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Obedience is not a virtue

My younger daughter is something of a handful, so I’ve been thinking a lot about things like obedience, virtue, loyalty, and authority lately. These are often associated with martial arts training, so I thought I’d share my views here.

I think it is important to distinguish between skills and virtues. Skills are abilities cultivated by practice, which are valued because of what they enable you to do, and should be deployed when its advantageous to do so. Virtues are inherent characteristics, which can be deepened or resisted through practice, but are considered good in and of themselves. A lot of trouble comes from confusing the two.

For example, obedience is not a virtue, but it is a very useful skill. A person who cannot behave obediently when necessary gets into all sorts of unnecessary trouble, and is excluded from all sorts of beneficial activities. For example, if you can’t follow orders, you’re not safe to have on a sailing boat. No sensible person would welcome you into any kind of dangerous activity if you are unable to follow safety regulations. Obedience is really useful, but obedience cultivated as a virtue is utterly deleterious. It is not virtuous to obey, it is virtuous to do the right thing.

Loyalty is a virtue that often gets confused with obedience. Let’s take it in a martial arts context. Many instructors of my acquaintance would say that a good student is loyal and obedient. I don’t agree; I think that a good student is loyal, yes, but obedience is grossly overrated.

Of course, a disloyal and disobedient student is a waste of everybody’s time. But a disloyal and obedient student is worse: they will follow your instructions right up to the point that you make a mistake; their thoughtless obedience prevents them from calling you on your mistake, and so they follow you blindly into error. Then their lack of loyalty leads them to cast you as a villain or a fool, and storm off in a huff. A loyal and obedient student makes things easy for an instructor, but their obedience prevents them from helping you to grow. The best students are loyal but disobedient. They are not inclined to blindly accept anything, and will call you on every error. But their loyalty keeps them training with you, and you grow together.

So when it comes to my kids, I try to teach them obedience as a skill to be practiced. It is really useful in all sorts of situations; the beginners’ course in any field; any time when you don’t have enough information or experience to make good decisions but you are with someone who does have the experience; any time you need to smooth over a petty tyrant because resistance is counter-productive. But it is a skill, not a virtue. I would never praise my children for being obedient; but I will praise them for practising obedience.

Perhaps the most famous discussion of virtue comes from Aristotle. Most interestingly, he determines virtues as the midpoint between two undesirable extremes. Courage is the midpoint between Rashness and Cowardice; Temperance the midpoint between Prodigality and Insensibility. This excellent table from The Ethics of Aristotle: The Nichomachaen Ethics shows them in their places on the spectrum:


You’ll notice that “hard work” doesn’t appear anywhere on this list. Hard work is another example of something often taken as a virtue that really ought to be thought of as a skill. There is absolutely no inherent virtue in hard work; by itself, it means nothing. Let’s imagine for one second that you are a painter, and in three minutes you can dash off a glorious masterpiece that sets the art world alight. Great, lucky you. Now let us imagine that this masterpiece that sets the art world alight took you ten years of hard work. So what? Nobody cares how hard you worked. They care about the painting.

So why do I bang on about hard work being a skill? Why do I praise my kids for the effort they put in more than the results that come out? Because almost nothing worthwhile can be accomplished without hard work. It is a necessary but not sufficient cause of just about every achievement. Yes, I think talent is a myth, and all success comes from hard work of one sort or another. Process beats outcome every time. But that only means that hard work is a necessary skill; it doesn't mean that industriousness should be cultivated as a virtue. I want my kids to be good at the skill of working hard when necessary, but I also want them to be able to choose wisely regarding where they place those efforts. I think the notion of hard work being inherently virtuous is a pernicious lie perpetuated by the rich and powerful to keep the poor in their place. The lie goes “It’s ok to be poor if you work hard. You’ll get rich/get to heaven eventually. Really. Honest, guv.” Meanwhile, bishops and bankers sit back in splendour drinking wine and smoking cigars that your hard work has paid for….

It’s like a real sword fight. I am not in the least bit interested in fighting hard. I just want to stab the other guy as quickly as possible. When one of you is standing and the other lying in a pool of blood, how hard the loser fought is entirely irrelevant. But your chances of being the one left standing are vastly increased if you have worked your arse off in training beforehand.

I know many of my readers will be leaping up and down right now going “what about the knightly virtues?” If that’s you, then you will probably be interested in this excellent article from Chivalry Today:

I wonder, what other “virtues” are really skills, and what skills really ought to be thought of as virtues?


I'm sure you have an opinion: do share!

6 Responses

  1. Do you have any thoughts about cluefulness? People need judgement as well as courage to know wheth its time to stop being obedient.

    1. That is a tough question. In short, yes. The trick is to come up with a set of general rules for moral behaviour, and refuse to break those rules. It’s not easy though.

      1. The thing is, this is about morality, but it’s also about knowledge in general.

        If someone is telling you to do the wong thing on a boat, this probably isn’t about morality.

        If a martial arts teacher is telling you to do something pointlessly dangerous, you need courage to oppose this, but you need knowledge to understand that it’s something to oppose.

  2. its good to be obedient actually its one of the morals were brought being taught, but when we grew up is adifferent story , you don’t have to obey blindly, here it requires one to know thier rights, values and responsibility

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