Only obeying orders

I wish someone would explain to me the moral difference between ‘I was obeying the will of God’ and ‘I was only obeying orders’.

Let me start by assuming that those who favour the view that the world and human beings were created by a divine force are right. Let me also assume that a defining quality of human beings is our capacity for moral responsibility. A cat can slaughter a rat but it is not an immoral action. It would not even be an immoral action if it slaughtered another cat, or a human being. A human being, by contrast, must consider the moral dimension of all its actions, no matter how trivial, because every action potentially has a moral aspect, and we are morally responsible.

One thing we have discovered in the last half-century (starting with the Nuremburg trials of 1946) is that I cannot absolve myself of my moral responsibilities by simply claiming that I was ordered to do this or that by a higher authority. It is still my action, and the only moral effect of my having been ordered to carry it out by someone else is that they are implicated in it too. But their responsibility in no way lessens my own. This is not a zero-sum game in which the more responsibility they have the less I can be blamed.

And that is, as far as I can see, part of the religious message, at least as far as the ‘revealed’ religions of Christianity, Islam and Judaism are concerned. Obeying God is justification enough, and disobeying God inherently wicked.

But why should I obey the will of God? Or rather, why should I obey it unless I also agree with it? Conversely, if I do not agree with it, am I not a hypocrite? It doesn’t make any difference that it is the will of God – I am still responsible for my own actions, regardless of who put me up to them. How is this different from ‘only obeying orders’?

Indeed, in what sense is obeying the will of God a moral stance of any kind? How can I just follow anyone’s orders without being guilty of abdicating my responsibility to evaluate their merits? But abdication is simply amoral. In fact I’m not sure it’s even that!

More of RJ Robinson at

Leave a Reply