Disobedience to Authority

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Humans are structured into social systems, which are hierarchical in nature. These organizations' hierarchies mean that there would be administrators (seniors) and subjects (juniors). “It is assumed that the ‘leader will make decisions and the subject will enforce, obey, or conform to them” of those structures (Fattori et al. 197). Parents, students, religious and political officials, among others, will serve as authority figures. In a normative hierarchical structure, the authoritative figure issues a command or order, and the subordinate is expected to act immediately. However, instances of noncompliance have occurred on several occasions. These non-adherences negate the obedience expected from a subordinate to their leader. According to Saks (222), an undertone of moral judgment accompanies compliance or non-compliance with the rule of law or authority. Invoking moral constructs to adherence denotes the attachment of a greater good to a greater majority when making decisions. As a result, people are likely to disobey orders, directives or instructions, as long as they violate the existing moral constructs that confer greater good to a greater majority of people.

Both authority figures and subordinates are products of cultural constructs. Their affiliation with a given social organization means that they are bound by the organizational culture, which is “a system of beliefs, values, norms and representations” (Fattori et al. 199). These sets of values are collectively arrived at after deliberations on the greater good for all those involved. The cultural constructs imply that “people must surrender some personal freedom and take on some responsibilities to successfully participate in culture.” This compromise means that institutional members can subject themselves to the organization for the greater good of all the members accounted for in the organization. As a result, the values, beliefs, and norms that accompany such entities constitute their moral values, which become the fabric that guides their courses of action. Although such adherences may be considered normative, they reflect aspects of morality when the outcome portends greater good for all the organizational members. However, considering that both the leaders and the subordinates are party to the organization’s cultural system, if the leader violates these cultural constructs, then the juniors can invoke some values to disobey the leadership directive. Noncompliance to such directives that compromise the subordinates’ moral authority calls for insubordination from juniors.

People disobey authority when they feel that the authority figure has little regard for their moral values. These values have been known to be powerful motivators to decision making and behavior or the complete lack of that decision. Considering that families, communities, and even professional organizations attempt to instill some form of moral values, ethics, and beliefs, these values finally become part of that individual's life. For instance, a doctor may instruct a nurse administer medication to a patient despite the nurse knowing that medication is harmful to that particular patient. In this example, the nurse knows that it is unethical to administer the medication to the patient because the outcome of their actions may harm the patient more than it pleases the doctor or nurse. According to Lefkowitz (205), “If the act in question ‘directly harms innocent third parties’- no moral significance attaches to the mere fact that involves disobedience to the law.” Following this construct, it is morally permissible for the nurse to refuse adherence from the doctor’s directive because its implementation results in an outcome that morally harms the innocent patient. As a result, the physician's instruction can be seen as going against the nurse's ethical training, and thereby violate her moral values of "no harm to the patient." Although her action may be seen as outright insubordination to authority, Tsai (264) considers it as “constructive noncompliance… [because it helps]…authorities realize their good intentions.”

Besides, when individuals are presented with a dilemma between obeying two authorities (or rules), they are likely to forego one over the other. In many cases, the dilemma involves a conflict between the decision-maker and adherence to one of the rules. According to Saks (222) decision dilemmas often involve legitimate authority and moral authority. Either of the actions taken constitutes a form of disobedience. Because of the tendency to believe in a higher power, most of the juniors relinquish authority to pursue that higher power. Saks (222) idealizes morality when he inquires, “What determines what is good and what is evil?” Apparently, this probing underlines the essence of morality, and in moments of dilemma, different individuals will invoke their moral constructs when making decisions to comply or otherwise with the situation at hand. Modigliani and Rochat (108) observe that “obedience (or the lack thereof) is a product of the person and the situation, and their interaction.” Given that morality is intrinsic while the legitimate authority is extrinsic, the subordinate’s positioning vis-à-vis the situation at hand, and about the authority figure, are strong predictors for noncompliance with authority in case of a dilemma. Albeit the view that absconding authority for the individual’s moral principle may be considered selfishness or treason, it exemplifies a higher principle that needs obedience.

Those in opposition to political authority cite moral constructs as the chief influence to noncompliance. Social agents belonging to a sociopolitical class such as a race or ethnic groups, or nation-states, have historically engaged in acts of civil disobedience for many reasons. When engaging in non-compliance behavior, these individuals often represent the values, interests, and beliefs of the persons they purport to epitomize. Those acts may be oppression, structural, and institutional racism and police brutality among others. For instance, Martin Luther King Junior led several civilian protests over the discrimination of African Americans by the existing legitimate American authority during that time. This way, Martin leveraged on his moral constructs to identify policies that were inappropriate and ill-suited to local conditions (for African Americans). He was doing this not for African Americans alone but the entire America. According to Lefkowitz (203), “Agents act rightfully when they disobey the law, or at least they do not act wrongly merely by virtue of having disobeyed it." Although others may view this disobedience as a violation of the collective values of the majority through a shared design of those rules, civil disobedience is a form of constructive non-compliance.

Personally, before making decisions, I consider the impact of my actions on the available moral constructs. I am aware of my friend’s input towards committing unethical and morally-deficient acts. However, my futuristic focus on the actions means that my non-adherence to the authority of my friends or any other group that may adversely affect the good of the community underlines the essence of morality undertones on disobedience of authority. These non-adherences to authority occur even in the event of social norms. Lefkowitz (207) contends that “a moral agent’s natural duties [is] …treating others in various ways that they could reasonably reject correlates with the rights of those of others not to be treated in this way.” Albeit these moral observances, I may lose friends or significant others, but I believe that the focus on morality will be greater for all.


The organization of human beings into social systems creates hierarchies that establish power relations among members of the group. Within the hierarchies, directives, orders, or instructions originate from the seniors to the subordinates, who alter their receptive behavior by compliance or non-compliance to information flow from the senior. Although compliance is almost a sure outcome of those instructions, orders or directives, the likelihood of disobedience resides within undertones of moral judgment. As a result, individuals are likely to disobey authority figures because of the essence of morality attached to some those directives.

Works Cited

Fattori, Francesco, Simone Curly, Amrei C. Jochel, Maura Pozzi, Dominic Mihalits, & Sara Alfieri. “Authority relationship from societal perspective: Social representations of obedience and disobedience in Austrian youth.” Europe's Journal of Psychology, 11.2 (2015): 197-213.

Lefkowitz, David. “On a moral right to civil disobedience.” Ethics, 117.2 (2007): 202-233.

Modigliani, Andre & Francois Rochat. “The role of interaction sequences in the timing of resistance in shaping obedience and defiance to authority.” Journal of Social Issues, 51.3 (1995): 107-123.

Tsai, Lily L. “Constructive noncompliance.” Comparative Politics, 47.3 (2015): 253-297.

Saks, Michael J. “Obedience versus disobedience to legitimate versus illegitimate authorities issuing good versus bad directives.” Psychological Science, 3.4 (1992): 221-223.

December 21, 2022

Philosophy Sociology



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