Essay on Problems of Political Obedience

The problem has assumed new dimensions now for two obvious reasons and both are the indirect results of the industrial revolution which is now near the point of culmination.

The technological age or “Urban Civilisation,” as Wilson calls it, has rendered the homogeneity of standards of life and conduct impossible and the breakdown of the traditional authority has tended to disrupt those types of social control that have been invaluable to political authority in the past.

Secondly, the activities of the modem government have become so numerous and complex that they embrace every aspect of the citizen’s life and at every step he is confronted with the authority of the State. Paradoxical as it is, while our ideas of individual and social welfare throw us more in the laps of the State, we have, at the same time, adopted a more critical attitude towards political authority.

Accordingly, the problem of obedience as a matter of duty for the citizen does not remain so simple. Old ideas do not solve the modern problem and yet they do help us to look at the question and solve it.

The coercive authority at the disposal of the State to make us obey its laws has ever remained the most important answer to the question of political obedience and, with the breakdown of the long-established authorities, it has in modem times received an added importance.

Force is, undoubtedly, an important element in the origin of the State and its maintenance, but it has not been the only or the most significant element in holding the State together.

As Maclver says, “Men have often acquired dominance with the aid of force, but none has kept the position thus acquired by sole reliance on this means.” Force is a crude weapon to apply to the mass of citizens to ensure obedience and a clumsy tool of political progress.

T.H. Green has succinctly remarked that will, not force, is the basis of the State. The State which lives and thrives upon force can never last long. Nor can it command the respect for its authority and spontaneity in obedience to its laws.

Another, but familiar, theory of obedience is the belief in the fact that the State provides a system of order, and people obey the State to ensure security to life and property. Hobbes, for example, thought that the guarantee of order by a ruler constituted in itself a sufficient claim on the citizen’s obedience to his authority. But this is not exactly correct.

Though order is an essential requirement of civilised life, yet there may be many people who would prefer to risk their lives to obtain different conditions rather than to live them out in a so-called peace which made life for them not worth living.

The real essence of order, which the State is charged to maintain, is to create and sustain that atmosphere in which every man should get an opportunity for the development of his faculties so that all grow and expand to the best of their capacity and ability.

It is, therefore, not order for the sake of order that evokes obedience. There is something higher and nobler with which the State is charged and that is the cue to the problem of obedience.

Religious belief and prejudices have also played their part in determining people’s attitude to the problem of obedience. In the earlier stages of the development of the State, it was the “higher law” which enjoined that God had commanded men through Revelation to obey “the powers that be.” In the seventeenth century many people held that it was part of man’s duty to God to obey the State.

In Britain, for instance, Sir Robert Filmer argued that, since it was natural for mankind to be ruled by Kings, it must have been so ordered by God. God, he said, had entrusted the right to govern to Adam and his descendants. Charles I had, therefore, a divine right to govern by virtue of his direct descent from Adam.

Here was the theory of Divine Right of Kings which made obedience to the commands of the King a religious duty. The Kings regarded themselves as the breathing images of God on earth.

The Theory of Divine Right of Kings also made succession to the throne hereditary. But when Kings regarded themselves answerable to God alone for their actions and the subjects had no right to question their authority, the virtuous qualities of obedience as a matter of filial duty were lost. The people revolted against the despotism of the rulers.

Today, the theory of “higher law” does not find any adequacy as a matter of political belief. It must, however, be admitted that Islamic law still exercises a dominant influence in matters of obedience in the Muslim States and it is a great rallying force for political authority.

Out of the theory of “disobedience and nullification” emerged the early democratic answer that men should obey the State because it was founded on contract. Hobbes was the first to give it a matter-of-fact analysis, but by excluding the King from the contract, he established that the authority of the sovereign was absolute and subject to no conditions.

All subjects must obey him as disobedience to his authority meant conflict and war, the conditions which had made life “short, nasty and brutish” in the State of nature. John Locke, on the other hand, upheld the Revolution of 1688 and justified the reasons for which Charles I had been beheaded.

He tried to analyse the reasons why men should obey the commands of the King, who had clearly been chosen not by God, but by the people through the medium of a democratically elected Parliament. His reference was to William and Mary who became the occupants of the British throne alter the Revolution of 1688.

Hume did not accept the theory of consent as the basis of obedience. He wrote, “Obedience or subjection becomes so familiar that most men never make an enquiry about its origin or cause, more than about the principle of gravity.”

He argued that even if it were true that government must ultimately rest on the consent of the people, it “usually means little more than the acquiescence of inertia.” His conclusion was that people obey the State as a matter of habit.

Similarly, Dr. Johnson believed that obedience to authority was not merely necessary to maintain order, but something natural to mankind. “Every man,” he said, “is born consenting to some system of government.”

Edmund Burke was of the opinion that men ought to obey the State as they knew it, because it represented the accumulated wisdom of generations, and the accumulated wisdom of the society must be presumed to be sounder than the reasoning of an individual.

The contribution of customs and traditions was also emphasised both by John Austin and Sir Henry Maine. They saw obedience to the State as something customary and traditional, “defined and crystallized—almost hallowed—by law.”

But customs and traditions representing the accumulated wisdom of generations will only be obeyed so long as we are convinced that they are good customs and traditions which must be obeyed.

If they represent the follies of the generations, then the legitimacy of obedience to them disappears. Karl Marx advanced his own arguments about the idea of habitual obedience. He held that the people obeyed the State as a matter of habit, though a bad habit.

The Capitalist State, he maintained, was a conspiracy of the few against the exploited masses. It was tyranny “established by force and perpetuated by guile.”

The exploited and oppressed masses obeyed the State only so long as they were powerless to resist, “or because they were tricked by propaganda into believing that they ought not to resist. But once they realised the facts of their oppression and exploitation, they would unite to throw off their chains.”

Thus, begins an epoch of social revolution. Marx’s analysis was the most famous of all revolutionary theories which explains social and political upheaval by bringing forth the economic and technological elements in human relationships.

Most of the theories of obedience we have discussed above have one common feature. They determined the relation between the individual and the State over which the former had little or no control.

Obedience to the State was the result of either compulsion or duty or habit. But none provided an opportunity to the individual to decide when he should or should not obey. From the sixteenth to the eighteenth century European political thought filled in the gap and provided the answer that the basis for obedience was consent.

At this stage of political development consent was postulated to be the condition of the contract, though the circumstances leading to the contract and its terms differed from one thinker to another. Nevertheless, one important result of the Social Contract Theory was that the individual himself decided his political destiny.

Obedience was not divinely ordained, but was the result of man’s own choice and determination and he agreed to obey for certain specific guarantees. As long as terms of the contract and conditions it prescribed were fulfilled, it was a “breach of faith”, for either of the contracting parties, rulers and subjects, to deviate from it.

But the “breach of faith” theory was still no answer to the problem of political obedience. The idea of contract helped men to make the transition.

“It was a bridge between the notion of an absolute ruler, responsible primarily, if not exclusively, to God, and the conception, which was to be developed in the nineteenth century, that Government ought to be responsible to the people through the medium of a democratically elected Parliament.”

Rousseau gave a new meaning to the Contract Theory when he said, “The Government exists by grace of the sovereign and its power can be resumed or divided at will by the sovereign.” For Rousseau, the sovereign was the people, the sum of individuals acting as a community.

The individual was himself an integral part of the community and he had the same extent of control over the activities of the community as the rest of his fellow citizens. The contract, according to Rousseau, was between two aspects of the individual, “Each giving himself to all gives himself to nobody.” Men were at one and the same “a passive body of subjects and an active body of sovereigns.”

Then, Rousseau introduced the concept of the General Will. Unlike Locke, he put no faith in the will of the majority. The General Will was the real will which was also the will of the individual, and by obeying the General Will be obeyed himself.

The eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries saw the emergence of two new ideas in the body-politic and they gave a new meaning to the problem of obedience. The first was the belief in human equality as enunciated by the constitution-makers of both the American and French Revolutions. The American Declaration of Independence in 1776 declared, “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.”

In 1789, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man affirmed that “Men are born and remain free and equal.” The American Declaration also included the second idea. Among men’s fundamental and inalienable rights was included the right to the pursuit of happiness.

Once men began to believe that they were all equal and they had an equal right to conditions which made life worth living, they came to the conclusion that they were equal participants in the affairs of the State and they ought to have an equal right to determine what made them happy.

But one man’s honey may be vinegar for another and, consequently, the happiness of some may be secured at the cost of the unhappiness of others. If so, who is to decide which shall have priority, happiness of some or unhappiness of others?

Then, what makes happiness for some may be considered morally wrong by others. How could this tangle be solved? The first difficulty was solved by relying upon the concept of natural law. It was contended that operation of the natural law could produce universal happiness.

Adam Smith, whose ideas dominated the nineteenth-century thought, maintained that the economic system in which individuals were all pursuing their own and often conflicting interests, would still produce, “by some beneficent law of God or nature, a happy and harmonious community.”

Another solution of the difficulty was offered by suggesting the creation of some political machinery which would decide what made happy people.

This is in line with the teachings of Rousseau, although traces of it are found in the Greek political thought too. The organic theories, as they are called, regarded the State as a universal aspect of the individual’s will and it was, therefore, man’s rational and moral duty to obey the State.

The Greek philosophers tell us that it was in the perfect State that the perfect life of the individual could be found. Since the perfect life was a rational and moral life, the rational man would never think of disobeying the State. In fact, he would consider it his moral duty to accept political authority to enable him to attain perfect life.

This view, which had come down the course of history, was expanded in the writings of Hegel. Hegel, the nineteenth-century German philosopher, assumed that the evolution of society was one of progress towards the good, and postulated the ultimate attainment of an ideal system in which the rational man would be free, because he would be in complete harmony with the will expressed by the laws and conventions of an ideal State.

There would, then, be no problem of disobedience, for in the ideal State the government would always represent the real will of the community. Hegel’s aim was to emphasise that State and citizens are inseparable and each moulds and shapes the other until they reach full development in harmony.

T.H. Green, another nineteenth-century philosopher, gave it a democratic interpretation when he said that if the State did not succeed in winning the allegiance of the citizen, the fault lay in all probability with the State. “It is a sign,” he said, “that it is not a true State; that it is not fulfilling its primary function of maintaining law equally in the interest of all, but is being administered in the interest of classes.”

The essential point of difference between Hegel and Green was that with the former if the citizen did not freely obey, the citizen was not a true citizen whereas Green concluded that the State was not a true State if the eventuality of disobedience was to arise.

Hegel, thus, glorified the State and regarded it as the “perfected rationality” to command and guide the individual. Even Trietschke, who regarded the State as power, did not hesitate to purify it with moral purposes, and argued that all morally minded persons must obey the State and accept its commands to guide their daily lives.

Organic theories, whether their intention was democratic or autocratic, had the common belief that a society possessed a personality of its own, that was different in some way from that of the individuals comprising it. They believed that, as Lindsay put it, “there is something which can be called a general will because there is something which can be called a common mind.

When men who are working together pool their experiences and share their difficulties, there can and often does come out of their discussions a decision which is really the decision of the society, which no individual could have come to of himself, and which each yet recognises as more completely carrying out the purposes of society than his own original suggestion.”

The majority of the nineteenth-century political thinkers, in Britain at any rate, did not believe in the concept of the general will. Jeremy Bentham elaborated a theory of obligation which assumed, not only that human desires did conflict, but that, as far as we knew, they always would do so.

He believed that the purpose of the government was to make men happy. He also believed that all men were equal and that they had an equal right to decide for themselves the kind of government which would bring them happiness.

Since individuals differed in their views, they would not all be able to have what they wanted. But if all the individual wisdom, each man counting for one, were added, then the opinion expressed by the majority would represent the maximum happiness attainable in the circumstances.

The purpose of the State, according to Bentham, was to bring the maximum happiness or social utility and we obeyed the State because it was in our interest to obey. Utility, thus, became the rationale of political happiness within the idea of majority rule.

Bentham’s conclusions fulfilled both the conditions, the principle of equality and the right to happiness, necessary for political obedience. But Bentham’s criterion of happiness was numerical. It did not take into consideration the qualitative aspect of happiness and, therefore, failed to answer what really constituted the best interests of the individuals and who should really govern them and how.

John Stuart Mill could not accept the idea that happiness comprised things that could be added up in the number of votes like quantities of merchandise. “It is better,” he said, “to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.”

John Stuart Mill was right, but how could qualitative happiness be obtained? The answer was that the State could work only through institutions and human ingenuity had not so far devised any institution which was capable of measuring qualitative standards. And until we had found a way of translating the qualitative differences into institutional terms, they must remain irrelevant for political purposes.

The only practical way so far discovered was that each man counts for one and all stood on a footing of equality and, therefore, had equal opportunities to make the best of themselves. My voice counted in the same way and with equal force as that of my neighbour and all of us had equal access to the facts which ought to influence our choice in electing our rulers and approving their policy.

But it cannot be denied that the majority rule and the theory of obedience to its authority had been the harbinger of all kinds of social, economic and political ills. The cult of majority rule has often stimulated intolerance to the extent that the minority or minorities bluntly question the rational justification of the majority to demand obedience to its unbridled authority.

The pluralists even urge that the ordinary citizen has the duty to ask:”Why should I obey the State?” Laski is of the opinion that those who have the moral sense must be allowed the right to judge the actions of the State and determine their attitude to political authority.

The psychological approach has its own explanation to offer in solving the knotty problem of obedience. James Bryce dealt with the problem comprehensively and sought to explain that “inertia, deference, sympathy, fear and reason were the outstanding motivations of obedience.”

Though the psychological approach is valuable in explaining the issue of obedience, it does not explain why people should obey if the commands of the State do not find their approval and fail to coincide with their moral judgment?

To put it in clear terms, should not the individual strive for the abolition of those laws which are arbitrary and have been imposed upon him by the tyrannical political authority, or are unjust or are opposed to the interests of the community as a whole? The tyranny of the majority is worse than the tyranny of an individual and it is a serious challenge to parliamentary democracy.

Here again, we come to the same question with which we began this discussion on political obedience. Has the citizen, besides purely as a legal duty, to obey the State? The answer involves broader ethical considerations and it can be treated logically with the end of the State. The end of the State, we said earlier, is to secure equity and justice for all citizens in order to realise the highest national well-being.

This we cannot do by dwarfing man and frustrating his individuality. Man and society march together and both are inseparable. A moral man can make a moral society and for that matter a moral State and since the State is not an end, it is the moral judgment of man which should judge the actions of the State and determine whether it adequately fulfils its purpose.

If the individual finds that his moral values do not coincide with the actions of the State, should he defy the political authority and disobey the laws which he considers oppressive and encroaching?

Laski is of the opinion that the State is to be judged by the moral test of adequacy and “if I hold that its power is being exercised, not for the ends implied in its nature, but for the ends incompatible therewith, the civic outcome of such perception is the duty of resistance.”

In the beginning, it is the moral duty of all right-thinking citizens that they should protest against all such unjust and oppressive laws or actions of the State, which do not provide for the reasonable satisfaction of their impulses, and adopt all legal and constitutional means to get them repealed.

If their protest bears no fruit, they have the right to take the extreme step of even resisting the government by breaking those laws. “Nobody need challenge the right to resist,” observes Srinivasan Sastri, “because resistance to the State may sometimes become a right and that very moment it becomes a duty as well. No one who cares for citizenship and for the public welfare can question the right of each citizen to judge for himself in the last extremity.

When he has fought his fight and failed to undo a public wrong and he feels in his conscience that he cannot acquiesce in it, nothing ought to keep him from resistance if he thinks he ought to resist.”

Resistance to laws and the authority of the State is, accordingly, a conflict between a citizen’s legal duties and his conscience, and the latter is the most cherished quality of a citizen. He is an active participant in the affairs of the State and ever vigilant about his rights and duties.

M.K. Gandhi, too, favored resistance his mission in life was to moralise man and society. A moral man and a moral society could only be obtained when truth stood arrayed against tyranny whether that tyranny was of the State or of the individual. Gandhi evolved a way of resisting evil through the organisation of truth and non-violence, Satyagraha, holding on to the truth.

The technique of satyagraha is Gandhi’s unique contribution to the technique of resistance. Being a practical man, he ceaselessly fought all through his life against evils of all kinds first in South Africa and later in India and at both places he admirably won his non-violent battle.

But disobedience to the laws of the State should not be wanton. The decision to resist must be taken after a deep consideration and due caution with the conviction that the law to be resisted is immoral and socially harmful. Those who resort to resistance must also be sure of success in their venture.

It is, in the opinion of MaCunn, “counsel not of cowardice but of prudence that resistance without a reasonable prospect of success, though it may speak of much personal heroism, is a political mistake and a public calamity.”

Gandhi’s technique of Satyagraha was the weapon of the strongest and the bravest, the true man of God who sought to conquer evil by truth and to resist physical force by taking suffering on himself instead of inflicting suffering upon the opponent.

Disobedience to the laws of the State shakes the very foundation of an ordered government and when the authority of government is shaken, there reigns nothing except confusion and chaos. It is tantamount to rebellion against the duly constituted authority of the State.

Laski says, “I ought not to resist if I am convinced that the State is seeking, as best as it may, to play its part, and for most that perception will result from what enquiry they undertake. I ought not to further to resist unless I have reasonable grounds for the belief that the changes I advocate are likely to result in the end I have in view.”

The duty of resistance, as such, is not merely a question of caution, but one of supreme political wisdom. It goes without saying that it is the duty of a citizen to protest against the unjust and oppressive laws of the State, but the form of protest, in the first instance, must be constitutional and legal.

If the government deliberately brushes aside the devices of constitutional protests or frustrates them and continues heedlessly its capricious policy, then, resort to resistance is the only but the extreme course left. Resistance, however, should be the medicine and not a daily bread, or, as Laski puts it, “the right to disobedience is of course to be exercised at the margins of political conduct.

No community could hope to fulfil its purpose if rebellion became a settled habit of the population.” And one is not sure of the outcome of a rebellion. Even if it is successful and the revolting forces are able to overthrow the oppressive government and capture power, will the good which is likely to result outweigh the harm which the revolution has brought in? History can provide us with innumerable examples of the fact that nothing is more unpredictable than the course of a revolution.

The aftermath of revolution is usually marked by the rise of a new autocracy. In sum, revolutions seldom, if ever, fulfil their promises. Old tyrants are replaced by new and the freedom won by some is paid for by the injustice visited on others.

It is, therefore, the duty of citizens to obey the laws of the State and respect the duly constituted authority, provided its laws and functions are in accord with the general opinion in the State and are based upon “justice”, as Barker says, or “moral adequacy” as Laski suggests. The State must rise with the people and their aspirations.

The people, too, must give a fair chance to the policies of the State to prove their worth to the citizen body. If the actions of the government are unjust or iniquitous and encroach upon the rights of the minorities, it is the duty of citizens to protest against the high-handedness of the majority and tap all constitutional means to get them remedied.

Since democracy provides adequate means to seek redress, the spirit of resistance is of less value than in a government unresponsive to the will of the people. But if the majority uses heedless coercion rather than a rational appeal, to obey and agree to its policies, the duty to resist assumes a practical importance, irrespective of the considerations of order. It is both a moral and a political sin to keep on obeying when there is reason to disobey.

Oppression and exploitation, according to Gandhi, are made possible by cooperation, willing or forced, of the oppressed in their own exploitation or oppression through cupidity, ignorance or fear. Eternal vigilance is the prime need to ensure liberty, and that is the essence of obedience. “Even the most despotic government,” Gandhi maintained, “cannot stand except for the consent of the governed, which consent is often forcibly procured by the despot.

Immediately the subject ceases to fear the despotic force his power is gone,” Laski held the view that the danger today is not in disobedience but in obedience to the laws of government that are tyrannical and spell unbounded evil.

But what about willful disobedience, violent demonstrations, protests verging on sabotage, bandhs even government sponsored and gheros which now plague the political life in India? Do they fulfil the canons of Gandhi’s disobedience or Laski’s obedience?