Modern democratic society cherishes the values of freedom and independence. Indeed, democracy is defined by the notion of self-government or (to use the word with Greek roots) autonomy. The people governs itself through representatives of its own choosing; it is not subject to any external authority; it will not be overawed by a monarch or subsumed within an empire. Having freedom to choose for oneself is set in opposition to being a servant or slave, being subject to the will of another. We will never again be subjects, we will be citizens.

Still we honor (as the common phrase has it) the brave men and women who serve in the armed forces, or in police or fire departments, or in other similar organizations. In order to serve, one must choose to obey. People who serve understand themselves not as independent, but as inter-dependent. They understand themselves as members of a larger social body, as stomach, heart, and foot are members of an animal body. As a rank-and-file member, you understand that you are not in possession of all the relevant information, nor of the specialized knowledge, required to make good decisions about your own actions. For example, you know how to load and fire a weapon, but not where and when to fire it.

At the most basic level, this is because individual actions of this sort can be effective only if they are co-ordinated. Individuals dutifully obey based on trust that their leaders know best how to accomplish a mission, and that they will do their best to minimize losses—in particular, loss of life. Sadly, we all know that sometimes this trust is misplaced. But there is never a third option. There are only two: opt for trust as a subordinate, or for self-government and insubordination. In the rare case, illuminated by conscience, disobedience is the best option. But if the organism is to thrive, to maintain or increase its power of acting, disobedience must be held down to a minimum. Therefore, the leaders are obliged to demonstrate their trustworthiness to the maximum. Well-placed trust is blind only in the exceptional case. Much of the time it squints.

Unless their trust has been betrayed, people who serve on the whole report that service is rewarding: they find a sense of meaning and purpose in life by being part of something greater than their individual selves. They find this by belonging to organizations that are not democratic, by submitting to higher authority. To a large extent they surrender their independence to discover a deeper inter-dependence.

So why in the world should freedom and independence be our highest values? Is being bound by one’s pledge, by one’s duty, is being a servant beneath human dignity? How much do you stand to lose if you insist on the freedom to choose, if you can’t stand to bow or kneel?