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Obeying is Low Status, So How Do We Convince People to Obey?

May 13, 2010

A.J. Ayer says political philosophers claim to be interested in answering one question: What is the moral authority that makes political obligation binding? But while philosophers pay lip service to this high ideal of moral inquiry, Ayer concludes they’re really just ad men, advocating their preferred form of government. He offers a handy summary of the answers given by the “greats”:

  1. You ought to obey because you are forced to. Hobbes.
  2. You ought to obey because you have promised to. Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and other believers in the Social Contract.
  3. You ought to obey because it is in your interest. Plato, Hobbes, Bentham.
  4. You ought to obey because it is in the general interest. Locke, Rousseau, Mill, Green.
  5. You ought to obey because it is you who are giving the orders. Hobbes, Rousseau, Bosanquet and other believers in the General Will.
  6. You ought to obey because God wants you to. Mediaeval writers.
  7. You ought to obey because the Sovereign is God’s anointed. Absolute Monarchists.
  8. You ought to obey because the Sovereign is descended from someone who had the right to be obeyed. Legitimists.
  9. You ought to obey because your government exemplifies the highest point yet reached in the spiritual development of man. Hegel. This can hardly be true of all governments.
  10. You ought to obey because your government has history on its side. Marx. Again, this may not be true of all governments.
  11. You ought to obey because you ought to obey. Some English moralists.
  12. You have no obligation to obey. Anarchists.

Since obeying is by nature low status, and giving commands is high, most contemporary answers to this question will devise clever frames to cajole adherents into believing obeying is not low status. For example, I would say that 9 is ascendant today, where “the spiritual development of man” is understood as man’s ability to reason and argue, in a vogue word, to express “voice” and participate in democracy. Here obedience is portrayed in the grand fashion, full of high status pomp and dignity. In reality, it’s nothing but a honey trap. Deliberative democrats go one step further and combine 9 and 5 in their marketing pamphlets, in the hopes of raising their own status by convincing you of the illusion that you are raising your own.

Notice that many of these answers dissolve if we think in terms of competitive government and the power of exit. To get a feel, add “stay” to every answer. Answer 1 becomes “You ought to stay and obey because you are forced to.” Ummm, no thanks. Answer 9: “You ought to stay and obey because your government exemplifies the highest point yet reached in the spiritual development of man.” Yawn. No thank you, guvnah! They have better accommodations down the way.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Vivek permalink
    May 18, 2010 3:43 am

    How about
    ‘you ought to obey coz
    1) this is a game and a game is no fun without rules
    2) this is a game that is good for you both now and in the future
    3) not playing this game is something you’ll regret for the rest of your life.

    I mean an invitation to play a game is, at least in England, a kind of high status thing. A toff might not want to get into a punch up with a navvy (I live in the Nineteenth Century) but would consider it entirely proper to don a pair of boxing gloves and get into the ring with the said navvy and duke it out according to the Queensbury rules.

    In this case, it seems demeaning to opt for exit- ”I don’t want to fight you my good man. I will now remove myself to that hostelry down the road.”

    Part of being a gentleman is to be a good sport dontchaknow.

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