The Role of Obedience in Society

By Nicholas P. Leveillee
2011, Vol. 3 No. 05 | pg. 1/1

Obedience is a part of the foundation of society. Without obedience, naught would exist but chaos and anarchy. Without stability, productivity and the well-being of the citizens become non-existent. Because of this, one must question how obedient society can be without losing its individuality, for a society with no individuality does not consist of people but of mindless drones, unthinkingly carrying out orders for the hive’s queen. Experiments conducted by Asch, Milgram, and Zimbardo show human individuality is often subverted by the blind obedience humans feel towards those in a position of power. In order for human beings to maintain their individuality and a stable society, a balance between obedience and insubordination must be found.

Obedience is detrimental when it can cause physical or mental anguish. If one is tasked with causing such pain to another person, disobedience in the form of insubordination is the choice that should be taken. If one follows the authority’s task and causes pain to another person, they have lost their individuality and ability to make choices on their own. Once one blindly follows a figure of authority’s directive, that person may conform to the majority if the superior commands many people.

In Asch’s experiment, he determined that while conforming to the majority occurs often with a single subject, if the subject has at least one partner, they would assert their individuality more often. If people could unite and assert their independence together, their results would be much stronger than an individual person attempting the same would. Asch was optimistic that people like their independence more and would rally for that cause. Being completely obedient is equivalent to being controlled by the authoritative figure. To avoid these feelings of helplessness, people will gradually begin to be disobedient in order to maintain a greater grasp on their own thoughts (Asch 351-357).

Milgram reached a startling conclusion that people have the capacity to do evil if instructed. His study, conducted by coercing people to continue to deliver increasingly powerful shocks to human test subjects, is the epitome of dangerous obedience. Had the experiment not been an act, many people would have gone as far as he instructed and severely damaged or killed the subjects. In this instance, Milgram forced the “teachers” to undergo mental anguish by making them think they were causing harm to the “learners.” He deliberately pushed them past the acceptable point of obedience (Milgram 358-370).

Zimbardo’s mock prison shows that the prisoners had periods of obedience and disobedience. The prisoners tried to be obedient out of fear of retaliation by the guards. Even if the prisoners were obedient, the guards would assault them verbally and physically and order them to do degrading work, such as cleaning the toilets with their bare hands. Because the prisoners were treated badly, they tried to reassert their individuality by revolting against the prison guards. When the guards began using their authority to force the prisoners to clean the toilets, they began abusing their power, hoping that the prisoners would be obedient and give the guards a sick satisfaction. The guards attempted to push the prisoners to the point where they would do what they were told without thinking, but the prisoners resisted and tried to overthrow the guard’s authority and confidence (Zimbardo 389-400).

One of the most well-known and well-publicized Nazi generals was Eichmann. During his trial, his defense was that he was merely carrying out orders from those above him. By using this defense, he attempted to remove the blame from himself. He obediently filled out the paperwork that was responsible for the deaths of thousands of Jews simply because his superiors ordered him to. It was Eichmann’s belief that, because he was not directly responsible for delivering the killing blows, he could escape responsibility because his superiors told him to do it. If society follows the same path as Eichmann, people would be nothing more than tools; unthinkingly carrying out our superior’s every desire regardless of the harm it may cause others. Blind obedience that leads to nothing but pain and suffering is destructive and undeserving of followers; people deserve their independence and should open their eyes to what they are asked to do (Milgram 366).

There exists a legal defense for those who try to escape blame by claiming they were only following orders: the Nuremberg Defense. Popularized during the Nazi war trials, it is a frequent defense by corporations and low-level troops. Corporations use the Nuremberg defense when they go to court for reverse discrimination lawsuits, as the government did order them to hire more minorities (Adversity.Net). Even members of the CIA, such as ex-Milan station chief Robert Seldon Lady, claim they were merely ‘following orders’ from superiors (Horton). Beginning in 2004, media attention was drawn to the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Reports stated that soldiers were following the orders of private contractors under command of the United States Department of Defense (Lawful Orders). Allegations of “physical, psychological, and sexual abuse, including torture, rape, sodomy, and homicide” performed by military personnel prompted an investigation into the prison. Many of the soldiers claimed that the abuse was authorized by their superiors, attempting to shift the blame away from themselves (Abu Ghraib torture and prisoner abuse). That these soldiers, who Americans respect, have succumbed to the absolute authority of their superiors to perform inhumane acts on prisoners of war does not provide a suitable role model to Americans.

The human race is defined by their actions towards others. Causing harm to others merely because someone orders them to is not cause to follow through with the directive. If one has the choice to either follow orders or assert their individuality, the decision should be theirs to make.


"Abu Ghraib torture and prisoner abuse." 7 July 2009. Wikipedia. 7 July 2009 .

Adversity.Net. Definition of 'Nuremberg Defense'. 7 July 2009 .

Asch, Solomon E. "Opinions and Social Pressure." Writing and Reading Across the Curriculum. Tenth Edition. Ed. Lawrence Behrens + Leonard J. Rosen. Boston: Pearson/Longman, 2008. 351-357.

Horton, Scott. ""Just Following Orders"." 1 July 2009. Harper's Magazine. 7 July 2009 .

"Lawful Orders." 9 March 2008. Wikipedia. 7 July 2009 .

Milgram, Stanley. "The Perils of Obediance." Writing and Reading Arcoss the Curriculum. Tenth Edition. Ed. Lawrence Behrens + Leonard J. Rosen. Boston: Pearson/Longman, 2008. 358-370.

Zimbardo, Philip G. "The Stanford Prison Experiment." Writing and Reading Across the Curriculum. Tenth Edition. Ed. Lawrence Behrens + Leonard J. Rosen. Boston: Pearson/Longman, 2008. 389-400.

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