Obedience has been considered a virtue for centuries, a desirable value that parents instill in their children. In contrast, disobedience was denigrated to the category of sin or anti-value. This conception is so ingrained in our minds that our default option is usually to obey. However, we cannot really be free and be ourselves without acts of disobedience.
What is disobedience – and what is it not?
The term obedience comes from the Latin oboedientia, which indicates knowing how to listen carefully. When we practice attentive listening we understand and analyze the message, so that we can discern and, above all, decide whether to follow the instruction or not. Therefore, it implies freedom. However, over the centuries the original sense of obedience has mutated, so that today it is understood as fulfilling the will of the one who commands.
Erich Fromm, psychoanalyst and social psychologist, offers a more complex and rich conception of obedience and its antithesis, disobedience. “Disobedience, in the sense in which the term is used, is an act of affirmation of reason and will. It is not so much an attitude against something, but rather an attitude towards something, which implies the human capacity to see, express what we see and reject what we do not see”. Therefore, disobedience would not be an anti-value but, in certain circumstances, an act of coherence, discernment and personal reaffirmation.
Fromm also banishes the erroneous association that has been created between disobedience and violence. “In order to disobey, it is not necessary for a man to be aggressive or rebellious: it is enough that he has his eyes open, that he be awake and want to assume the responsibility of opening the eyes of those who run the risk of dying because they have plunged into a state of drowsiness.” Therefore, disobedience is also a conscious act.
“I do not mean that all disobedience is a virtue and all obedience a vice […] The human being who is only capable of obeying, and not disobeying, is a slave. On the other hand, the person who is only capable of disobeying is a rebel (not a revolutionary) who acts out of anger, disappointment and resentment, not in the name of a conviction or a principle”.
For Fromm, disobedience is not a gratuitous act of simple rebellion, but the fruit of a deep conviction, a rational action that allows us to reaffirm ourselves as people and defend our rights. It is not born out of despair, frustration, or simple rejection, but out of security and personal trust. It is not a position against something – even if it implies it – but a position aimed at defending something.
In his book “On Disobedience and Other Essays” he also outlines the only exception that, in his opinion, can justify obedience. Obedience is valid when it implies accepting the authority of another person or institution in a conscious and thoughtful way because our objectives go in the same direction as those who demand obedience, so that this act is not a blind submission but rather it is convenient for both parties.
Autonomous and heteronomous obedience, the trap of authoritarian conscience
Fromm goes one step further by making an important distinction between types of obedience. He explains that “Obedience to a person, institution or power (heteronomous obedience) amounts to submission; it implies the abdication of one’s own autonomy and the acceptance of a will or an external judgment in substitution of one’s own”. That is the most common obedience in our day. It is obedience that arises from motivated ignorance, slovenliness, and abdication of personal power.
Instead, “Obedience to one’s reason or convictions (autonomous obedience) is an act of affirmation, not submission. If my convictions and my judgment are really mine, they are part of me. Therefore, if I follow them, instead of appropriating of the judgments of others, I am myself”.
However, Fromm also warns us of a social trap into which it is very easy to fall: confusing autonomous obedience with authoritarian consciousness.
Authoritarian conscience is the internalized voice of an authority figure, a voice that we obey because we fear to upset it. Basically, Fromm’s authoritarian consciousness is equivalent to Freud’s concept of superego, which brings together all the prohibitions imposed, first by parents and then by society, which we accept out of fear of punishment and rejection.
Obviously, obeying the authoritarian conscience, that internal dialogue that tells us what “we should do” ignoring what we want or even what would make us feel better, is like obeying an external power, even if that power has been internalized. That authoritarian conscience is actually a heteronomous obedience in disguise that confuses us into believing that we do what we want, when in reality we obey the behavior patterns that have been instilled in us.
Where does come from our tendency to obedience?
When we obey our authoritarian conscience, what we do is give in to the norms, rules and values that we have introjected, without questioning their validity and relevance. In fact, it is a meticulously designed obedience at the social level when, at a certain point in history, it was necessary to develop an inner obedience to replace that imposed by force and fear.
By equating obedience with a positive quality, it is understandable that everyone wanted to obey. With that tool in hand, for much of history a minority has managed to dominate a majority. However, with the authoritarian conscience we not only lose the ability to disobey, but we are not even aware of the fact that we obey.
Of course, that is not the only reason we tend to obey.
Fromm points out that “When we obey higher powers, be it State, Church or public opinion, we feel safer and more protected. We cannot make mistakes and we free ourselves from responsibility”. Obedience frees us from the responsibility of taking charge of our life, it avoids the effort to decide and, above all, the frustration when we make mistakes. For that reason, in many cases it is easier to submit to power than to bet on one’s own freedom.
In fact, obedience responds, ultimately, to fear of freedom and what it entails. “A person can be free through an act of disobedience by learning to say ‘no’ to power.” However, if we feel vertigo in the face of freedom, we cannot disobey because both concepts are inextricably linked.
The humanistic conscience as a way of personal reaffirmation
To the authoritarian conscience Fromm contrasts the humanist conscience. “It is the voice that is present in every human being, regardless of external rewards and punishments. Humanistic consciousness is based on the fact that we have an intuitive cognition of what is human and inhuman, what favors life and what destroys it. This awareness is essential for our functioning as a human being”.
However, “Obedience to the authoritarian conscience tends to weaken the humanistic conscience, the capacity to be and to judge for oneself,” Fromm pointed out. Therefore, we have to learn to connect with ourselves beyond social conventions to ask ourselves what is fair and unfair, what is good for us and what’s not, what we really want and what we hate. Once we find that connection, it only remains for us to be faithful to it, even if that means disobeying certain rules.
“To disobey you have to have the courage to be alone, make mistakes and sin. Although courage is not enough […] Only those who have constituted themselves as a fully developed individual and have acquired the ability to think and feel autonomously, can have the courage to say ‘no’ to power, to disobey,” said Fromm.
Fromm, E. (2001) Sobre la desobediencia y otros ensayos. Barcelona: Paidós Ibérica