“The obedient always think of themselves as virtuous, rather than cowardly.” – Robert Anton Wilson
This quote by Robert Anton Wilson, a renowned author, and philosopher, challenges the common perception of obedience as a virtue. It suggests that those who comply with authority often see themselves as morally upright, even though their actions may stem from fear or a lack of critical thinking. In this blog post, we will delve into the meaning behind this thought-provoking quote, examining the implications of blind obedience, the psychology of obedience, and the dangers of unquestioning compliance in various contexts.
The Origin of the Quote
Robert Anton Wilson, known for his works on conspiracy theories and unconventional philosophies, was a prominent figure in the counterculture movement of the 1960s and 1970s. He authored several books, including “The Illuminatus! Trilogy” and “Prometheus Rising,” which challenged established beliefs and encouraged readers to question authority and societal norms. In his quote, Wilson highlights the tendency of obedient individuals to view themselves as morally upright, despite their compliance being driven by fear or a lack of critical thinking.
Deconstructing the Meaning
At first glance, Wilson’s quote appears to suggest that obedience is not necessarily a virtue, as it can be driven by fear rather than genuine moral conviction. Many societies and cultures promote obedience as a virtue, with strict adherence to rules and authority figures often seen as a commendable trait. However, Wilson’s quote invites us to question this perception and consider the deeper implications of obedience.
One key aspect to consider is the distinction between genuine virtue and obedience based on fear or conformity. Virtue involves acting in alignment with one’s values and moral principles, even when it may be challenging or unpopular. On the other hand, obedience often involves complying with authority figures or societal norms without questioning, simply because it is expected or out of fear of repercussions.
Wilson’s quote also highlights the role of self-perception in shaping our beliefs about our own actions. Obedient individuals may view themselves as virtuous because they are following the rules or complying with authority, which gives them a sense of validation and self-righteousness. They may not critically evaluate the morality or ethics of their actions, as they believe that obedience itself is inherently virtuous. This illusion of virtue can be dangerous, as it may lead individuals to justify unethical or immoral behavior under the guise of obedience.
The Psychology of Obedience
The psychology of obedience has been widely studied, and several theories shed light on why individuals may comply with authority even when it goes against their moral compass. One such theory is Stanley Milgram’s famous experiment on obedience, where participants were instructed to administer electric shocks to a stranger under the authority of an experimenter. Despite the shocks being fake, the majority of participants complied with the experimenter’s instructions, demonstrating the power of authority in shaping human behavior.
Milgram’s experiment revealed that obedience can stem from various factors, including the desire to please authority figures, fear of punishment, and a sense of social conformity. Individuals may comply with authority to avoid conflict, gain social approval, or minimize personal responsibility. This suggests that obedience can sometimes be driven by external influences rather than genuine moral conviction.
Moreover, cognitive biases such as the “fundamental attribution error” and “self-serving bias” may also contribute to the illusion of virtue among obedient individuals. The fundamental attribution error refers to the tendency to attribute others’ behavior to their internal traits or personality, while attributing our own behavior to external circumstances. Obedient individuals may view their compliance as a reflection of their virtuous personality, while attributing disobedience in others to their character flaws, such as cowardice or disobedience. On the other hand, the self-serving bias leads individuals to attribute their successes to internal factors, such as their virtues, while attributing failures to external factors, such as the influence of authority. This biased perception further reinforces the belief that obedience is virtuous and aligns with one’s moral values.
The Dangers of Unquestioning Obedience
Blind obedience can have significant consequences, both at an individual and societal level. History has witnessed numerous instances where obedience to authority has resulted in grave atrocities, such as war crimes, genocide, and human rights abuses. The Nuremberg Trials after World War II revealed that many perpetrators of the Holocaust defended their actions as mere obedience to authority, illustrating the dangers of unquestioning compliance.
At an individual level, blind obedience can lead to a loss of autonomy and critical thinking. It can suppress individual moral judgment and promote a culture of conformity, where critical analysis and independent thinking are discouraged. Obedience to authority without questioning can also perpetuate unjust systems and inequalities, as it discourages challenging the status quo and seeking social change.
Moreover, the illusion of virtue associated with obedience can lead to a lack of accountability for one’s actions. Obedient individuals may absolve themselves of responsibility by attributing their actions to the authority’s orders, rather than critically evaluating the ethical implications of their behavior. This lack of critical thinking and personal accountability can have dire consequences and perpetuate unethical behavior.
Contextualizing Obedience and Virtue
It is important to note that the relationship between obedience and virtue is complex and contextual. In some situations, obedience to legitimate authority may be necessary for maintaining order, ensuring safety, and upholding social contracts. For instance, following traffic rules, complying with laws, or adhering to professional codes of conduct may require obedience to established norms and authority.
However, the key distinction lies in critically evaluating the morality and ethics of the authority’s orders or societal norms. Virtuous obedience involves discernment and critical thinking, considering the ethical implications of one’s actions and aligning them with one’s own values and moral principles. It is not blind compliance, but a conscious choice to act in accordance with one’s own sense of right and wrong.
Virtuous obedience also entails being willing to question authority when it deviates from moral principles or goes against the greater good. It involves holding authority accountable and seeking to change unjust systems through constructive means, such as advocacy, activism, and civil disobedience. History has shown that positive social change often requires disobedience to unjust authority, as exemplified by movements like the civil rights movement, women’s suffrage movement, and so on.
In conclusion, the quote by Robert Anton Wilson, “The obedient always think of themselves as virtuous, rather than cowardly,” highlights the danger of blind obedience and the illusion of virtue associated with compliance to authority. Blind obedience can suppress critical thinking, perpetuate unjust systems, and absolve individuals of personal accountability. However, cultivating virtuous disobedience, which involves critically evaluating authority, aligning actions with moral principles, and challenging unjust norms, can break the illusion and promote positive social change.
As individuals, it is our responsibility to reflect on our values, critically evaluate authority, and make ethical decisions based on our moral principles. Virtuous obedience involves discernment, critical thinking, and a willingness to challenge authority when necessary. It requires us to be accountable for our actions and strive for positive social change.
So, let us break free from the illusion of virtue associated with blind obedience and cultivate virtuous disobedience. Let us be critical thinkers, advocates for change, and champions of moral principles. Only then can we strive towards a more just and equitable society where obedience is not blindly praised, but virtue is based on critical evaluation, personal accountability, and alignment with moral values.