Friday 22 March 2024


Stop! Before you read any further, I invite you to notice your immediate response to the topic of this post: Obedience.

If you are like me, and many others I know, your instinctive response may be somewhat critical, and you may have immediately started to think of the many reasons why blind obedience is a bad idea.

And of course you are right.  But the title isn't blind obedience; it is obedience.  And I suspect many of us have been educated and culturally conditioned to conflate the two.

Allegory of Obedience, Giotto
Our educationalists and our culture place such a high premium on being an individual, true to yourself and so forth, that the idea of obedience as a Good seems somewhat alien.

Yet clearly it is, and I think we do ourselves and others a disservice by not recognising that fact and interrogating it with a little more rigour.

And if you think I am making a bold, or even rash, claim with 'clearly it is,' I invite you to consider a few practical examples.

In this country, we drive on the left. It is really, really good if people obey that convention. It has terrible consequences if people neglect to do so, even inadvertently.

The lifeguards on one of my favourite beaches in Cornwall tell you not to swim outside the flags, as there are riptides. Again, it is good if people obey that instruction.

But I want to make a more profound point, beyond drawing your attention to our cultural dislike of the notion of obedience (and its practical importance). And that is, I think we all obey, all of the time. The question is what, or whom, do we obey.

The word obey comes, originally, from the Latin: ob + audire; literally to listen to. So whom do you listen to? When you are considering whether to have one more drink, for example, do you listen to the part of you that counsels you to do so, or the other part that suggests that you have had enough already?

If you place all your obedience at the service of your own autonomy, how do you differ from a narcissist?

And as we are social beings, we need rules of some sort at least to coordinate potentially conflicting behaviours (such as which side of the road to drive on).

So the issue, as I see it, is deciding how to use our obedience: what rules, authorities, sources, people or institutions are worthy of obedience?

I think this is an important question for our times, not least as children and young adults in particular need boundaries, to keep them from harming themselves and others. And I fear we have created a culture in which any idea of obedience is so abhorrent to some that they are unable to follow evidence-based health advice, for example, and that the simple sharing of information about healthy life styles is seen as an oppressive practice.


As so often, this post is my thinking-out-loud rather than my final view; so I'll be interested in others' perspectives, particularly if I've got this wrong...

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