On Obedience

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A reflection on Plato’s Crito

In every instance of human society, absolute human freedom is fettered by the bonds of culture, religion and law. Regardless of your social circumstances, your background, your personal power or ability, the spectrum of ‘acceptable’ choices available to you in everyday life is constrained by the customary law in which you are raised, the accepted moral code of your society and the ambitions and emotions of your fellow travelers. Even in supposedly egalitarian settings, the pressure to conform to normative practice is heavy, amplified by the privileging of equality over individuality.

Do not mistake my above statement for glamourizing absolute freedom, rather as a means of laying out the realities of culture and the human condition. Absolute freedom is the freedom to kill, maim, rape and pillage, in all senses a ‘negative freedom.’ Even in predatory societies – criminal syndicates, slaver states or piratical bands – normative values shape and dictate the ‘conformist’ choices available to those who participate in practices considered abhorrent in a broader cultural context. With this in mind I will examine the question of what it means to obey the societal taboos that govern everyday life, and more importantly, what is the significance of breaking these normative codes?

It will be instructive at first to examine obedience in isolation as a concept, and then to examine the significance of being obedient or disobedient. To begin with, obedience is not subservience – a state of being where the individual is crushed under the oppressive weight of society. Subservience is when the circumstances of an individual’s birth – gender, ethnicity, sex, ability – or the identity of their family – religion, wealth or heritage – become fundamental bars that creates an underclass, alienated from the levers of power and the ability to shape normative practice. If society is dictated to you by an elite you do not have the ability to obey, only to serve.

Obedience is also not the act of conforming your acts to the normative values of a society so as to advance one’s own position or benefit one’s own person. This act is more properly termed compliance, when the individual apes the values of a society but doesn’t accept them within their own moral framework. So, if neither of these definitions capture the meaning of obedience then it begs the question – what sets obedience apart?

I would posit that obedience is the act of internalizing the values of a society and then living your life in line within its normative code. How does this differ from accepting your position of subservience in a society? By the presence or absence of the ability to shape that society from within. If you accept a society with all the warts, scars and ugly sores that any flawed human endeavor comes with, internalize that society as your own and then have the ability to contribute and improve that society from within – you are being obedient. It is a statement by the individual that, even if the society in which I live is flawed, the framework by which it is governed is sound. As such, a ‘loyal opposition’ is obedient to society, even as they critique those who rule.

Therefore, by definition, disobedience occurs when a person rejects the framework of power and culture within a society. Disobedience is definitely not the identification of another section of society and subsequently ‘othering’ them as no-longer full and valid members – this is oppression and something beyond the scope of this essay. On reflection of this initial definition of disobedience, a finer distinction can be drawn between differing types. The key factor in this delineation is ‘faithfulness’ to the society, in your act of disobedience do you reject the society wholesale, or do you merely reject the architecture of power, which if modified could accommodate your own desires.

Accordingly, if you reject a society as completely irredeemable and seek to destroy it and rebuild from the ground up, you are being unfaithfully disobedient – or to use a handier term, rebellious. In a situation where a society inflicts subservience upon its members there are only three states which the component individuals can exist: subservience, faithful disobedience or rebellion. However, in a society which can be shaped and improved from within there is the ability to remain obedient, whilst still acknowledging the flaws and attempting to better the society through the channels of power.

Consequently, if you are obedient to your society you accept that the society is valid, despite its faults. If you are faithfully disobedient, you attack the structures of power within your own society whilst remaining faithful to the overarching values within that society. If you are in rebellion, you reject the society – but most importantly you reject the people of that society. We must remember that rebellion is an act of intellectual conquest, where one seeks to force one’s own worldview and values on your former compatriots – and the implicit threat that comes with conquest is subjugation – the inflicting of which will force the vanquished in turn either to become subservient or themselves disobey.

Original text

Plato’s Crito


Isaac Lazarus Israëls, Transport of colonial soldiers, 1883 – 1884


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