growing up.

    (I have benefitted from Bruce Charlton’s posts on motivation, which help elucidate this topic (https://charltonteaching.blogspot.com/search?q=motivation)).

    And both for clarity (and for other obvious reasons), I should mention that when I say refuse to comply, I mean exactly that. Nothing dramatic, just continue to live their lives and not help out the agenda, even when it’s difficult.

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