Summary and Critique of “Disobedience as a Psychological and Moral Problem”

Summary and Critique of “Disobedience as a Psychological and Moral Problem” by Erich Fromm In “Disobedience as a Psychological and Moral Problem” by Erich Fromm, Fromm states that human history was started by an act of disobedience, and that it will be ended by an act of obedience. He then says that the majority of human authorities and governments throughout history have demonized disobedience while sanctifying obedience, as their power comes from the obedience of the masses and that only obedience bred as a virtue can be sustained by such organizations.

He states that the obedience of the masses and the power gained from it are what allow the governing few to enjoy the limited quantities of luxuries and other resources available only to those with power and the means to use it. He also states that the human conscience is divided into 2 types: the humanistic conscience, which instinctively knows which actions and things are human and which are inhuman, and the authoritarian conscience, which encourages us to follow the rules and behaviors taught to us by society and those in power.

When Fromm states that human history was started by disobedience, he argues that this is shown by the Bible’s traditional Adam and Eve story, wherein their disobedience gets them forced out of the Garden paradise and into the cruel reality of the world as we know it. In this, he fails to account for the bias of the Church itself in the story; the story of Adam and Eve is supposed to engender obedience towards ‘God’, and more importantly, at least in the eyes of the Bible’s authors, the Church.

As such, disobedience will of course be punished; however human history has shown that obedience has caused far more damage to paradises and societies themselves than disobedience, leading me to think that the start of history was probably an act of obedience leading to the proverbial Garden’s destruction and mankind’s eviction from the ruins, rather than any act of disobedience.

Then, Fromm posits that the human conscience is separated into 2: the human and the authoritarian conscience, with the former containing behaviors and rules that are considered ‘human’ while the latter contains the rules and behaviors taught to us by the authorities that govern our society. This is a flawed view simply because such a division would require that both sets of rules and behaviors be fairly exclusive, meaning that what is taught to us by society and its authorities would be considered mostly ‘non-human’ on a ase level by a preexisting set of behaviors, yet humans are by nature social creatures that have been shown to learn most of our basic behaviors and rules from society itself, being born without any real set of predetermined behaviors such as those found in many other animals. As such, there can be no division of the conscience between the behaviors learned from society and a set of instinctive behaviors considered ‘human’ because such a set does not exist. Then, Fromm says that authorities must instill obedience among the masses by appearing ‘all-knowing’ or omnipotent and infallible in some way, or lose their power in the long term.

However, modern governments would not work if this were true, especially the U. S. Federal Government; we question Congress and the President constantly, yet they still maintain their overall power in our society, regardless of how effective they are in actually using that power. For example, look at the recent government shutdown: the members of Congress managed to get poll averages to 80% against their actions by the time they got their act together and restarted the government, and yet they still maintain their power even after that little fiasco.

If an appearance of infallibility was necessary to maintain obedience and thus power, then we wouldn’t have the current system at all in fact; Congress would have lost their collective power after Vietnam, when the general population lost most of their faith in the Federal government, as they also stopped obeying Congress in many ways after that due to their mistrust. Because of this, I believe that infallibility and the appearance of omniscience is not necessary for maintaining obedience, and thereby maintaining power, over the long-term.

The exception to this is that if the masses the authorities govern are uneducated, and thus unable to make informed decisions due to a lack of education and worldly awareness, then omniscience and infallibility, or at least the illusions of such, must be maintained to continue to hold power over the long term. Fromm, Erich. “Disobedience as a Psychological and Moral Problem. ” Writing and Reading Across the Curriculum. (2013): 621-626. Print.


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