Keith A. Petty

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In the first weeks of President Trump’s administration, the Acting Attorney General was fired for ordering the Justice Department not to enforce a controversial Executive Order on immigration. Police departments and corporate boardrooms prepare for deregulation and less oversight, opening the door to more aggressive police tactics and profit seeking, respectively. Military leaders wonder whether they will be ordered to torture suspected terrorists. In each of these situations, individuals must decide whether they will follow their conscience and disobey superiors, or comply with organizational and state policies. This article examines the conflict between conscience and compliance, and draws upon lessons from military conscientious objectors to describe the behavioral pulls that influence decisions to disobey. The law of military conscientious objection is an impactful microcosm of legal and ethical noncompliance. As such, it is an effective illustration of the relationship between individual behavior and organizations or states. Applying compliance theory—the branch of social-psychological studies seeking to answer why individuals, organizations, or even states obey the law—this article offers prescriptive recommendations aimed at enhancing organizational efficiency and individual commitment, and balancing the legal and moral conflicts of potential objectors.