Blind obedience, thoughtful obedience, ‘cooperation’

From the archives: Posted on 5th September, 1995

Blind obedience is not good. Almost everyone agrees with that. The idea evokes unsavoury things like: “I was only obeying orders…”

But some parents argue that there is another form of obedience that is of a different character, perhaps called “thoughtful obedience” [in 2022 almost no one talks about “obedience” in the context of children – it would now be called “cooperation”].

The question is, what is this thoughtful obedience? If the child is persuaded, one cannot call it obedience; if the child is not persuaded, then in what sense is it different from blind obedience? The soldier might not have been persuaded that killing innocent civilians was the right thing to do, but if he did it anyway, what does this being not persuaded mean? I don’t want obedience at all. I want children (and adults!) to act in ways they themselves consider right and reasonable. I want each person to take responsibility for his own actions. Obedience is not consistent with that. Obeying is by its very nature violating one’s own standards to do what someone else deems right.

It is often argued that people obey civil laws because they don’t want to get arrested, and that that is an example of thoughtful obedience. The idea is that people think about the consequences and decide to obey the law for that reason.

I disagree. Individuals choose not to act unlawfully because acting unlawfully would violate some of their own values. They are persuaded through reason that they should act lawfully. It is not merely that they don’t want to get arrested! There are many opportunities to commit crimes without fear of arrest, but most of us don’t. That is because committing the crime would violate our wider values. Where acting lawfully violates individuals’ deeply-held values, they do act unlawfully.

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 1995, ‘Blind obedience, thoughtful obedience, “cooperation”’, https://www.takingchildrenseriously.com/blind-obedience-thoughtful-obedience-cooperation/