The Nature of Obedience: Action or Character?

In my continuing series thinking more deeply about obedience in the military, today I am thinking about the nature and definition of obedience.  As a philosopher, I am interested in analytical definitions that reveal the nature of how we think about the thing being defined and as the foundation for building other arguments and claims. While some see the attention to definition as ‘merely semantic,’ I would argue that one cannot effectively think about matters without being clear exactly what the thing is under discussion. (How many times have you been in that argument with a family member or partner, only to discover after several hours and lots of yelling that you were in agreement, but using different terms or meant different things with the same term?)

Accordingly, is obedience 1) a matter of doing or acting out what one is ordered or required to do or 2) a matter or character or disposition that one takes as a part of one’s personality – that one ought to BE obedient?

In training and Professional Military Education, which path is being pursued?  What are we training and educating (these are not the same, but that is another topic) for? When a person is called out, sanctioned, counseled, is it for failing to DO something or failing to BE obedient (having a ‘bad attitude,’ not demonstrating a commitment to the team and interfering with unit cohesion)?

At this point, I wonder what the intersection is between obedience and unit cohesion or the ability of the combat or other group to effectively execute the mission.  If trust is central to command and leadership (as many in the military claim) and supports unit cohesion (see Gabriel and Savage’s classic treatment of Vietnam in Crisis in Command), which version of obedience is necessary for that? Will obedience in action be enough?

A common argument, especially post-Nuremberg, is that ‘blind obedience’ is not what the military requirement of obedience is about; one must be prepared to disobey “manifestly illegal and immoral orders” and can be held accountable for NOT disobeying in these circumstances.   Presumably this is (especially after Vietnam) covered in training and education, but one wonders exactly how? How is the moral discretion and judgment that would be required to make such a decision taught and practiced?

Further, is there a difference between “blind” obedience and “habitual” obedience? It seems that the second is necessary for the military to effectively function, but how does one keep the second from collapsing into the first? If members of the military don’t have a chance regularly to develop moral judgment and discretion and practice it (as they do have a chance to practice obedience), how will they know and have the ability and aptitude to disobey or selectively/under obey? (This distinction will be the subject of a future blog post.)

This issue seems related to the so-called Revisionist accounts in the Just War Tradition by scholars like Jeff McMahan who want us to move away from a collectivist account of moral responsibility in war (away from the idea of the military person as an agent of the State) toward a moral individualistic account of responsibility. However, if we do take seriously the idea that the military person is an agent of the State, it seems that there are limits on disobedience and on individual moral judgment and discretion.  What are these limits? How do they impact the moral obligation to obey?

If the Agent theory is correct, why does there seem to be more room for officers and possibly senior NCO’s to have such discretion and exercise judgment than there is for the general ranks of the enlisted?   It would seem that all military personnel are equally agents of the State, so shouldn’t the limits on disobedience and moral discretion/judgment be the same?

Which brings us full circle to the question of whether we are looking for obedient action or obedient characters and which is essential for military effectiveness.  The answer to the question will impact how we train and education relative to  questions of obedience, but it will also impact how much and what kinds of disobedience or non- or under compliance are to be considered morally justifiable. I suspect more will be comfortable with the claim we want obedient action and do not require an obedient disposition, but I wonder to what degree traditional and current training and education in the military bear out this commitment?


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