Authority, submission, and self-responsibility

A commenter recently said something that got me thinking: “I am sure that our next step as humanity is to mature up to self responsibility after the disastrous failing of all hierarchical “elite” concepts”. It’s a very optimistic stance, but is it possible that we could collectively reach that level of moral maturity?

Realistically some sort of rewards/punishments system of accountability to others has to be a big part of our moral motivation (e.g. we are nice partly because we want people to like us). Whether it’s hierarchical or not, though, seemingly depends on the size of the group. In communities of around 150 members (Dunbar’s number – I was fortunate enough to hear Robin Dunbar speak a couple of months ago), such as the Amish, there is no need for law enforcement to maintain good behaviour; peer pressure alone does that job. Whereas I guess the threat of punishment from some sort of authority is inevitably needed for larger communities to function. So unless we radically change the organisation of society, we will always need police and courts of law. 😀

Could humanity at least get over its deference to various authorities for making the rules, though, if not for their enforcement? I don’t know.

Jan Fennell developed her method for training dogs after watching footage of pack animals, and learning to communicate with her dogs in ways that let them know they are subordinates. The result isn’t just positive for dog owners, it is good for the dogs, she argued. They are happier and less stressed when able to confidently abandon themselves to unthinking obedience. I suspect maybe humans are a little bit like that.

“Islam” means submission; is probably second only to Judaism in its micro-management of believers’ lives; and is apparently the fastest-growing religion in the world. Those who are drawn to it tend to find it brings them peace and security. One thing outsiders usually aren’t aware of is the deep subjective pleasure experienced by many worshippers in the act of prostration. It seems we love to submit.

When you look at the historical origins of practically any religion you cannot fail to see a mass of contradictions and a man who was making the rules up as he went along. Yet in time, religions evolve into comprehensive systems of instructions that appear to have always been set in stone – because, I guess, people need them to be. Even people who wrestle with the rules often still treat the derived religious rulings as if they came down on tablets of stone and their only issue is working out what the rules truly mean.

I can only suppose that that deference to authority is just in our nature. That, like for Jan Fennell’s dogs, it reduces stress and gives peace of mind, at least temporarily. I think this is what makes The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor so powerful: there is a horrifying grain of truth in the Inquisitor’s words.

What hope for humanity’s maturing up to self-responsibility then? Maybe there are ways of satisfying our craving for submission without having to dangerously give up moral responsibility and suppress our minds: by surrendering, not to an idealised and imperfect moral code, but to the transient nature of life; to an acceptance of reality as it is and of our existential issues; to an acceptance of uncertainty? Can we do that? I hope so.

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3 Responses to Authority, submission, and self-responsibility

  1. susanne430 says:

    Along the lines about the dogs wanting to know their boundaries, I’ve heard the same is true of children. They don’t want parents who don’t give them any standards to live by in hopes that they will be their child’s best friend. Parents aren’t friends, they are parents. (So I’ve heard.) So parents must lay down rules and boundaries and they do this why? To protect their loved ones. “No, darling, you cannot go play in the road because a truck might hit you.” So a parent says, “Do not play in the street.” Even though the child may want to play in the street and be too young to know better, later they will – hopefully – realize their parents gave rules out of love.

    Not sure that relates to your post, but there I go rambling about something your post reminded me of. 😀

    Thanks for sharing this!

  2. Achelois says:

    This is a powerful post! I say powerful because it really made me think a lot 🙂

    I don’t think we can collectively reach a high level of moral maturity simply because we are not all the same and have different thoughts and approaches and different levels of moral maturity. Religions make moral standards that are applicable to all whether they like those standards or not. And there are people who don’t like rules and those who can’t think enough for themselves and require rules.

    Regarding Susie’s comment, I think parents may also make rules because they think they are supposed to do that; they are trained socially in a way to behave like parents. Most parents behave like their own parents and when a child responds differently they lament “we never asked our parents why”! My children are completely different – they want to know all the time exactly why they can’t do this or that. Even at this young age they rationalise their behaviour and my rules and are able to decide if a rule really has positive potential or not. And really even though I wanted to know why, I never dared to ask my parents that because I knew I’d be struck dead if I asked 🙂 So I guess there are people who are too scared to rationalise their religious teachings and those who dare to question. This again supports that we all will never agree on a common standard unless it is thrust upon us by some kind of authority. That authority may be a prophet or a king or Barack Obama!

  3. Sarah says:

    Interesting comments!

    It is interesting that children are more prepared to question the rules and less in awe of authority figures these days. It sounds from what you’re saying, Achelois, that they are prepared to follow rules that make sense to them or that they can see the positive benefit of. This gives me hope as that is moral maturity isn’t it?

    As for whether we’ll all agree on a moral standard… no chance, I don’t think… there are just not clear answers to so many moral dilemmas.

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