When to Question Authority

Yesterday I wrote about the importance of respecting authority.  I do believe that this is an important principle to maintain in our lives.  The question becomes “Should we always do what we are told to do by those in authority?”  The answer, of course, is no… but how do we decide when to submit, and when to resist?

I believe that the key words are: Illegal, immoral, and unacceptable risk.

If we are being told by an employer, or teacher or other authority to do something that is illegal then we should chose to disobey.  Our responsibility to a higher authority becomes the issue.

In the same way, if we are being told to do something that is opposed to our religious or moral convictions, then we need to follow the higher path.

If we are being told to do something that is unacceptably dangerous, we can choose to disobey. 

The difficulty comes in knowing when these conditions apply.  Also, if we choose to disobey, we need to be willing to accept the consequences of our decision.  We can, if it is warranted, appeal to higher authorities for justice, but that may or may not work out in our favor.

There is also the decision to remove oneself from under a particular authority.  You can leave a job, move to another location, attend a different church, etc.  Ultimately, we are autonomous beings and are responsible for our own actions and who we choose to follow.  There is a tension between the obligation to be a responsible part of a group, and our opportunity to follow our own path.  


2 Responses to “When to Question Authority”

  1. LisaB Says:

    Steve posed an interesting question after I read this post to him.

    “What about if you’re in the military?”

    Don’t those who reject authority in the military end up facing a court martial?

    I’m reminded of a movie I saw once, can’t remember what it was called, but it had to do with a guy in the military who was standing trial because he refused to obey a direct order. As the story played out the audience learned that he disobeyed because he believed the superior was doing the David thing when he’d arranged for Bathsheba’s husband to be killed. As the story played out further the audience learns that the guy who gave the order had a grudge against another soldier who’d unfortunately been killed as a result of a similar order but that the incident had been covered up and the soldier who refused to obey had been aware of it, but was too afraid to speak up about it at the time because there was no proof.

    This is NOT a comment in favor of rebelling, but what ARE the proper steps one in the military would/should take if it comes down to a matter of rejecting authority for one of the reasons you mentioned when it’s acceptible to do so? I’ve been given the impression that a person in the military who rejects authority or who goes above their immediate superior’s head over something that, in general, they can kiss their military career good-bye as a consequence of it.

    Having been a seargeant I’m guessing this one should be an easy question because I imagine you’ve already been there and had to deal with that.

  2. cgirod Says:


    It is appropriate to disobey an illegal order. You had better be certain that it is an illegal order, because you will go to court. If the order is an illegal order, you will not be officially penalized. In the same way, if the order is immoral in your eyes, it is probably also illegal, or against the uniformed code of military justice. Of course, killing people for any reason is considered immoral by some, but those people would not be in todays all volunteer military, unless they were in noncombative positions.

    As far as risk goes, you gave up that right when you signed up to serve in the military. Risk, at that point, is no longer your decision. There are times when people are ordered into a situation where they will most likely die, but that is the nature of combat. If you don’t want to accept the risk, then don’t sign up. Disobeying an order because of your estimate of the risk would be very wrong.

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