On Intelligent Disobedience

Posted: June 13, 2018 in Social Commentary

By R.C. Seely

IS OBEDIENCE TO a bad law moral? Or what about defience to a leader asking you to do an immoral command? We all know that issues of moralty can be difficult, as they should be, but are indoctrinating conformity when that’s the more harmful decision? I think the answer is a clear yes and always have felt that way. And I’m not alone in this. Ira Challeff the founder of the International Leadership Association’s Followership Learning Community and has studied the topic giving his take in his book Intelligent Disobedience. In the text he gave multiple examples of times when the inclination to obey has wrong and fatal, and other times when disobedience saved lives.

We know that many of the worst atrocities have been justified because the perpetrators were simply “doing their jobs” but what of those who didn’t obey because it wasn’t the right course of action.

Challeff talks about a young nurse who attended one of his lectures of her experience with Intelligence Disobedience. It was shortly after getting out of nursing school and she was assisting a cardiac patient in the ER. She was ordered by the emergency room physician to administer a medication that was questionable. After she objected, she was given the typical response from an authority figure to “just do it.” Her final response was:

“I hooked up the IV bag to the patient, and… injected the medication… ordered into the bag. Then I called the doctor over and told him the medication was ready to be administered. All that was needed was to open the valve on the IV bag, but that… violated my training. He would need to open the valve himself.”

Should the nurse have done what she were told, simply because her superior told her to? In this case it might have killed patient and her actions got the doctor to reconsider the treatment and the patient lived. If things had ended differently, there would have been a review and she would have to defend that act of insubordination. That is an admitted heavy weight which needs to be countered against your confidence in what your doing is right.

Challeff offers this as the simplest test of whether disobedience is valid: “Based on the information we have and the context in which the order is given, if obeying is likely to produce more harm than good, disobeying is the right move, at least until we have further clarified the situation and the order.”

We shouldn’t disobey because of power struggles. Challeff has his own experience with that in the dentist chair when a defient nurse kept second guessing him in front of Challeff and kept drilling the tooth getting a cavity taken care of. The end result was the tooth was damaged from the treatment and required more repair. Disobedience because ego satisify this definition.

Another example was the children who were told not “to leave the room for any reason” while their working mother had to give a speech at a work conference. The building caught fire and if the children had obeyed the would have perished. Or the commercial flight that wouldn’t have crashed if the co-pilot had been more insistent in his concerns. The investigation’s assessment even found his disobedience would have been the right choice.

Law enforcement and military are not immune to these issues either. Because of the power and extended legislative immunity they hold, it makes it even more important. The pressure to stay compliant is even more rigorous than for civilians but lives are on the line. It’s important to remember that as a police officer or soldier you face a tribunal for wrong doing. Military is extremely efficient at accountability too, law enforcement needs work.

Most occupations have watchdog groups keeping an eye out for misconduct. It makes society safer for the most part, but even they are not infallible. They are created and filled with flawed humans acting as our advocates, and occasionally they fall short. Maybe someone will come up with a perfect system but I doubt it. In the mean time we will have to settle for what we have and at times practice the Intelligent Disobedience to expose the flaws in that system.

R.C. Seely is the founder of americanuslibertae.com and ALTV. He has also written books on pop culture and has new book–Confused Yet?: Understanding the Utterly Incomprehensible soon to be released.

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