“I’m just following orders.”

In my recent entries, I have looked at two motivations to control others: the “noble revenge” mentality and the superiority complex. Here’s another one that is absolutely widespread in our games: “I’m just following order/I’m just doing my job.” Well, we can’t condemn the soldier, the policeman, the bureaucrat, the worker making weapons or dumping dangerous chemicals; they’re just doing their job, they’re just following orders, so they are not morally responsible for what they do.

Interestingly, this argument didn’t apply to the SS officers at the Nuremberg Trials, who were tried like common criminals despite the fact that they were “just following orders,” in the same way that an American soldier is “following orders” in the Iraqi genocide. The difference, of course, is that the SS officers are “bad guys” and American soldiers are “good guys.” The manichean worldview enters very much into play in determining what sort of obedience we will accept and what sort we will not accept: any obedience to “bad guys,” no matter how well-meaning, is not accepted, any obedience to “good guys,” no matter how immoral, is accepted.

We join a mass movement to escape from individual responsibility, or, in the words of an ardent young Nazi, “to be free from freedom.” It was not sheer hypocrisy when the rank-and-file Nazis declared themselves not guilty of all the enormities they had committed. They considered themselves cheated and maligned when made to shoulder responsibility for obeying orders. Had they not joined the Nazi movement in order to be free from responsibility?
Eric Hoffer, The True Believer

In slavishly obeying orders we seek an escape from having to bear the consequences of our own choices. This is why, by the way, Christians keep insisting that atheists don’t want to be judged for their actions: it’s merely another case of projection, as religion (and Christianity in particular) is an easy way to escape responsibility. The same is true of all hierarchies, unless we’ve been coerced in joining them. In this view, the role of the follower is “not to reason why,” but rather “to do and die.”

One may argue that, in fact, none are guilty because free will is necessary for moral responsibility and few people have enough free will to consider the results of their own actions. But this argument has always seemed rather lame to me. We don’t condemn people on the basis of their intent but on the basis of their actions. We disable dangerous malfunctioning machines, not because we think they have evil intent, but because they are dangerous. Obviously, people are not machines, but the principle is the same: our primary objective remains to be free from coercion, no matter its intent.

In fact, the whole idea of a human being delegating responsibility to another is illogical on the face of it. However much little free will he may have surrendered, he cannot surrender control of his own body and mind. And even if he could, he would still be responsible for taking that decision. Claiming of having been intoxicated at the time of an accident does not nullify the responsibility one has accrued by getting intoxicated in the first place.

Obedience is a lever used by ruling classes everywhere to bend people to their will. Obedience is rationalized on the basis of “people are innately evil and need leaders/order/direction.” It has been made clear to everyone that no purpose can ever be accomplished without superiors ordering inferiors around, and that if everyone was free they would tear everything apart by chaos and disorder. Well, I’ve already explained the mechanisms of this before, so there’s no point in rehashing it. I’ve also explained in the past why the law, or any other order that supposedly confers moral obligation, does not and cannot logically confer any moral obligation on any individual who does not already believe in the just nature of the order.

All hierarchies depend on the capacity to order people around, on the ability of superiors to use rewards, threats or punishments to dictate people’s thoughts and actions. That is how a hierarchy sustains itself and its objectives. But most hierarchies get inferiors to order around by appealing to their self-interest as well, offering them money, power (of the petty kind), and the possibility of becoming a superior like them. So this especially appeals to people who are in a game condition as regards to that hierarchy (“I must have a career,” “I must be a good citizen,” and so on).

I follow orders from managers because I want to make money. The fact that I am making money is predicated on the exploitation of a great number of people (the customers of the store, who are subject to all sorts of fraudulent or manipulative selling techniques, the producers, who are subject to pressure from a business oligopoly, the taxpayers who pay subsidies, the victims of eminent domain, and so on). Therefore my job is just as much naked profiteering as the CEO who makes more than ten million dollars a year, albeit on a much smaller scale. And this is merely by being employed by a perfectly average grocery store, not a military organization or a mind-bending cult.

The mindset that results is one of “control or be controlled.” People who have power learn to interact with others by manipulating them and lying to them, until it becomes a second nature. In this way, we can say that the superiors in a hierarchy are also victimized in a certain sense. This viewpoint is defendable, although I am not entirely convinced of its merits.

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6 thoughts on ““I’m just following orders.”

  1. David Gendron July 16 2009 at 14:34

    Great post!

  2. David Gendron July 17 2009 at 16:43

    Dans mon dernier billet, j’ai cité une partie de ton billet.

    Mais il y a plus que ça…

  3. [...] “I’m Just Following Orders” by Francois Tremblay [...]

  4. [...] ego by becoming the superior. These ego structures are held together by the mortar of “I’m just following orders,” superiority complexes, competition, and hatred of the structure’s victims through [...]

  5. [...] people do not re-examine their premises because they are just “doing their job” and don’t want to be fired or be considered irrelevant. We let them have this power over us [...]

  6. [...] Sadly, unlike most people, corporations go “too far” with amazing regularity. They defraud their customers and routinely lie to them (so much that now we expect it), they steal land and wealth, they slave-drive people in sweatshops (sometimes to the point of suicide), and a few of them even assassinate people and hire their own private armies. Why? Because a corporation is not a person (legal bullshit notwithstanding) and has no moral compass. It is composed of people who have moral principles, but those principles have been co-opted to serve profit, because they are sociopaths, are trying to extend themselves as best they can, or because they’re “just doing their job.” [...]

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