On Obedience

What a delicate endeavor, obedience.  I’ve always struggled with the subject in my own way, namely, by being very obedient within a highly rewarding and impersonally ordered system, where the rule-maker is invisible (school, formal games, addictions), and very rebellious and contrarian where either a) the rule-maker is known and, inevitably, known to be a flawed human being or group thereof, or b) the system is not highly rewarding.  Often I rebelled against rules because the system was not rewarding because the rules were not well ordered therefore indicative of a flawed human rule-maker, leading me to uncover the idiot behind the great Oz’s curtain–which is just to say, often my reasons for rebelling were/are all interconnected.  

I have concluded that I’m ultimately only going to be faithful and obedient to one authority, which goes by the names rationality, truth, justice, beauty… all of which names are lopsided shorthand for ”the fully interconnected and perfectly balanced set of all truths.”  Now, how accessible this set is, how unitary, how organically one, is a matter up for debate in any English department graduate level classroom or theological bull session.  If at this point you’re balking at even the use of such concepts as rationality, truth, justice, beauty, well, good luck with that.  I personally like to hope, and trust, that this set of fully interconnected and perfectly balanced truths *is* one being, always accessible, ultimately consistent (Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem proving only that a *finite* system cannot be complete and self-consistent).  I like to hope, and trust, as a corollary, that this set or being, as its parts are finite truths, is humanly comprehensible, i.e. can speak truths adequately in finite human pronouncements, and therefore we are obligated on occasion to obey flawed finite human voices of authority.  (I say both hope and trust because in hope we invest only our emotions, in trust we invest our actions and other possessions–bonus insight!)

So but then, what does it mean to agree to obey a fellow human being?  What does it mean to enter a pact of mutual obedience?  I can only see it meaning, that the one taking orders, commits to recognizing wherever possible the presence of truth in the other, the order-giver.  To what extent, though?  David Koresh’s followers committed to finding truth in their leader’s every statement.  Clearly this is overkill; to admit every human mind’s flawed nature is to admit that some of their thoughts and statements will be untrue, or disproportionate/ distorted/ irrational.  Well, if we can’t commit to absolute obedience, what other clear limit to obedience is there?  We cannot commit to obeying a fellow human being “a little bit,” or “a bunch”–commitments are contracts and contracts only bind if all terms are defined.  We cannot commit to obeying a fellow human being “every third time,” or “on Mondays,” because truth is not so simply predictable, and with these well-defined limits to obedience, we would guarantee our occasional betrayal of truth. 

The one rational, proportionate limit I can see to obedience to a fellow human, is that we commit to recognizing the truth of another’s reasoning with all the energy we use in finding our own thoughts and statements true, with all the energy we use in justifying ourselves to ourselves and others.  In other words, rational obedience emerges as a corollary of the golden rule–as I believe myself to contain truth, so I will assume others do too.  And as a corollary of the platinum rule–wherever I find truth, there I will dig for more, whether that place is in myself or in another.  Where the golden rule impels us to seek authority in others as we seek authority in ourselves, the platinum rule introduces another level of proportionality, by ensuring our first love is of Truth itself, so that we can be most obedient to those we find most truthful.

Of course, we can’t always take the time to center ourselves on Truth to determine whether a human authority’s orders are in a given case true, rational, reasonable, right, good.  Life is too short and fast and our individual knowledge too limited.  So we have to be willing to temper our deliberations, our weighings of whether orders should be followed/given.  Temper them with humility, with a remembrance that we are guaranteed to screw up even with total obedience to Truth and rational obedience of human voices of authority.   Temper them because sometimes our motivation for being indecisive about obeying a fellow human being, is that we are afraid of feeling embarrassed, used, disrespected, made a fool of, misled.   And that fear of those feelings, is just an attenuated version of the same self-centric egomania that would have the self always be right, be equal to Truth, be God, be Being.  And that way the worst misery lies, no?

One Response to “On Obedience”

  1. Kelley Sivits says:

    I don’t know if that’s the worst misery, but it’s up there. Well said.

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