Authority, Part 1

Authority, Part 1 March 8, 2011

I have authority issues.

That doesn’t exactly make me unique. Pagans and Unitarian Universalists tend towards anti-authoritarian, anti-hierarchical views. Combine the two and those views can verge toward anarchy… which creates another set of problems. In any case, while I have no intention of psychoanalyzing myself on the blog, I do think there’s some value in looking deeper into authority and our relationship with it.


The consensus of several online dictionaries is that “authority” means “the right to make decisions,” usually command decisions (as opposed to consensus or majority decisions). It implies a power differential – the superior gives orders to the subordinate. The root word is the same as “author” which implies the rights of a creator, and is similar to “authentic” meaning real and genuine.

Authority is not the same thing as power. Proper use of authority (“authorized decisions”) requires legitimacy. Wikipedia (whose authority is often questioned, but whose content is usually pretty good) points out that while a lynch mob has the power to punish a criminal, only a court of law has the authority to do so.

A police officer has the authority to arrest someone for whom he has a warrant, or someone he has good reason to believe has committed a crime. He doesn’t have the authority to arrest someone because he’s a member of a race that’s rarely seen in a given neighborhood. But we know that happens. Therefore, authority doesn’t rest in a person.

In 2002, my least favorite Supreme Court Justice, Antonin Scalia, gave a speech on the morality of the death penalty titled “God’s Justice and Ours.” He says “In my view, the major impetus behind modern aversion to the death penalty is the equation of private morality with governmental morality. This is a predictable (though I believe erroneous and regrettable) reaction to modern, democratic self–government.” Scalia goes on to quote St. Paul’s admonition that “government is ordained by God” and thus has rights – and authority – that neither individuals nor collections of individuals have. By Scalia’s own admission, this isn’t very far removed from the divine right of kings.

Limits of Authority

What are the limits of authority? What makes the exercise of authority legitimate? It can’t simply be conformance to laws – even democratically enacted laws. Segregation used to be legal – was it legitimate? Before that slavery was legal – was it legitimate?

No. Legitimate authority – as opposed to raw power or abuse of authority – requires that the decision is right and good, not merely that it is created through accepted channels. That raises the question of what is right and good.

This is a slippery slope. Start questioning the legitimacy of some laws and you end up with the folks who claim the government has no authority to levy income taxes or issue driver’s licenses.

I’m not afraid of slippery slopes. If you want black and white you’re on the wrong blog.

Dealing with Authority

So if there are no clear-cut guidelines to legitimate authority vs. abusive authority, what are we who are authority-phobic to do?

The first thing is to acknowledge reality. Demolish all authority and you get anarchy – you get lynch mobs. No thanks – I’ll take my chances with the police and courts. Civilization requires some authority, and in a society larger than one there will always be disagreements as to which authorities are legitimate and which are not. Some we like. Some we tolerate. That’s the price of civilization – we give up some of our absolute personal freedom in exchange for a stable, cohesive society. To answer the old Philosophy 101 question, yes, traffic lights make us less free – but they’re a good tradeoff.

There are times when authority is abused and we can’t tolerate it. We see this in Wisconsin right now. The governor thought that because his party has a supermajority in the state legislature, he could unilaterally end the right of state employees to bargain collectively. 14 Democratic senators understood that was legal, but that “legal” didn’t mean “legitimate.” They took the extreme action of breaking quorum. I have no idea how this will end, either short term or long term, but it points toward the right and the obligation to defy the unjust application of power. Defiance usually has consequences – Martin Luther King spent a lot of time in jail. How strong are your convictions?

This is another slippery slope. Not every issue is the moral equivalent of slavery or segregation. Protest every bill you think is morally wrong and the public will tune you out.

Again, I’m not afraid of slippery slopes. If you want black and white you’re on the wrong blog.

Acknowledge that some authority is necessary. Work within right authority. Tolerate what you must in the name of the common good. Resist what must be resisted. And know the difference.

Tomorrow I’ll talk about issues with authority in churches and in the world of commerce.

Browse Our Archives