Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER 10.: Obedience - The Principles of Ethics, vol. 1
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CHAPTER 10.: Obedience - Herbert Spencer, The Principles of Ethics, vol. 1 
The Principles of Ethics, introduction by Tibor R. Machan (Indianapolis: LibertyClassics, 1978). Vol. 1.
Part of: The Principles of Ethics, 2 vols.
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161. Under the one name “obedience” are grouped two kinds of conduct, which have widely different sanctions: the one sanction being permanent and the other temporary. Filial obedience and political obedience being thus bracketed, the idea of virtuousness is associated with both; and almost everyone thinks that a submission which is praiseworthy in the one case, is praiseworthy in the other also.
Here we have to recognize the truth that while due subordination of child to parent originates in a permanent order of Nature, and is unconditionally good, the subordination of citizen to government is appropriate to a process which is transitional, and is but conditionally good.
It is true that in societies which have had a genesis of the kind erroneously supposed by Sir Henry Maine to be universal, the two kinds of obedience have a common root: the patriarchal group grows out of the family and, by insensible steps, the subjection of children to parents passes into the subjection of adult sons to their father, and the subjection of family groups to the father of the father or patriarch. It is true, also, that by union of many patriarchal groups there is produced an organization in which a supreme patriarch is the political head. But in developed societies, such as those of modern days, these primitive relationships have wholly disappeared, and the two kinds of obedience have become quite distinct. Nevertheless, being in large measure prompted by the same sentiment, the two commonly vary together.
In contemplating the facts, we will first take those which concern the subordination of child to father, and then those which concern the subordination of citizen to government.
162. The earliest social stages are characterized not only by absence of chiefs, and therefore absence of the sentiment which causes political submission, but they are often characterized by such small submission of sons as renders the human family group near akin to the brutal family group–a group in which parental responsibility on the one side, and filial subjection on the other, soon cease.
The American races yield instances. The Araucanians “never punish their male children, considering chastisement degrading, and calculated to render the future man pusillanimous and unfit for the duties of a warrior.” Among the Arawaks affection seems to prompt this lenient treatment: a father “will bear any insult or inconvenience from his child tamely, rather than administer personal correction.” And then of a Dakota boy we read that “at ten or twelve, he openly rebels against all domestic rule, and does not hesitate to strike his father: the parent then goes off rubbing his hurt, and boasting to his neighbors of the brave boy whom he has begotten.” Some Old World races supply kindred illustrations. Of the East Africans, Burton says: “When childhood is past, the father and son become natural enemies, after the manner of wild beasts.” So, too, when, writing about the Bedouin character, and commenting on “the daily quarrels between parents and children,” Burckhardt tells us that “instead of teaching the boy civil manners, the father desires him to beat and pelt the strangers who come to the tent,” to cultivate his high spirit: adding elsewhere that “the young man, as soon as it is in his power, emancipates himself from the father’s authority . . . whenever he can become master of a tent himself . . . he listens to no advice, nor obeys any earthly command but that of his own will.” Associated with insubordination to parents, we sometimes have cruelty shown to them in age. A Chippewayan old man “is neglected, and treated with great disrespect, even by his own children”; and the Kamtschadales “did not even consider it a violation of filial duty to kill them [their parents] when they became burdensome.”
Towards mothers, more especially is disregard shown: their relatively low position as slaves to men, prompting contempt for them. By the Dakotas “the son is taught to make his mother toil for him.” In Fiji “one of the first lessons taught the infant is to strike its mother, a neglect of which would beget a fear lest the child should grow up to be a coward.” When a young Hottentot has been admitted into the society of men
He may insult his mother when he will with impunity. He may cudgel her, if he pleases, only for his humor without any danger of being called to an account for it. Such actions are esteemed as tokens of a manly temper and bravery.
Concerning the Zulu boys Thompson writes: “It is a melancholy fact, that when they have arrived at a very early age, should their mothers attempt to chastise them, such is the law, that these lads are at the moment allowed to kill their mothers.” And Mason says of the Karens:
Occasionally when the mother gives annoyance to her children by reproving them; one will say: “My mother talks excessively. I shall not be happy till she dies. I will sell her, though I do not get more than a gong or five rupees for her.” And he sells her.
So far as these instances go, they associate lack of obedience of children to parents with a low type of social organization. This, however, is not a uniform relation, as we see in the case of the Esquimaux, among whom “the affection of the parents for their children is very great, and disobedience on the part of the latter is rare. The parents never inflict physical chastisement upon the children.” The fact would appear to be that in the lowest social groups, we may have either filial obedience or filial disobedience; but that if the groups are of kinds which lead lives of antagonism, then, in the absence of filial obedience, there does not arise that cohesion required for social organization.
163. This is implied by the converse connection which we see displayed among various types of men.
If, with the wandering Semites above named, we contrast the Semites who, though at first wandering, became settled and politically organized, we see little filial subordination in the one and much in the other. Among the Hebrews the head of the family exercised capital jurisdiction (Genesis xxxviii. 24). In the decalogue (Exodus xx, 12) honoring parents comes next to obeying God. In Leviticus xx. 9, punishment is threatened for cursing father or mother, just as it is for blasphemy; and in Deuteronomy xxi. 18–21, it is ordered that a rebellious son shall be publicly stoned to death. Of another branch of the race, which assumed the coercive type of social organization–the Assyrians–we read that “a father was supreme in his household . . . If the son or daughter disowned his father he was sold as a slave, and if he disowned his mother he was outlawed.”
By the Hindus, filial piety vividly shown by sacrifices of food to deceased father, grandfather, great-grandfather, &c., was in early times vividly shown, too, during life.
The father of Nakiketas had offered what is called an All-sacrifice, which requires a man to give away all that he possesses. His son, hearing of his father’s vow, asks him, whether he does or does not mean to fulfill his vow without reserve. At first the father hesitates; at last, becoming angry he says: “Yes, I shall give thee also unto death.” The father, having once said so, was bound to fulfill his vow, and to sacrifice his son to death. The son is quite willing to go, in order to redeem his father’s rash promise.
No less conspicuously has this connection been exhibited in China, where it has continued from the earliest recorded days down to our own. With the established worship of ancestors, by whom are supposed to be consumed the periodical offerings of food, &c., made to them, there has all along gone the absolute subordination of children to living parents. Says Confucius–"Filial piety and fraternal submission!–are they not the root of all benevolent actions?” An old Chinese saying runs–"Among the hundred virtues, filial piety is the chief”; and a sacred edict of 1670 says filial piety is “the first and greatest of the commandments in China.” It was the same in another large society of which the continuity goes back beyond our chronology: I mean that of the Egyptians. According to Ptah-hotep, “The secret of moral duty is obedience; filial obedience is its root.” Nor was it otherwise with the society which, beginning as a small cluster of clans, spread and spread till it overran all Europe, with parts of Asia and Africa. The subjection of sons to fathers in early Roman days, and long afterwards, was absolute–less qualified indeed, than in China; for though down to the present time Chinese parents have the right of infanticide, and may sell their children as servants or slaves; and though, by implication, adult sons can do nothing without parental approval, or own property not subject to parental confiscation; yet we do not read that the Chinese have exercised the power of life and death over adult children, as did the Romans. Of course with the establishment of this absolute parental power went the assumption that filial submission should be absolute. And if, throughout subsequent European history, a father’s authority and a child’s subjection have been less extreme; yet, up to comparatively modern times, they have been very decided.
By various types of men we are thus shown that filial obedience has constantly accompanied social growth and consolidation: if not throughout, yet during its earlier stages.
164. The height to which political obedience rises is determined, in chief measure, by the existence of favorable conditions. If the physical characters of the habitat are such as to negative large aggregations of men–as they do in wide tracts which are barren, leading to nomadic life, or as they do where mountain chains cut off group from group–the tendency seems rather to be for the filial sentiment to develop no further than the patriarchal; and along with this restricted growth there may go resistance to a wider rule. The Khonds exemplify this:
For the head of a family all the tribes have the greatest respect, it being a proverb with them that “A man’s father is his God on earth.” The social organization among them is indeed strictly patriarchal, the father of a family being its absolute ruler in every case. Disobedience to him under any circumstances is regarded as a crime.
This trait is possessed by another mountain people, the Bhils, who, along with a certain amount of submission to general chiefs, show an extreme allegiance to their family chiefs or patriarchs, called Turwees.
So wonderful is the influence of the chief over this infatuated people, that in no situation, however desperate, can they be induced to betray him. . . . To kill another when their Turwee desires, or to suffer death themselves, appears to them equally a matter of indffference.
From filial obedience, thus widening in range, may in time develop a settled political obedience, where physical circumstances favor it; and especially where there arises combined action in war. Pallas tells us that the Kalmucks manifest much “attachment towards their legitimate rulers”; and that they honor and obey their parents. Among the Sgaus, a division of the Karens (apparently unlike the other divisions), “The elders say: ‘O children and grandchildren! respect and reverence your mother and father.’ . . . ‘O, children and grandchildren! obey the orders of kings, for kings in former times obeyed the commands of God.’ “But it is in the larger societies of primitive types that the two kinds of obedience are most closely associated. In China where, as before shown, filial obedience is extreme, we see them jointly insisted upon; as implied by Tsze-hea when he lauded a man “if, in serving his parents, he can exert his utmost strength, if, in serving his prince, he can devote his life”; and as implied in the conduct of Confucius, already quoted as enjoining filial obedience, who when “passing the vacant place of the prince, his countenance appeared to change, and his legs to bend under him, and his words came as if he hardly had breath to utter them.” After recognizing in China occasional dissent, as of Mencius, who in one place suggests rebellion, we may pass to Persia. Here, too, there were solitary expressions of independence, as by the Darwesh who said that “kings are for the protection of their subjects, not subjects for the service of kings”; but, in general, political obedience was urged, for reasons of prudence if for no other. One of their vazirs said:
And Sadi enjoins the attitude of submission as a part of duty: instance the sentence: “Whosoever possesseth the qualities of righteousness placeth his head on the threshold of obedience.” Among the Ancient Indians, instanced above as carrying to an extreme the submission of son to father, political submission was strongly insisted on; as in the Code of Manu, where it is held wrong to treat even a child-king “as if he were a mortal; he is a great divinity in human shape.” Then in Egypt, along with that exhortation to obey parents quoted from Ptah-hotep, may be named his approval of wider obedience: “If thou abasest thyself in obeying a superior, thy conduct is entirely good before God.” Commenting on the groveling prostrations represented in their sculptures and paintings, Duncker remarks that the Egyptians “worshipped their kings as the deities of the land.” Indeed, in the inscriptions on the tombs of officials, the deeds implying such worship are specified as proofs of their virtue. Nor was it otherwise with the Hebrews. While, in their decalogue, religious obedience and filial obedience are closely coupled, there was elsewhere joined with these political obedience; as in Proverbs xvi. 10, where it is said: “A divine sentence is in the lips of the king; his mouth transgresseth not.”
Throughout European history a like relationship is traceable. Along with the theory and practice of absolute subjection of child to parent, there went the theory and practice of absolute subjection to the chief man of the group–now to the local head, while the groups were small and incoherent, and now to the central head, when they became large and consolidated. Less definite forms of rule having been replaced by feudalism, there first came fealty to the feudal lord, and then, with advancing political integration, there came loyalty to the king. In the old French epic the one inexpiable crime is the treason of a vassal; the noblest virtue is a vassal’s fidelity. In our own country the extreme loyalty of the highlanders to the chiefs of their clans, and subsequently to the Stuarts as their kings, exemplifies the dominance of the sentiment; while the English nobility have, among other ways of showing this feeling, shown it in sundry of their mottoes; as instance–Paulet and others, “Aimez loyaulté”; Earl Grey and others, “De bon vouloir servir le roy”; Earl of Lindsay “Loyalty binds me”; Baron Mowbray, “I will be loyal during my life”; Earl of Rosse, “For God and the King”; Adair, “Loyal to the death.”
And here let us note how the frequency with which loyalty is thus expressed as the highest of sentiments, reminds us of the frequency with which aggressiveness has been, by other nobles, chosen as the sentiment most worthy to be professed.
165. The significance of this association lies in the fact that they are both accompaniments of chronic militancy. When we remember that first of all the chief, and in later days the king, and later still the emperor, is primarily the supreme commander; and that his headship in peace is but a sequence of his headship in war; it is clear that at the outset political obedience is identical with military obedience. Further, it needs but to consider that for success in war absolute subordination to the commander-in-chief is essential, and that absolute subordination to him as king is a concomitant, to see that while the militancy remains active, the two remain one.
Additional evidence of this relationship is yielded by a few cases in which political obedience is carried to an extreme exceeding obedience of all other kinds. The first to be named is afforded by a people who have passed away–the warlike and cannibal Mexicans, who invaded their neighbors to get victims to satisfy their hungry gods. Montezuma II, says Herrera, “caused himself to be so highly respected, that it almost came to be adoration. No commoner was to look him in the face, and if one did, he died for it.” According to Peter of Ghent, “the worst feature in the character of the Indians is their submissiveness”; and then Herrera, illustrating their loyalty names a man who would not betray his lord, but rather than do so allowed himself to be “torn piecemeal” by dogs. Among existing peoples, a striking example is furnished by the cannibal Fijians. These ferocious savages, revelling in war and destruction, are described by Erskine as intensely loyal. So obedient are they to their chiefs, says Jackson, that they have been known to eat pumice-stone when commanded to do so; and Williams says that a condemned man stands unbound to be killed, himself declaring, “Whatever the king says, must be done.” Of the bloody Dahomans, too, with their Amazon army, we are told by one traveler that “before the king all are slaves alike,” and by another that “they reverence him with a mixture of love and fear, little short of adoration": “parents are held to have no right or claim to their children, who, like everything else, belong to the king.” So that political subordination submerges all other kinds of subordination.
Nor is it only by these extreme cases, and by the extreme converse cases, that this connection is shown. It is shown also by the intermediate cases: instance the various peoples of Europe. In Russia militancy and its appliances subordinate the entire national life; and among Europeans the Russians display the most abject obedience: gaining, thereby the applause of Mr. Carlyle. Loyal to the point of worship, they submit unresistingly to the dictation of all state officials down to the lowest. On the other hand, we are ourselves the people among whom militancy and its appliances occupy the smallest space in the national life, and among whom there is least political subjection. The government has come to be a servant instead of a master. Citizens severely criticize their princes; discuss the propriety of abolishing one division of the legislature; and expel from power ministers who do not please them.
Nor is it otherwise when we compare earlier and later stages of the same nation. By these, too, we are shown that as fast as the life of internal amity outgrows the life of external enmity, the sentiment of obedience declines. Though submissive loyality to the living German Kaiser is great, yet it is not so great as was the submissive loyalty to his conquering ancestor, Frederick II, when Forster wrote: “What chiefly disgusted me was the deification of the king.” If, notwithstanding the nominally free form of their government, the mass of the French people let their liberties be trampled upon to an extent which the English delegates to a Trades–Union Congress in Paris said is “a disgrace to, and an anomaly in, a Republican nation”; yet their willing subordination is not so great as it was at the time when war had raised the French monarchy to its zenith. In our own case, too, while there is a marked contrast between the amount of war, internal and external, in early days, and the complete internal peace, joined with long external peace, which recent times have known; there is a contrast no less marked between the great loyalty shown in early days and the moderate loyalty largely nominal, shown at present.
It remains only to add that, along with the decline of political subordination there has gone a decline of filial subordination. The harsh rule of parents and humble submission of children in past centuries, have, in our times, been exchanged for a very moderate exercise of parental authority and a filial subjection which, far less conspicuous during youth than it used to be, almost ceases when the age for marriage arrives.
166. Thus, akin though they are in the sentiment prompting them, and in the main varying together, the two kinds of obedience, filial and political, have different sanctions. The one is bound up with the laws of life, while the other is dependent on the needs of the social state, and changes as they change.
For the obedience of child to parent there is the warrant arising from relatively imperfect development, and there is the warrant arising from the obligation to make some return for benefits received. These are obviously permanent; and though, with the advance from lower to higher types of man and society. filial subjection decreases, yet some degree of it must ever remain, and must continue to be prompted by an ethical sentiment properly so-called.
On the other hand, political obedience, nonexistent in groups of primitive men, comes into existence during the political integrations effected by war–during the growth and organization of large societies formed by successive conquests. The development of political obedience in such societies is a necessity; since, without it, there cannot be carried on the combined actions by which subjugations and consolidations are brought about.
The implication is that the sentiment of political obedience, having but a transitional function, must decrease in amount as the function decreases in needfulness. Along with decline of that system of status characterizing the militant type of organization, and rise of that system of contrast characterizing the industrial type, the need for subjection becomes gradually less. The change of sentiment accompanying this change from compulsory cooperation to voluntary cooperation, while it modifies the relations of citizens to one another, modifies also their relations to their government: to this the same degree of obedience is neither required nor felt. Humble submission ceases to be a virtue; and in place of it there comes the virtue of independence.
Decline of political obedience and waning belief in the duty of it, go along with increasing subordination to ethical principles, a clearer recognition of the supremacy of these, and a determination to abide by them rather than by legislative dictates. More and more the proethical sentiments prompting obedience to government, come into conflict with the ethical sentiment prompting obedience to conscience. More and more this last causes unconformity to laws which are at variance with equity. And more and more it comes to be felt that legal coercion is warranted only insofar as law is an enforcer of justice.
That political obedience is thus a purely transitional virtue, cannot be perceived while the need for political subordination remains great; and while it remains great the unlimited authority of the ruling power (if not a man then a majority) will continue to be asserted. But if from past changes we are to infer future changes, we may conclude that in an advanced state, the sphere of political obedience will have comparatively narrow limits; and that beyond those limits the submission of citizen to government will no more be regarded as meritorious than is now the cringing of a slave to a master.