Authority

Some general thoughts about authority. Not intended to be comprehensive.

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Human society cannot function without authority. There must be authorities, and the people must, for the most part, respect the authority that the authorities possess.

As an attribute, “authority” means the right to be believed or obeyed. There are authorities who are rulers, and there are authorities who are experts. Real experts, that is.

The right to be believed comes from demonstrated mastery of some field of knowledge. It is defined by the truth, not the person. The right to be obeyed is less easily defined. It is defined by the society in which the authority and his subordinates is embedded. It is partly subjective, because the people will not respect a ruler who appears deficient. It is partly objective, as the rules of the society generally determine who has the right to rule.

There is currently an obvious crisis of authority. In part because the existing higher-level authorities are proving themselves to be unworthy (the higher the level, the less worthy), and in part because of the spread of philosophies which condemn or undermine authority. These are mutually reinforcing trends

But the existing authorities are not completely unworthy, and the people are not completely mistrustful. Without any authority, human society collapses and humans live like animals. Since society has not collapsed, and humans mostly do not live like animals, some authority remains.

But there is a crisis. The main cause of the crisis is the spread of a “democratic” way of thinking. Because of democracy, rulers cannot simply rule. They have to secure the explicit approval of the voters / customers / clients. To do this, they must devote themselves full-time to manipulating and intimidating the people. The people see this and respond with increased distrust, which amplifies the cycle.

The only way to improve things begins with understanding what is really going on.

Real authority cannot be ultimately grounded in nothing but human belief. If authority has no other ground it is a house of cards that is prone to collapse under stress. If authority cannot be traced back ultimately to God then the whole thing will eventually fail. Nobody has an ultimate right to be obeyed or to be believed unless God is the ground of the social, moral and intellectual orders. Without belief in God, man is just making it up as he goes along, and the people sense this and refuse to respect the existing authorities beyond the bare minimum necessary for survival.

The foregoing is a basic philosophical analysis, but although true and important, it does not provide practical guidance. For this reason cynics dismiss the whole exercise as futility.

That’s the way it always is with the ultimate things, and the things of God are the most ultimate. God is real but His existence does not guarantee our lives will go well or that we will understand everything we want to understand.

Our authorities are failing because they generally reject true beliefs about God, mankind, and human society. The people often join them in these false beliefs, with the result that society is disordered and dysfunctional. The part of the population which holds to generally sound beliefs about God, mankind and human society is unpopular, as it defies our main authorities and the large faction who generally back them. The Faction of Disorder holds power, but its constituent sects are unhappy because the Doctrine of Disorder which animates the Faction of Disorder is incoherent and so incapable of producing even minimally satisfactory results. The only thing holding the Faction of Disorder together is hatred of Deplorables.

For society to work there must be authorities who are often benevolent and competent. When this happens the people trust them more and so they can lead more effectively. For our authorities to be benevolent and competent they must reject much of their foolish and godless current doctrine. Will they? Not any time soon. Apparently a good dose of catastrophe will be the only way to break the spell.

Good leadership requires good followers, so the general populace also bears responsibility for the current mess. But the man in the street cannot do anything to bring about good authorities. All he can do is respond properly should such authorities appear.

18 thoughts on “Authority

  1. Any “authority” that imprisons is of Satan. Godly authority only executes criminals and primarily the crimes so punished are atheism, homosexuality, and adultery. If anyone desires to be recognized as an authority let him take heed. And authority also can never be female.

  2. I’m glad you’ve also distinguished authority to be believed from authority to be obeyed. The former one might call epistemic authority, but I prefer not to call it authority at all, because it is an essentially different thing. Much of the anti-authoritarianism in recent posts comes from thinking that lawful obedience requires believing what government officials believe (or, at least, what they proclaim). This is not true. Only actions can be commanded, not beliefs.

    • Beliefs cannot be commanded because belief cannot be willed. I think what the anti-authoritarians dislike is not compulsory belief, but compulsory hypocrisy. And I think most of them resent the hypocrisy compelled by the actual established church of political correctness, and are not squirming as they recite the Nicene Creed.

    • @ Bonald: They are different, but the two forms of authority feel similar to me. One says “You gotta do,” the other says “you gotta know.” And the word authority is often used in the epistemic sphere, which suggests that mankind recognizes a similarity.

  3. I think your deep analysis of the crises is correct, but also too deep to shape the minds of most people. The crisis in authority is all on our side because all the authorities are on the other side. People will accept despotism if the despot makes some effort to appear benevolent, but our despots appear the very opposite of benevolent to conservative Christian males who believe they are white. I see no crisis of authority on the other side, only an eagerness to stand out as the one who wears his mask the longest and hates disinformation the strongest.

    Much of the discussion here in recent weeks has implied that Americans have lost the virtue obedience. This is laughably absurd. They have just lost the virtue of obeying the authorities we think they should obey, while we, who fancy ourselves obedient, have lost the capacity to obey the authorities we actually have.

    The real story, I think, is the complete collapse of Christianity as a moral force in American culture. Individuals still respect the Bible or the Church, but the National culture does not. It really wasn’t that long ago that Christians like Billy Graham, Fulton Sheen and Reinhold Niebuhr were accepted by the National media as important moral authorities. Now Christians are invited on talk shows to serve as the butt of a joke (and that less and less often).

    I think groundless authority will be able to hold on to power because it commands such extraordinary powers of social control. Past societies required a great deal of self-policing and voluntary compliance. Nowadays a bot will “read” this comment and alert the “authorities” if it thinks I might benefit from a visit from the FBI.

    • I think our opponents do not respect the authorities that be, but only find them useful. Their doctrine does not permit any real authority. I’m old enough to remember when authorities were generally given the benefit of the doubt until such time as they had proven themselves untrustworthy. Nowadays the chief function of authorities is to superintend the Revolution, with doing their historic jobs a distant second.

      You’re right about the collapse of Christian moral authority. That’s the ultimate cause of the crisis, in my view.

    • Christians submitting to the authority that comes from God, and not to the authority from below, are the only people capable of viable resistance in this time. That’s why the only approved Christian religion is a modern version of anabaptist or quietist, because they are not resisting evil.

  4. As an attribute, “authority” means the right to be believed or obeyed. There are authorities who are rulers, and there are authorities who are experts. Real experts, that is.

    This is a muddled idea of what authority is.

    Authority is the ability to create moral obligation. Nothing more, and nothing less. Insofar as some entity has the ability to create moral obligation in some sphere, that entity has authority in that sphere.

    Yes, the contours of authority can be extremely nuanced, or extremely broad.

    • “The ability to create moral obligation” is just another way of phrasing “the right to be obeyed.” Both of them mean “You gotta do what he says.”

    • I’d add the qualifier and say “create effective moral obligation.” People are constantly creating moral obligations for me–telling me I ought to do this, that, or the other thing. These inventions are only rarely effective.

      • To make it all explicit, an authority can create a moral obligation that holds only because that authority commands it. Other people can remind you of obligations you already had (or try to convince you of moral obligations you already had), or their distress can create a moral obligation for you to help, but they cannot create obligations by command.

      • I agree. I should have said I am surrounded by people who invent moral obligations and then pretend they are just reminding me.

  5. I read here several meanings of the word, depending upon context.

    “The authorities,” referring to individuals who, in a group, possess the wherewithal to compel obedience and to punish the disobedient. There is no moral requisite, although “the authorities” usually falsify their total control by issuing moral-like guidance for behavior. Religious leaders over two millennia in the West — Phillip of Spain, for example — tortured and kill many on the basis of immoral moral guidance.

    “An authority,” referring to one whose expertise commands adherence to standards set or, at times, respect’) — an authority on Tudor castles or on James Joyce or banana plantations, for example.

    and

    “Authority,” the embodiment of that which is to be revered and followed voluntarily with no compulsion whatever, and for its own sake.

    There could be other meanings swimming about here that I’ve not cottoned to, but that’s my quick take.

    Reminds me of reading Ayn Rand on Mao’s dictum, “Power issues from the barrel of a gun.” She spent an essay arguing essentially that real power derives from respect of those who are made subservient to it. I see Richard has also prefixed authority with “real” just as Rand did with power.

    Just as an aside, she was wasting ink, because the translation into English was faulty. 枪杆子里面出政权 should be translated as “Out of a gun comes the recognized capacity to rule over others.” 政权 is often mistranslated as political power or the right to rule. But that is a Western conception.

    The Chinese conception is quite cut and dried. We have the guns, you don’t — we take power, you obey. Thus, “the authorities” have the authority to rule without authority. Each sense of the word is preserved in this context.

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