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The Duty to Disobey

There are times when we cannot convince leaders to change their policies or actions and we gracefully line up with the team and support the policies. There are other times when the policies or actions are morally unacceptable to us. In this case a courageous follower must consider refusing to participate in their implementation.

The right to refuse and the duty to refuse implementing a policy or order are almost indistinguishable; they should be exercised under nearly identical circumstances. If we receive a policy or order that we feel is destructive to fundamental values and the common purpose, our right and duty to refuse to implement the policy or order activate. We have the duty to disobey even if the whole group obeys. This requires profound courage because the pressure to conform is enormous. Not only do we need the courage to voice our decision to disobey, we must also find additional courage to sustain our decision when we are cajoled or threatened into changing it.

No fast rules can be devised to guide our decision to disobey; each act is one of principle taken within the context of a specific and unique situation. There are times when values conflict. For example, values formed in different cultures may be inherently polarized. Compassion, intelligence, self-esteem, and perhaps even a little higher guidance are needed to determine when refusing to comply is the correct and necessary action. What kinds of circumstances might warrant refusing to implement a policy or order?

Human life or health are being unnecessarily risked.

Common decency is being violated.

The rule of law is being sacrificed to expediency.

The organization’s purpose is being undermined.

The organization’s stakeholders are being denied basic service.

A clique or special interest is being served at the expense of the common good.

It is even more important to reject a policy or order when others’ rights and welfare are jeopardized rather than our own. This is how the fabric of the social order is kept whole. While disobedience on behalf of another may be more clearly defensible, the courage required is greater because there is so little to be gained for ourselves, so much to be lost.

When we take a courageous stance by refusing to implement instructions, we sincerely believe our actions are right and necessary. It may turn out, however, that our decision to disobey was wrong and carried serious consequences for the group. Fear of error should make us appropriately cautious, but not paralyze us. We have to be prepared to shoulder the responsibility for our mistakes, too.

If an act of disobedience comes under formal review it is hoped that those who sit in judgment will examine the motives that drove the act. If the act sprang from fundamental values of decency and concern for the common purpose, it is hoped they will weigh that against the value of compliance to authority and judge accordingly.