Why do people obey?

From a psychological point of view the crux of the problem of determining the rulers’ power rests in understanding the origin, constitution, and maintenance of obedience.

A. There are multiple reasons to obey

Actually there is no single self-sufficient explanation for why people obey rulers. The reasons are multiple, complex, and interrelated. These reasons include:

    • Habit
    • Fear of sanctions
    • Moral obligation
    • Self-interest
    • Psychological identification with the rulers
    • Indifference
    • Absence of self-confidence among subjects

B. The obedience of the rulers’ functionaries and agents

All rulers use the obedience and cooperation they receive from part of the society to rule the whole. The motives of this sector of the population are similar to those we just cited with an emphasis on moral obligation and personal interest.

C. Obedience is not inevitable

Obedience always varies in degree with the individual concerned and with the social and political situation. Most people obey from habit. However, at any particular point in a given society there are limits within which rulers must stay if their commands are to be obeyed. Under certain circumstances subjects may be willing to put up with inconvenience, suffering, and disruption of their lives rather than continue to submit passively or to obey rulers whose policies they can no longer tolerate.

Having long been accustomed to receiving widespread obedience, rulers do not always anticipate generalized disobedience.

The role of consent

Each reason for obedience, including sanctions, must operate through the will or volition of the individual subject to produce obedience. If the subject is to obey, the current reasons for obeying must be seen as sufficient grounds to obey. However, the will or volition of the subject may change with new influences, events, and forces. In varying degrees, the individual’s own will may play an active role in the situation.

The political obedience on which the power of rulers ultimately depends is a result of a combination of fear of sanctions (or intimidated consent) and free consent (offered on perceived merits). Both operate through the will of the subject.

A. Obedience is essentially voluntary

Obedience is not automatic, nor uniform, nor universal, nor constant. Despite the strong pressures for submission and obedience, sanctions do not always produce obedience.

The personal choice between obeying and disobeying will be influenced by an evaluation of the consequences of obeying and disobeying. If the subject perceives the consequences of obedience to be worse than the consequences of disobedience, then disobedience is more likely.

Obedience only exists when one has complied with the command. If I walk to jail, I have obeyed. If I am dragged there, I have not obeyed.

Physical compulsion affecting only the body therefore may yield some results but it does not necessarily produce obedience. Only certain types of objectives can be achieved by direct physical compulsion of disobedient subjects— such as moving them physically, preventing them from moving physically, or seizing their money or property. But this does not necessarily result in obedience. The overwhelming percentage of the commands and objectives of rulers can only be achieved by inducing the subject to be willing for some reason to carry them out. (The ditch remains undug even if the men who refused to dig it have been shot.) It is not the sanctions themselves which produce obedience, but the fear of them.

However, most people in most situations are quite unwilling to suffer the penalties for disobedience, except for very special cases in which feelings are very intense. In such cases, disobedience sometimes occurs despite sanctions.In summary, the power of rulers is dependent upon the availability of its several sources.

This availability is determined by the degree of obedience and cooperation given by the subjects. Despite inducements, pressures, and even sanctions, such obedience and cooperation are, however, not inevitable. Obedience remains essentially voluntary. Therefore, all government is based upon consent.

This does not mean that the subjects of all rulers prefer the established order. They may consent because they positively approve of it. But they may also consent because they are unwilling to pay the price for the refusal of consent. Refusal requires self-confidence, motivation to resist, and may involve considerable inconvenience and suffering.

The degree of liberty or tyranny in any government is, to a large degree, a reflection of the relative determination of the subjects to be free and their willingness and ability to resist efforts to enslave them.

Three of the most important factors in determining to what degree the rulers’ power will be controlled or uncontrolled therefore, are:

  • The relative desire of the populace to control their power.
  • The relative strength of the subjects’ independent organizations and institutions.
  • The subjects’ relative ability to withhold their consent and assistance. Freedom is not something which rulers “give” their subjects. It is something achieved in the interaction between society and government.

B. Consent can be withdrawn

The reasons for obedience are always variable. The degree of the rulers’ authority will vary. Other reasons for obedience may also increase or decrease. Obedience, therefore, varies, leading the rulers to seek to counteract that loss, as by harsher sanctions or increased rewards. The change in the subjects’ wills may lead to their withdrawing from the rulers their service, cooperation, submission, and obedience.

Gandhi emphasized the importance of a change of will or change of attitude as a prerequisite for a change in patterns of obedience and cooperation. There was, he argued, a need for:

  • A psychological change away from passive submission to self-respect and courage.
  • Recognition by the subjects that the subjects’ assistance makes the regime possible.
  • The building of a determination to withdraw cooperation and obedience.
  • This withdrawal of cooperation and obedience may also occur among both the rulers’ agents of repression and their administrators. Their attitudes are especially important. Without their support, the oppressive system disintegrates.

Gandhi was convinced that these changes could be consciously influenced. The answer to the problem of uncontrolled political power may therefore lie in learning how to carry out and maintain withdrawal of cooperation and obedience despite repression.

The structural basis of resistance

Withdrawal of consent becomes politically significant, and the rulers’ will is thwarted, in proportion to the number of disobedient subjects and the degree of the rulers’ dependence upon them.

The key question then becomes how to implement this insight into political power. Clearly people must refuse cooperation and obedience. Very importantly, in order to have maximum impact, this noncooperation and disobedience must take the form of mass action. While individual acts may at times be scarcely noticed, the defiance of organizations and institutions— churches, trade unions, business organizations, the bureaucracy, neighborhoods, villages, cities, regions, and the like—may be pivotal.

The ability of the population to wield effective power and to control that of its rulers will be highly influenced by the condition of these non-State organizations and institutions. It is these “places” where power operates that provide the structural basis for the control of the rulers. Where these independent bodies are strong, the capacity to control the rulers will be strong. When these are weak, so will be the controls over the rulers’ power. It is through these bodies that people can collectively offer noncooperation and disobedience.

Why do people obey? by Manuel Fraga is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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