Historically, human society witnessed numerous actions which were often perceived as inhuman or contradicting to human nature. Crimes and violent behavior of certain individuals could be regarded just as a minor crimes compared to the genocide organized in different parts of the world by different people. At the same time, the terrible and inhuman acts committed by people were viewed as crimes that needed the most severe punishment since the people that committed them were perceived as outcast or simply as people with some mental problems. Nowadays, the attitude to such people as well as to such crimes as genocide, tortures or unmotivated violence are still viewed as the most serious crimes which are totally unacceptable for the modern, highly democratic society where human life and freedom are declared to be the highest value of the modern society.
Nevertheless, the traditional views on the inadequate behavior of offenders in relation to their victims needs a profound reflection since it is necessary to take into consideration the surrounding in which the aggressive or abusive acts take place. In this respect, it should be said that many specialists argue that the offenses are not always committed by some outcasts but, instead, ordinary people, under the impact of circumstance, can grow into aggressive offenders able to commit the most terrible acts. In fact, in such a context, it is possible to estimate that the most terrible crimes, such as genocide or tortures may be committed by ordinary people who outgrow into a kind of maniacs ready to torture and destroy other people. Moreover, such a shift occurs under the impact of the power of the authority and the trend of people to the obedience to the authority. As a result, they cannot resist to the orders they receive and their psychology may change dramatically to the extent that they may act in an unusual and untypical way committing offenses or crimes they would never commit in the normal circumstances if they remained really independent from the authority or, if they could manage to disobey. This is why the natural question arises where the measure between obedience and socially dangerous disobedience is.
The factors affecting obedience
First of all, it should be said that obedience is a normal state for a social being like humans. It is quite natural that there are leaders in the human community and there are masses of people that obey to the leaders. In such a situation, there is nothing abnormal and, basically, this is a normal social structure that functions well and, what is more, contributes to the progress the mankind has made within the last couple of millennia. On the other hand, the normal functioning may be interpreted in various ways. For instance, the state of war is also a norm for human society since there were always a part of life of human society in different epochs and different parts of the world. This is why it is necessary to precise that ideally human society should function without abuse of rights and freedom of other people.
However, in actuality, people can hardly avoid the offense of each other or limitation of one’s freedom and basic rights. In this respect, it is possible to remind the Holocaust in the period of the World War II, or more recent facts in the areas of military conflicts such as Iraq. In fact, some individuals commit acts which they would never commit in their normal life but in the changed circumstances they behave really differently. For instance, individuals’ behavior changes dramatically when the take part in a military conflict, or when they constantly deal with the limitations of freedom of other people, like in the case of prisons. This means that the behavior of people is changeable. The numerous experiments conducted by specialists working on the problem of social psychology, human behavior and, in particular, on the problem of obedience to authority (Behrens and Rosen 2002), have proved the fact that even people which are ‘normal’ in their life can behave differently in new, extreme circumstances.
In this respect, it is possible to remind the experiments conducted by Milgram or Zimbardo who actually tested the extent to which the authority can influence individuals and its consequences (Behrens and Rosen 2002). Basically, their researches, even thought their ethical aspect, is widely argued, revealed the fact that people tend to obey to the authority and it is basically abnormal if an individual rebels against the authority. In such a situation, it is really dangerous when people that are obedient by their nature have to fulfill commands which are actually criminal or next to criminal. At the same time, it is really important to realize the mechanism how people get obedient, or what factors define the obedient behavior of people which may be potentially dangerous for their social surrounding or for themselves since often the obedience to the authority simply makes people unable to resist and they simply become the victims of the existing social system or, what is more, being in specific circumstances, such as being imprisoned, they become victimized by the authority or, to put it more precisely, by people having the real power over them.
In this respect, it should be said that traditionally people are obedient because they are actually dramatically influenced by the authority due to its great role and the lack of the experience of the disobedient behavior. What is meant here is the fact that it is a historically accepted norm when society lives in accordance with the established rules and norms, which are regulated and often created by the authority. This is why individuals have to overcome a serious psychological barrier when they do not obey since this means that they need to rebel against the authority which personifies the society itself.
Furthermore, an individual is susceptible to the acceptance of the social standards and norms. This means that people readily obey to the rules and norms which are accepted by their social surrounding. As a result, an individual would hardly rebel if his/her actions are not supported by others, while in the majority of situations, the rebellion against the authority is accompanied by the social prejudice and even punishment.
At the same time, it is necessary to take into consideration external factors which also affects the behavior and actions of an individual. For instance, the recent researches concerning the problem of inadequate behavior of some of American soldiers in Iraq conducted by such specialists as Szegedy-Maszac reveal the fact that the violation of rights and simply inhuman behavior of some of the soldiers could be explained by the external pressure (Behrens and Rosen 2002). In fact, such a behavior is a response or, to put it more precisely, the consequence of the constant fear about personal safety, the transformation of violent behavior into a norm since soldiers simply get used to violence as a constituent part of their everyday life. Finally, Szegedy –Maszac also indicates at the problem of the lack of sexual contact American soldiers were deprived of, though it could help them decrease their aggressiveness and be a sort of relaxation (Behrens and Rosen 2002).
Another factor that contributes considerably to the obedience of people is the intention to fulfill the orders of the authority simply to benefit from it or to feel comfortable because of the lack of conflicts with the authority. In this respect, it is possible to refer to Crispin Sortwell who argued that a potential executer of the most inhuman orders may be an ordinary individual (Behrens and Rosen 2002). To put it more precisely, the researcher defines several qualities which transform an ordinary individual, under certain conditions, such as war, into a ‘genocidal killer’. Among these qualities may be named the deference to authority, response to social consensus, willingness to response to people as members of social groups, and simply the desire to achieve security of their own life, health, family, friends, etc.
In such a way, the obedience turns to be a really powerful tool which can potentially make ordinary people offenders as well as victims since the obedience to the authority may result either in the offense of other people or in the victimization, the latter is just a question of the place an individual occupies in the social group and current circumstances.
The problem of choice: to obey or not to obey
Obviously, obedience may be a very serious problem each individual has to solve since potentially, an individual may face various situations where he/she would have either to obey or rebel, but, as it has been already mentioned above, it is more natural for people to obey than rebel. In such a situation, it is really important to discuss the extent to which an individual should be obedient since it is an extremely serious moral question. In fact, it seems to be evident that it is absolutely immoral to obey orders which are inhuman or contradict to the basic social or legal norms. In other words, an individual should not simply to obey the authority which is criminal by nature. On the other hand, there is another serious problem how to avoid the overwhelming power of the authority which actually forces an individual to obey using extremely powerful tools, including social pressure.
In this respect, it is important to underline that sometimes it is simply impossible to avoid the obedience to the authority. For instance, in prison the freedom of an individual is dramatically limited, he is deprived of or limited in certain rights and opportunities while the guard, in contrast, are in an advantageous position. Such inequality, inevitably forces the prisoners obey to the authority because they simply cannot resist to the authority either physically or legally, as long as their basic human rights are not violated. This is why, in such situation, people do not really have another alternative but to obey. By the way, the similar situation is in the army.
On the other hand, the alternative to obedience is disobedience. Naturally, in some situations, when an individual disobeys to fulfill a criminal order of the authority, disobedience may be justified but to disobey an individual should overcome an enormous barrier. In fact, it is a kind of a triple barrier which forces an individual to constantly obey since to disobey means to overcome social pressure, if the authority is supported by the large masses of people.
Furthermore, it is necessary to overcome the power of authority itself, i.e. an individual should be strong enough to overcome that respect to the authority and the risk of losing the benefits of being a part of the ‘system’ (Behrens and Rosen 2002). And, finally, an individual has to overcome his/her own psychology, to change his/her way of thinking to the extent that he/she would be able to rebel against the authority.
However, in such a situation, it is necessary to remember that the great power of the authority is not occasional and it is even essential to the normal functioning of human society since it is due to this power the authority manages to keep the entire society function properly. In other words, due to this power, the authority actually maintains the existing social order, while total disobedience leads to the misbalance of the power of the authority and creates a split within the society or some social group.
Thus, taking into account all above mentioned, it is possible to conclude that it is necessary to avoid extremes. This means that the authority should really have some power to maintain the stable social order. On the other hand, people could not be obedient and silent beings unable to resist to the authority or changing circumstances. It is really important that each individual was strong enough to objectively assess whether it is necessary to obey to the rules or, probably, it is necessary to rebel against the criminal authority, even though it would threaten the social position of an individual or even his health and life, as well as those of his family and friends. This is why obedience or disobedience is a really serious moral dilemma and each individual should decide for him/herself what he/she is for but it is really important to make the right and moral choice.
Behrens and Rosen. Part II. An Anthology of Reading. New York: Random House, 2002.
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