We Obey

So, I recently finished reading my birthday present (given to me by my family before I left for Rome, so I’ve had it for a few weeks). It was the Book of the New Sun, the epic sci-fi/fantasy tetralogy by Gene Wolfe (the four parts, which are not at all  stand-alone, being the Shadow of the Torturer, the Claw of the Conciliator, the Sword of the Lictor, and the Citadel of the Autarch).

Now, the Book is amazing. I’m not even going to try to give a detailed review of it because I could not possibly do it justice. I really need to re-read it to try to understand it better, because it is just so dense.
I just want to talk about one small part of it – the nature of the Order of Seekers for Truth and Penitence, better known as the guild of torturers.

The guild’s pride is in the fact that, in a society where everyone is trying to get the upper hand and no one in the Commonwealth is really working for the common good, the guild members are the only ones who can really say “we obey”. They do not question their orders – they do what those who have lawful authority over them say to do, no matter what. It is not their place to decide whether the ‘client’ (their term for victim) is guilty or innocent, and decide whether or not to administer the punishment; that is the judge’s place. They simply carry out the sentence.
There is a certain power behind that philosophy. If you are going to claim to have a legitimate government with legitimate authority, you can’t have servants of that government taking the law into their own hands whenever they think the government has made a mistake. You can’t have prison guards deciding not to guard the people they think aren’t guilty, without having those people actually acquitted in a court of law. It would be chaos. It seems like every government needs this sort of stable foundation – and that’s what the torturers say they provide, the foundation for the government of the Commonwealth.

But that is also a philosophy that excuses, for example, the soldiers who worked in the Nazi death camps. I don’t think we want to do that. We want to say that when the government is evil the people should resist it. But we also want to say that people can’t take the law into their own hands whenever it suits them.

So what are we to do? These seem to be incompatible…

The only solution I can think of, and it is not altogether satisfying, is that one ought to be able to say, “We Obey”, and mean it, or one ought to be against the government, totally and without reservation. If you are a governmental servant and you cannot say “We Obey”, you are not really a servant of the government at all. You are fighting against it, subverting it. If you believe the government is evil, fine, fight against it, and do not say “We Obey”. But I don’t think you can say, “the government is for the most part good, but I don’t like ____, so I’m going to go against them on that”. That position does not seem internally consistent.

But that is what all of us do all the time. Almost no one can actually say “We Obey”, but almost no one actually wants to overthrow the government either…

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3 Responses to We Obey

  1. Winicyus says:

    I’m a governmental servant, but I can’t say “I obey” totally.
    The government is not really good.

    YEsterday I was in my phophilosophy of the law’s class and my teacher says:

    “We think that the ‘State’ (government) is our enemy”.

    Anyway….

  2. Mars says:

    When the government crosses the line into crime, you could say a civil servant has a positive duty to refuse to carry out the crime. Other than that, when s/he disagrees s/he can vote like everyone else while carrying out the current policy. You can disagree anytime, you can only disobey when the government becomes a tyranny. It’s not entirely satisfying that civil servants should figure out for themselves when the govt crosses the line, but it’s the best we have.

  3. e7th04sh says:

    The only reason rightful government would want disagreeing people to obey the rules, is because they believe they know better. Now this is not a problem that can be solved with a simple solution, like yes/no.

    I, for myself, am a contester. Thus i am treating society as a kind of environment, in which i am trying to achieve success — which does not neccessarily is *only* fullfilling my own needs and desires (i am involved in many unselfish activites). I am obeying only when (and as much as) it is better for me to obey than to struggle (o when i want).

    And i want to make change, but take into account that some people want to live their lives and just want gov’s to piss off.

    Then, i would certainly be unhappy f all people started questioning autority of state. I am not anarchist, i am just often sure i am right and they are wrong. Yet, sometimes i obey even tough i belive people or ideas are wrong. It most times results in bad for me and others, but on the other hand, i can’t disobey allways, i need people to see that i have reasons to believe i know better, and the best prove is to show that when i obey, it turns bad.

    To make examples – i am in one scout’s unit for rovers, where this girls is a leader, and she once decided to wait to long for something even tough it was all totally wrong idea. But i obeyed and we missed our train. The bigger one would me/my father/internet access. He restricted it once three years ago during Informatic Olympics. After these three years it turned out that this decision had great impact on my life, and this impact grows bigger with time. To make it short, i had to repeat a class and now have problems to go on university which i want to go, while i could be there this October…

    Anyways, i’ve read interesting paper on “minimal state” – in minimal state we all are told to respect other points of view (to a certain extent, but generally olerance should be high). Now what about people whose beliefs are that they have to force some things uppon others? Now wait, wait, wait, let me finish – what about forcing people to *not* do something which we find wrong? Ie. pro-lifers would certainly ban abortion if they could. The state which does not have philosophy behind apart from philosophy of no philosophy, is certaily an evil thing.

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