(I should probably put this disclaimer up about this one.)
Is following orders a good thing?
Clearly it isn’t always. The phrase “just following orders” has become strongly associated with Nazism, because of how often it’s been used to refer to those numerous soldiers of the Third Reich who carried out inhuman atrocities, but who probably weren’t unusually immoral people outside of the context of Hitler’s dictatorship. As Stanley Milgram later described, regular folks are capable of doing terrible things under the right circumstances, and these Germans found ways to rationalise and justify to themselves the abominable acts they committed.
One of the things that helped many of them sleep at night, and reconcile the slaughter of innocents with their self-image as not-evil, was the idea that they were “just following orders”. Their job was to do what the higher-ups told them to do. It wasn’t their own decision that these things should be done, and if they didn’t do what they were told, they’d be harshly disciplined and someone else would be sent to do it instead.
Any Nazi soldier who defied this authority, and determinedly did the right thing regardless of the risk to themselves if their insubordination was discovered, we would likely be inclined to think of as heroic and noble. And you don’t have to be a Nazi to earn acclaim for thinking independently, acting morally, and not following orders. If you were told to do something morally wrong, and you decided not to do it because it was morally wrong, chances are you’ll have a good chunk of public opinion on your side.
But if doing wrong things is still wrong, even when someone in authority instructs you to do them… doesn’t that rather undermine the concept of “orders” altogether? We seem to have redefined an “order” as “something you’re told to do, which you ought to do except when you oughtn’t”. It seems like we’ve decided we can pick and choose what orders to follow based on whether the thing we’re being ordered to do is morally permissible, which puts “orders” on about the same level as “suggestions” when it comes to carrying moral weight.
And yet the assumption remains ingrained into much of modern life that following orders and instructions is an important, valuable skill. It’s sometimes justified by the idea that we need defined roles of order-takers and order-givers in order to maintain structure – nothing would get done in any organisation if someone wasn’t telling people what to do, and had some sort of authority to make sure it gets done.
So, do we have to admit that, sometimes, it’s morally necessary to follow an order to do a bad thing, for the sake of maintaining group cohesion? Is it an unfortunate fact we just have to face that, now and then, we’re morally obliged to drown a puppy for the greater good of bolstering a social structure which allows us to achieve so many other things and avoid descending into chaos?
Or is it still only morally right to follow such orders, if doing the thing you’re ordered to do would be morally right anyway?
Back in the increasingly distant days of my having a job, people ordered me to do things all the time. In practice, they were much more polite than to make it seem that way, but that’s what it amounted to. And, generalising broadly, if I hadn’t followed those orders, I wouldn’t have got paid. I don’t recall ever being ordered to do anything morally problematic, but I wouldn’t have been motivated to do them if not for that financial incentive, in the form of an order from the people paying me.
Even this, though, doesn’t seem to imbue order-following with any kind of moral righteousness. My employers were limited in what they could order me to do, after all, by the agreement I’d made with them about what my job actually was. The only moral thing I was doing was adhering to a pre-arranged contract to perform a certain role in the office. The “orders” I was given day-to-day defined the details of what comprised that role at any given moment, but the parameters were fixed, and it doesn’t seem like there was ever any particular moral goodness behind obeying any order in particular.
The main thing compelling me to keep following orders was that I didn’t want to get fired. Sometimes the authority behind an order amounts to “do this thing or this negative consequence will befall you” – which, rather than relegating orders to mere suggestions, now wholly equates them with threats.
Are they capable of being anything else?