The word obedience is usually associated with a human behavior that is characterized by the act of carrying out commands. Obedience derives from a kind of social pressure that compels one to do something in reaction to an order given by another individual who is in a position of authority. It is believed that without receiving that order, the obedient individual would not have acted in that way.

Obedience differs from conformity or compliance. Conformity is a behavior in which one intends to copy or match the behavior of the majority. Compliance is a behavior that is affected by and determined by peers. Obedience can be viewed as a virtue or a sin. If one is told to kill an innocent person and does it willingly, that obedience is characterized as a sin. If, however, one is told to kill an evil person and by doing so, saves many lives, that obedience is characterized as a virtue.

The Nazis killed millions of innocent people during World War II, but neither Hitler nor a handful of people could have committed such heinous acts without the help of other people. What caused all those people to follow the orders that they were given? Were they all such evil people with evil personalities? Were they scared?

Those questions were studied by social psychologist Stanley Milgram who concluded that humans are obedient in the face of authority that they perceive to be legitimate. The fact that the Nazis were able to get ordinary Germans involved in carrying out the Holocaust can only be explained by saying that the latter were obedient to authority. The study that became known as the Milgram Experiment proved that obedience toward authority is a perfectly normal behavior.

There are a number of ways in which human obedience manifests itself:

• Obedience to rules and regulations

• Obedience to God, church, religion

• Obedience to government or rulers

• Obedience to a boss

• Obedience to one's parents

In many cultures, obedience is considered a virtue and a behavioral norm. Everybody is expected to obey God, and children must obey their parents and elders. In a feudal society, serfs are expected to obey their lords. During the period of slavery in the United States, blacks were expected to obey the white masters.

Since the middle-class began to advance politically, there has been an erosion of obedience toward those in power. The advent of a more democratic society has had a tremendous effect on authority and obedience. Obedience is perceived as a less desirable quality as a result of the genocides that took place during the world wars. The civil rights movement, along with all other "rights" movements, has helped to undermine respect for authority and for individuals in positions of authority.

Animals can also be taught obedience by using the method known as conditioning. There are obedience schools that teach or condition dogs to obey orders given to them by their owners. Such training is effective with any kind of social animal, including humans. Learning to follow instructions given by adults is part of what is known as the socialization process of growing up. Adults employ a wide range of techniques to modify children's behavior and make them obedient.

Soldiers in the military undergo extensive obedience training that makes them follow commands when ordinary people would not do so. They are trained to obey trivial, and at times demeaning, orders, such as picking up the commander's hat with their teeth or marching in a straight line. The orders eventually become more demanding, to the point where soldiers will put themselves in the direct line of fire because they are trained to be obedient.

Obedience in religion means doing exactly what God demands of us and what God requires us to do. The call from God helps to motivate man to keep on looking for God and listening to His words. Obedience in religion means having perfect confidence in God and putting one's faith into practice.

Obedience: Selected full-text books and articles

Reviving the Milgram Obedience Paradigm in the Era of Informed Consent By Navarick, Douglas J The Psychological Record, Vol. 59, No. 2, Spring 2009
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Compliance: Regulation and Environment By Bridget M. Hutter Oxford University, 1997
Conflicts of Law and Morality By Kent Greenawalt Oxford University Press, 1989
Librarian's tip: Part II "Moral Reasons to Obey the Law"
Judicial Partisanship and Obedience to Legal Doctrine: Whistleblowing on the Federal Courts of Appeals By Cross, Frank B.; Tiller, Emerson H The Yale Law Journal, Vol. 107, No. 7, May 1998
Democracy and the Rule of Law By José María Maravall; Adam Przeworski Cambridge University Press, 2003
Librarian's tip: Chap. Three "Obedience and Obligation in the Rechtsstaat"
Social Influences By Kevin Wren Routledge, 1999
Librarian's tip: Chap. 1 "Obedience"
The Social Psychology of Good and Evil By Arthur G. Miller Guilford Press, 2004
Librarian's tip: Chap. 9 "What Can the Milgram Obedience Experiments Tell Us about the Holocaust?"
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