The Virtue(?) of Obedience

Some Notes for Military Professionals

Captain Christopher P. Yalanis


This presentation is part of a larger ongoing effort on the subject of Obedience.  I’ve developed an intuition as a result of some concrete occurrences.  This inkling has led me to investigate this issue further only to find that I was something like the witness in a trial who swears he’s familiar with the subject, but when questioned, can’t give anything more than vague characteristics to describe it.  The military’s use of Obedience seems to fit this description.  We speak of its proper use constantly.  But do we know what we’re talking about when we do?

Returning to our discussion, imagine that after agreeing that Obedience is necessary in the military, we’re now discussing its moral nature.  We’ve now turned our attention toward the difference between legal and illegal obedience based upon legal and illegal orders, and moral and immoral obedience, the foundation of which is to be discussed.  Searching to demarcate this very fine line between moral and immoral actions, against the backdrop of the question of legality, I continue.

Our nation’s military history is rich with both good and bad examples of obedient behavior.  The civilian massacre at My Lai is at one extreme.  As the degree of moral wrongness lessens, the actions of Oliver North take their place on the list as well as less infamous examples in which military superiors gave illegal orders that ought not have been followed.  Once we cross the line between illegal and legal orders, there are still many cases of legal orders that are nonetheless immoral, such as the case in which an officer when choosing to promote someone, intentionally discriminates against the most qualified subordinate who has different religious views.

There is an interesting relationship between the type of immoral action and the frequency of occurrence.  As the degree of moral wrongness decreases and approaches the category of moral actions, the number of grievances increases in a reciprocal fashion.  At its numerical apex, the events occur daily.  These include but are not limited to the mistreatment of subordinates and the immoral ordering of actions to be accomplished that are less-than-optimal in light of the mission.  The infrequent but heinous events make the cover of newspapers and are the subjects of films.  They are easy to identify.  But the obviousness of the wrongdoing makes these acts less desirable to focus on except to make the very general point of ‘how we shouldn’t act’ in particular situations.  Fellow officers don’t see the examples as much of a problem – it takes a certain kind of moral ignorance to do such things.  I think we should focus on the less brazen daily occurrences.  The effects of these less notable problems are insidious due to the pervasive and extensive damage they cause to the foundation of the military system.  They affect it like the slow seepage of water erodes a building’s foundation by invisibly eating away at its core.

An individual’s voluntary acceptance of the authority granted to him in his role as a military officer imposes a special moral responsibility upon him as an order giver.  And, insofar as Obedience is morally justified by the proper use of Authority, he is responsible for studying, understanding and justifying the nature of his authority at all times.  (And perhaps to come to JSCOPE too…)

Upon completion of military training, officer candidates take an oath to the US Constitution and to their God[1].  The moral and legal use of authority over these subordinate officers originates in the military system’s role of serving the nation.  As long as the orders given by superiors properly support mission accomplishment, the use of authority as well as obedience is moral.  But without moral authority, obedience to orders is not moral.  And this comes into conflict with many of our practices today.  It is both an individual problem and a problem of the nature of the system as a whole.  By legally requiring that subordinates not follow illegal orders, the military places the individual in an uncomfortable position.  He is caught between having responsibility for determining the right thing to do, and obediently following orders.  The very nature of the dilemma should cause the professional officer to examine the virtuous use of Obedience.  So let’s look at a brief definition.

What is Obedience?  What do we mean when we use the term?  Here’s an example to get us started.  A superior officer, that is, one of higher rank and within the chain of command, gives an order to a subordinate.  Upon thinking about the nature of the order[2], that is, it’s justification and context, the soldier determines that in fact, the order ought to be followed because it is legal, and it is the right thing to do[3].  Thus, he carries it out.  But to follow an order, that is, to perform an order, because the soldier has determined that it is the right thing to do is very much, and importantly, different than the soldier in a second example who follows an order that he has not autonomously determined to be the morally correct one.  The difference here is essential.

            By thinking through the order, and determining that it is moral, the soldier in the first example assumes a particular type of responsibility for making the right decision.  The fact that the desired action is the right thing to do is justification itself to perform the act without its having been ordered at all.  It’s hardly an example of obedience in spite of the fact it was ordered.

Let’s compare this to the second example.  A soldier is given an order.  He is not able to determine whether or not it ought to be followed apart from the mere fact that he was ordered to accomplish it.  This inability could be due to the fog and friction of war, a lack of available information due to secrecy, or for a host of other justifiable reasons[4].  For this person, the concept of Obedience comes into play in a much different sense.  The very difference between this example, and the first where the soldier rationalized the right thing to do, is that in the present example of the unenlightened soldier, the move from his position of ignorance, to the decision that ‘following the order is the right thing to do’ is helped along not by a higher and more desirable type of rational justification, the kind of intellectual capacity or skill we value, but by Obedience – justifiably chosen perhaps, but still short of philosophic contemplation.  The relationship between a soldier’s ignorance on one hand, and the desirable goal of moral certainty on the other, can be characterized in the following way. 

Obedience is a moral bridge.  It allows an individual to move from a position of ignorance to one of moral certainty - to bridge the moral gap when making decisions.[5]  It allows the subordinate to remain ignorant of the objectively correct decision and to transfer varying degrees of his responsibility for making an autonomous moral decision to his superior.  One problem is that the potential exists for misuse.

It’s possible within the military system that a soldier can properly be obedient, yet still perform an action that is immoral.  This is because our system values the structured, disciplined, organizational approach very highly, often at the expense of the subordinate’s autonomy.  Ironically though, as mentioned earlier, the transfer of responsibility from the subordinate to the superior is not unconditional.  Although we trust our military leaders, each subordinate is still responsible for not following illegal orders.  Thus, in the second case, when obedience helps the soldier to reach the far end of the bridge, a type of moral certainty is achieved, but it is of a different type than that which the enlightened soldier reaches in the first case.  The main differences are the facts that only the first soldier is certain that he has not done something wrong in the objective sense, beyond his own experience, and that only the first soldier is certain that what he has done is not only not wrong, but is right. 

Obedience is a moral bridge that is needed for the military to flourish.  But it is only moral when its framework is made of moral authority.  The individual uses the military system as a means to the end of supporting and defending the Constitution of the United States.  The continuing success of our military in an evolving environment depends upon the proper use of both concepts.

            The military’s current views on Obedience are easily determined by examining both enlisted and officer training regimen.  Clearly, the habituation of Obedience is seen as virtuous.  Aristotle would certainly agree.  While systematically breaking down the concept of individuality and re-building the trait of teamwork, we also inculcate the trait of Obedience via various means.  We create situations designed to simulate the Clausewitzian fog and friction of war.  We force trainees to follow questionable, silly and even stupid orders in order to make a point of fact – that the nature of war doesn’t allow for Socratic exploration at every turn.  We thereby rhetorically explain our actions in a quick, fell swoop that often never gets justified except by the revered and often reiterated, yet mystical, claim that Obedience is justified because it is necessary in the military environment.  We, as intelligent humans, are left in doubt, without time to ponder over the issue….

            Believing this is the case leads to significant problems in the military.  The constant repression of subordinate autonomy by either individual superiors, or the nature of the system itself, makes its presence known in many ways: officer and enlisted candidates leave the military before signing on[6], disgruntled active duty members fail to renew their oaths, and on a more common basis, military members complain about the misuse of authority and thereby question the authority of orders, sometimes to superiors directly and other times to compatriots.  The effects of individual and group misuse are transferred via subordinate cynicism and skepticism to other impressionable subordinates thereby infecting the military system in alarming ways which are often difficult to trace to these concrete events.  Our eyes are naturally adapted to see large movements before noticing smaller ones.  We must train our intellect to focus on the smaller, yet insidious, misuses of Obedience.

            The cause of this tension is worth highlighting.  Whether to follow clearly illegal or obviously legal orders is not problematic.  But what about following orders that aren’t so clearly moral?  For Obedience to work properly, superiors and the military system as a whole must be trusted to at least, not be immoral.  Both succeed the more they are trusted.  The problem is that the daily misuse of authority to obedience eats away at our faith in the system.  Over time it slowly causes us to question obedience and to become more concerned with autonomously certifying the morality of orders – even simple ones.  First, we question whether something terribly wrong is being done.  After the continual grating of tension, we’re questioning common daily orders having to do with completing ordinary tasks.  It takes a great deal of trust to shift one’s responsibility to a system, and further, to individuals within that system.  Using fear to motivate soldiers to overcome this tension is not optimal, nor is it necessary.

            It is clear that the military as a whole doesn’t operate without some moral tension between superiors and subordinates.  Historically, this difficulty has been dealt with by claiming that the value of following orders, even immoral but legal ones, far outweighs the effects of questioning all these cases.  Based upon a weighing mechanism of sorts, we continue to support the system in spite of problems.  Even to our own detriment.  The vicious circle continues until the situation is sufficiently harmed such that peoples’ consciences can no longer bear the weight of responsibility.  Unfortunately, we are training our members to bear incredible burdens before acting.

            But this needn’t be the case.  The tensions here described don’t have to be and shouldn’t be tolerated.  Thus, it is based upon the preceding analysis that I offer the following claims for consideration:  First, on an individual level, that habitualization of obedience in officers isn’t as functionally necessary as we assume it is.  Second, on a systematic, level, that the nature of the military system often cannot support moral authority – especially at training institutions.   I believe that these two problems account for much of the negative effects mentioned earlier.  And third, that we should increasingly value individual autonomy and responsible decision making when re-working these types of problems. 

            First, unless we want to continue to degrade the effectiveness of the military system, we must recognize the special responsibility order givers have in carrying out their missions.  Obedience is not always required through intense habitualization.  It is far overrated in this way.  The historical view of demanding obedience without justification, instead of requiring responsible autonomous decision making, isn’t always functionally required.  Where it is required, where it is necessary, obedience is justifiably demanded and we ought to explain this to subordinates.  But the standard line defending its use based upon the horrors of war, and the fog and friction which causes men to run screaming without disciplined obedience is far too hyperbolized. 

            A couple of years ago, my wife, a cardiac care nurse, and I were first on scene at a terrible car versus dump truck accident.  My wife didn’t need someone to give her an order to make her duty clear to her.  She ran to the scene without hesitation.  Stress levels were high and people were screaming.  There was blood on a motionless body in the car and an omnipresent sense of death in the air.  Time was of the essence.   My wife quickly assessed the situation and announced that she was a medical professional.  Under her guidance we began the actions necessary for attempting to save the life of the woman in the driver’s seat of the car.  While stepping over broken glass, pushing metal aside and getting in position to attempt resuscitation, she ordered bewildered bystanders to call 911, get supplies, and manage traffic.  With a brief, yet simple, explanation of her status, her authority was clear and people moved.  These folks weren’t medical professionals.  Nor had they been trained to have an internalized sense of obedience.  They weren’t threatened into action by the thought of an article 15.  What they did have was the sense and the special ability to recognize that being obedient was the right thing to do in that situation.  “You – go do this now.”  People do it!  Let’s not underestimate their ability. 

            Military officers have that same understanding of what the right thing to do it, and the same desire to fulfill their duty.  They also have the ability to know when not to question orders and when to follow them.  We shouldn’t train our officers to believe that the tension described earlier is necessary.  Additionally, reinforcing an atmosphere of mistrust creates additional unnecessary roadblocks.

The United States military is not an immoral organization designed to carry out the force of National policy without regard for loss of life and limb.  Nor is it a tool for exercising the Realist claim that might makes right.  Insofar as we respect the principles of Just War as a nation, we ought to concentrate on demanding responsibility for decision-making by expanding subordinate autonomy.  If an individual lacks the ability to make moral decisions, then his autonomy shouldn’t be respected because he is no longer responsible.  But unless the individual demonstrates this inability, or other factors restrict his education, then autonomy ought to be of primary consideration.  The nature of military decisions should not cause us moral guilt or shame.  We are not attempting to hide what we do behind demands for blind obedience.  In fact, on a daily basis we engage in discussion designed to seek out the truth of the Just War Tradition.  Both as an organization, and as individual superiors, we should not hide behind the mask of Obedience in order to justify our orders when the final cost, the effects, are so damaging to the system. 

We’ve just focused on the individual level of moral authority.  Let’s now focus on the system as a whole.  Sometimes the nature of the military structure cannot support the obedience demanded of subordinates under its ceiling.

It is based upon these facts that I offer another claim: the current superior/ subordinate relationship between the 4 classes of cadets at our training institutions ought to be looked at more closely in order to determine what types of relationships are justified by moral authority.  We ought to search for relationships where Obedience is being misused in place of granting autonomy.  First, at a system level, there is not enough distance in time or experience between the cadets in the nature of the training environment to justify a meaningful relationship of authority that outweighs the harms caused.  Authority, even in the structural sense, depends upon a complex context.  It is not enough that a 20 year old is pronounced to authoritatively rule 19 year olds.  To rely upon this human construct is to endanger the very nature of the military organizational structure.  A context of trust and experience, as well as other factors which help the subordinate justify the crossing of the bridge, are necessary in order to morally transfer responsibility to a superior.  We do often claim that rank and position are enough to justify obedience.  Indeed, without such a relationship, short term 90 day TDYs in remote locations could never operate effectively as individual relationships of trust are never fully developed.  But even in these situations, subordinates trust in the system and the necessity of the circumstances.  Such necessity doesn’t appear to exist in the officer training environment.  Officer candidates see this and it creates a less-than-serious respect for the nature of our profession.

The second reason that we should examine our training methodology is based upon the lack of necessity in another sense.  These are training institutions.  We need to focus on the difference between the concepts of training and testing.  We ought to focus on training people how to become good leaders.  This is especially true when it comes to teaching folks the difference between when to follow and when not to follow orders.  We put the cart before the horse if we test cadets’ ability to lead without first teaching them how to do it.  Further, we should not merely teach these young officer candidates how to demand and deal with blind obedience.  We should also focus on teaching them when to be obedient.

Tied to this claim, using an immoral type of Obedience too early in one’s career can spoil its effective use when it is truly needed in the future.  It is partly due to the mis-use of authority that several cadets, over the past year, have filed paperwork with me, as their Academic Advisor, to leave the Air Force Academy.  We must value autonomy as far as possible.  Not only because of the effects, that we are losing many officer candidates, but because autonomy carries so much weight and ought to be respected as part of a successful, comprehensive, military system.  Our default position should be to respect autonomy and to justify taking it away, rather than granting autonomy only where we feel that we need to.  In the case of military training at least, the nature of the system does not appear to functionally support the moral use of Authority and Obedience.



            This is not an argument designed to justify disobedience.  Rather it is a suggestion that we reduce the unnecessary and damaging tension between the immorally authoritative demands for obedience and individual autonomy.  Insofar as it’s the function of the law to control actions that ought not be committed, it is the responsibility of thoughtful moral professionals to accept responsibility and to advance the moral use of Obedience.

It’s easy to accept the moral responsibility of NOT committing a terrible immoral action like Lt. Calley at My Lai.  What’s more difficult, is to accept the responsibility of making small changes that are hard to measure and to the see the results of.  Human flourishing depends upon thinking about ourselves as part of a whole.  If our actions follow our discussions regarding higher moral grounds, then we need to make changes both to the military system and to ourselves.  Further we need to accept individual responsibility for system level effects caused in part by our individual actions.



[1] See the Oath of Office for military officers.  I take ‘God’ to represent the individual’s highest moral calling.

[2] This paper will not focus on how the decision was made by the superior.  That is, it’s quite possible that the superior in this case merely stumbled upon the right thing to do.  Although this is an important feature of leadership and decision making, it doesn’t have a direct bearing on the issues discussed here.  Though certainly, there is tension between the fact that we teach ethical decision-making to cadets as part of their core curriculum and at the same time, ask them to transfer responsibility for decision making by merely being obedient.  This paper will not focus directly on how to make a moral decision or which theory we ought to use when doing so.  Rather, it will focus directly on the concept of Obedience itself, within varying understandings of moral decision making.

[3] I will not discuss the conditions for following an order here in this section.  I will make remarks regarding the topic later since knowing when to follow orders is obviously an important part of Obedience.  For instance, does it make sense to say that we should value the authority present within the structure over what may be the right or optimal action?  A rule-utilitarian may answer ‘yes’.  I think it’s correct to at least believe that the orders isn’t an absolute.

[4] Here I mean to suggest that fog and friction as well as the necessity to compartmentalize certain information are justifiable in a way that, for instance, not disclosing information for non-moral reasons isn’t.  Actions taken to limit autonomy need to be justified.   The default position is that information be public – not the other way around.

[5]  Of course it is impossible for us to be morally certain of the right thing to do in every case.  Here, authority gets it’s strength from the very nature of everyday life and the limited abilities of humans. 

[6] We often write this off by explaining that ‘those people weren’t military material in the first place’.  But this is a poor explanation and the problem is much too serious to write off in this way.