Why do we obey?


06 maart 2020
Auteur(s): Paolo Inturri
Why is modern society so regimented by rules and laws that we all seem to accept so willingly?

by Paolo Inturri

Contributing Writer & Section Editor

Every day we follow several rules that regulate different human activities unconsciously. Traffic laws are the most evident example. However, do we really need traffic laws to drive a car? No, we only need to know how to drive it. Nevertheless, everyone is aware of the importance of such laws, even though in many occasions breaking traffic laws may seem the best way to reach our destination. So, why do we obey? 

Every person who has ever had the ambition of ruling over other human beings has looked for a source of legitimation. For instance in the middle-ages the way kings justified their sovereignty was through God. Thus, people had to obey because the Heavens wanted it so.

Modern age freed humanity from its dependence on divinity: men are no longer God’s creatures, but they are ruled by reason. Hence, if human beings are all self-sufficient rational subjects, all equal among each other, it is by them that power should be legitimated.

We are now back to the starting point: why would equal and free subjects renounce to their power?

Thomas Hobbes answered this question elaborating on the idea of the social contract. Since he had a pessimistic view of humanity, he assumed that in the state of nature (where no country exists and every man is free) everyone lived an unbearable existence, because the only law was the one of the strongest. Thus, it is necessary to renounce to part of our freedom in favour of something beyond humans: the modern State.

Although other intellectuals answered differently to the question “why do we obey?”, the social contract (in its different versions) appears to still be unsurpassed. Nevertheless, it is worth asking if it is reasonable to base our obedience on a mere idea of reason. As a matter of fact, legal anthropologists give a more factual explanation to our question. Some of them affirm that we do obey because we fear the consequence of our disobedience (for example going to jail); others would simply say that it is better to be obedient together rather than free but alone. Not by chance, Aristoteles wrote that “man is a social animal” and perhaps being social is more important to us than being free (today more so than ever).