de la Bédoyère’s Maxims No 8

The greatest iniquities are committed in the name of obedience.


Obedience is an evolutionary adaptation; society needs the majority to be conformists just as it needs a minority – the people who excel – to lead it.


If the values and principles you hold coincide in all matters of substance with the different communities to which you belong – social, religious, work etc., then it is either an enormous coincidence or you simply lack any critical judgment of your own.


Those who are aware of the enormities which they are capable of committing at the behest of authority have at least a chance of resisting. Those who are not aware are time bombs.


Those who are aware of the enormities which they are capable of committing at the behest of authority should take every opportunity to exercise the muscles of autonomy. They should perform one act of nonconformity each day to keep themselves in trim.


 The inclination to conformity is like a warped stick; it must be bent back beyond the horizontal to correct the natural bias.

About Quentin

Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
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17 Responses to de la Bédoyère’s Maxims No 8

  1. tim says:

    Thank you for these stimulating maxims. I hope the following comments will be considered as an acceptable act of non-conformity.

    1. “The greatest”? “Very great”, certainly. Maybe this is only a quibble.
    2. I’m not sure that you can properly talk about ‘evolutionary adaptations’ in respect of ‘society’. Maybe the argument can be put in the form that people need a society to survive and reproduce, and that society requires some conformism (among other things). But how much?
    3. This is perhaps an oversimplification, leading to a false antithesis. For one thing, if you belong to a number of communities, the prevailing values in those communities will almost certainly differ in significant respects. This gives you opportunities to flex your nonconformist muscles. But some things are important and others less so – “matters of substance”. It is my individual responsibility to classify and where appropriate investigate. Authorities are mostly not infallible, but often know better than I do. You need to weigh their claims to pronounce. If I disagree with the current scientific consensus about climate change, for example, it may be because I’m laudably sceptical or it may be because I’m ignorant and pig-headed.
    4. This is no doubt true but may be undergeneralised. Delete “at the behest of authority”, and I’d agree more enthusiastically.
    5. Again, I would prefer this to be more general. Delete from the first sentence as before, and insert in the second sentence “and one act of obedience”.
    6. This is tempting but dangerous. One evil of all excess is that it promotes an opposite reaction that can be even more troublesome.

    More generally, I’m not convinced that conformism is quite the evil you perceive. Obviously though there is sometimes a duty to disagree: and this duty may be the greater the more powerful the authority and the more widely held the opinion.

  2. Just the kind of response maxims need! Let’s see what others think.

  3. kouin says:

    If some one gets authoritarian in a club say, its as a result from administrating the club.

  4. giton says:

    I thoroughly agree.

    There are so many examples of where obedience has led to the most atrocious iniquities.

    It is why, perhaps, that primacy of conscience is an oft forgotten gem within Catholic thinking and practice.

    It is my opinion that we are living in times which merit thorough disobedience to authority. I’m thinking in particular of the current over-weaning State which daily seems to wish to emulate Stalinism and a STASI-style collection of personal data. Where we differ, of course, is in the State’s seeming inability to keep hold of the data it collects.

    I can see my major act of nonconformity approaching in the form of ID Cards. Sadly, I think it will be cleverly staged and stage-managed so there’ll be little or no opportunity for a do-or-die statement or act of defiance. I have, however, an opportunity coming along soon … a General Election.

    I have for as long as I can remember been aware of the depravities to which I could descend were it not for the combination of self-awareness, ‘moral’ judgement and fear of consequences. It frightens be to know that, given circumstances, I could have administered the Zyklon B … and to that degree I am cheered by Quentin’s throught that I might thereby be capable of resistance.

  5. Juliana says:

    Some more thoughts on conformity.

    Today, in this materialistc world, it is even more important that Catholics do not blend in. We have to show our difference.

    Today, Catholics (and all followers of Christ) need to be counter-cultural in order to bear witness and this can appear politically incorrect. (Political correctness is the most insidious form of conformity hovering over us).

    As the Button Moulder to Peer Gynt…we must “stand forth everywhere with Master’s intention displayed like a signboard”.

    The media manipulates us to conform to the values of the world and ridicules or pillories those who do not.

  6. hugo1963 says:

    I agree with Juliana. BUT how about being conformist inside the Church? Once upon a time it would have been conformist to badmouth Jews, or to approve of burning heretics. If Quentin means what he says it must mean that we should be ready to be non-conformist even nowadays. What are the things the Church is doing, or advocating. which in a 100 years we shall clearly see as wrong? Or has the Church suddenly become perfect in all respects in 2008?

  7. Juliana says:

    In reply to Hugo…I suppose Giton’s point on 24th August that “primacy of conscience is an oft forgotten gem within Catholic thinking and practice”
    gives us an escape route away from conformism inside the Church if there is something we genuinely can’t go along with.

    It’s difficult to see what the Church is doing or advocating now that we won’t agree with in 100 years time however those living then will see from their perspective…. But the Church is not a social club. It is a Divine institution; it does not heedlessly follow the world although I agree with Hugo about our necessary volte face over “burning heretics and bad-mouthing Jews.”

    We might have married priests (a good idea and we had them for the first 1000 years) but doubt there’ll be women priests….

  8. tim says:

    Maybe I can blow a bit hotter. Conscience has primacy, but we are obliged to develop an informed conscience. Blind obedience can be very dangerous, but so can blind obstinacy. (No doubt nobody is advocating either). I am unconvinced that the principal danger in the Church today is an unquestioning respect for authority. ” I know better” is the cry: sometimes it may be true, but it’s also what Satan said to St Michael.

  9. hugo1963 says:

    If I may come back to Juliana. It is indeed difficult to see what aspects of the Church, if any, our descendants will look back on with regret. That’s the whole point: we don’t see them easily because we are part of them and take them for granted. So did our Catholic ancestors. How long ago was it that Catholic nurses were strongly discouraged from sending for an Anglican clergyman to attend to a patient who had requested one? It was in the authoritative 1958 edition of Moral and Pastoral Theology by Henry Davis SJ. Are we proud of that?

    I will just make one guess. In 100 years time the Curia will have been substantially reformed, and its basically administrative functions (which is all they should be) will be much more open. The diocesan bishops will be much more independent, and will be making much more use of the laity. The pope will have reduced the Vatican monopoly in the choice of bishops to a reserve power of veto in exceptional cases. The infallibility of the pope will still be upheld, but it will seen very much as a reserve power only to hold off ‘the gates of hell’. And we will actually embrace in reality the idea that truth is more important than obedience, instead of paying lip service to it.

  10. kouin says:

    moral authority…
    Its like Obahma versus whats his name,
    where a mixture of the two types would do.
    The cool exterior with the secure base; Obahma as the Pres. and the other as vice.
    The other way round has its pluses A strong no-nonsense Pres. with a cool interior.
    As an artist I know I prefer the first -I just wouldn’t dare with the secure sort. I’d be scared to experiment.
    Whereas Obahma’s lot have the inteligence to realise they can’t ban people into taking the correct moral way and use compassionate offices.
    Mind you, from his ‘cool magical charm’ we can sense he’s gonna crack up at the first serious test and become even more tyrannical than Bush.
    Knowing this I’m afraid I’d still vote for his ideals rather than have anyone presume. I give up with myself I really do.

  11. Horace says:

    “The greatest iniquities are committed in the name of obedience.” but what about all the good acts that are carried out in the name of obedience?
    Generally speaking obedience to properly constituted authority is good. Sometimes those in authority may tell us to act in a way that is bad – against our conscience; then and only then we are justified in refusing to obey [indeed we must refuse despite the consequences].

  12. kouin says:

    Yes Horace you hit the nail on the head but then how to ‘disobey’…?

  13. I have found this a very interesting discussion. So just a word or two. A fixed attitude of non-conformity – the barrack room (sacristy?) lawyer – is every bit as bone-brained as the perpetual, automatic conformist. The first just annoys, the second ensures that we never develop, never progress. Neither are interested in the truth, but only in maintaining their own attitudes.
    Both in civil society and the Church there has always been change. Thus civil society accepted the slave trade, but now it condemns it. It was the Quakers and others who enlisted Wilberforce and, by their non conformity eventually succeeded. Some of the most influential theologians advising the bishops at Vatican II had previously been silenced by the Vatican.
    So within, and indeed as a part of, our loyalty to the Church we may have a role to play to highlighting where progress might be made. It goes against the grain of course: conformity is much more comfortable. (For instance the famous Milgram experiment showed how prone we are to obey authority, and ready to do truly evil things through our obedience. Strangely, Catholics turned out to be more conformist than most.)
    Some issues are obvious but, as Donald Rumsfeld said: “But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” It is being open to the possibility of identifying these, that our liveliest minds must turn.

  14. Iona says:

    Quentin, you might be interested to know that the Milgram experiment has been recently repeated (as reported in The Psychologist for September 2008). The results were very similar to those in the original experiment, with nearly 70% of participants being willing to continue giving what they believed were increasingly severe electric shocks to “victims” (actors) who were protesting that they wanted the experiment to stop. At the same time, data from Milgram’s original experiments has been re-analysed and applied to situations such as treatment of prisoners in interrogation situations. The analyst concluded that such ill-treatment is most likely when it is unclear what the standards of treatment of the prisoners should be, and “in particular, when authority figures appear to imply that the harsh techniques are necessary and relatively innocuous”. Thus, conformity is most likely in a morally unclear situation where respected figures appear to “know best”.

  15. Iona, that is very interesting. I has thought that it had proved difficult to do further “Milgram” experiments because of ethical issues, but the study you relate must have got around that.

    One point I found important in the original studies was that Milgram asked a group of psychology majors beforehand what proportion they estimated would conform. The answer they gave was, between 2 and 3%. This suggests that even well informed people grossly underestimate the prevalence of this tendency. (Which is, presumably, an evolutionary adaptation which enables a group cohere because the majority prefer to accept authority rather than to make independent decisions.).
    It is only when we accept that we too are susceptible to conformity that it becomes possible to fight against it.

    Your last sentence “Thus, conformity is most likely in a morally unclear situation where respected figures appear to ‘know best’.” is very pertinent to the topics we have been discussing. The Pope (see my column Holding out for a Hero) does not ask for conformity but for the autonomous recognition by a well-prepared conscience of the truth of the teaching being presented. That is a marvellously different thing.

  16. Frank says:

    I agree with Horace.

    Further, the greatest iniquity of all was committed in the name of disobedience. I refer to Adam and Eve, for whose misdeed the whole of humanity has been weakened ever since. Even before that, one might mention the ‘Non serviam!’ of Lucifer, the rebel angel.

    When I think of the word’ obedience’, I don’t think of slavish conformity; that is a deformation of true obedience, which is reason responding to grace e.g. ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord’ etc. We don’t think of Our Lady as slavish…

  17. Here, Frank, we can at last agree. My embrace of peace travels (as in fact it always has) across the blogosphere in your direction.
    The greatest example we have of obedience is that of Jesus to the will of his Father. And that survives Juliana’s test of what would Jesus do in spades.
    In God his will and the truth are all one thing. I think that is the point that Ratzinger is relying on in the ‘Hero’ piece. That is, we can recognise in the Church’s teaching the truth of God to which we are gratefully obedient.
    So back to Horace and his caveat about conscience. Here I take him to mean that we must first listen to the Church and attempt to recognise this correspondence. But the possibility exists, however rarely, that our carefully formed judgment may not accept a particular teaching, and that conscience must be followed. The truth as we judge it, even erroneously, must always take precedence over obedience.
    But I don’t think that your original noting of the Inquisition somehow extinguishes what it teaches us. Here, too many peole at all levels in the Church forgot Jesus’ principle of loving our neighbour as ourselves. We (and because of the Mystical Body it is we) allowed our consciences to be distorted by an obedience which reflection on what Jesus would have done would have told us. So we must always test the fidelity of the Church’s current teaching against this criterion.

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