Authority, Trust, and Knowledge

I think “authority” is used with three different meanings when warranting our claims to truth, goodness, and beauty. Two of them are mistaken.

The most obvious error is the one C.S. Lewis falls prey to in Mere Christianity. “The ordinary man believes (sic) in the Solar System, atoms, evolution, and the circulation of blood on authority—because the scientists have said so.” Ignore for the moment the common misuse of the word “believe” in the sentence (please see last week’s post on that score) and you can’t help but see the equally common misunderstanding of authority as justification. It is, of course, true that we don’t bother reading Copernicus, Democritus, Darwin, or Harvey in order to be convinced by the empirical evidence or expertise of these thinkers any more than the student bothers to check the facts and judgments in her history text. But the justification for these truth claims is available to anyone who wishes to examine it. Only laziness or, to put it more charitably, lack of interest or time prohibits us from verifying these claims. This is different from having to accept authority to justify them because no other means is available. If the experimental scientist summarizes his results on his blog and also presents them in a juried journal, is their proof dependent on which we happen to come across first or on which is easier to grasp? By that standard every kindergarten teacher deserves the MacArthur Genius Grant! Authority as justification should be reserved for those truth claims unable to be warranted by other, more reliable means of justification. It is no accident that Lewis picks empirical truths as the examples for his quotation. They are the most powerfully warranted of all truth claims; the authority he attributes to scientists is not the reason we judge their claims to be so convincingly true.

A similar error involves the common association we notice between authority and expertise. In a perfect world, no doubt, all experts would be considered authorities, and even in this imperfect one, most experts are granted that status. But the two modes of justification are quite different at their core. The expert asserts her truth claim on the basis of repeated similar experiences that are logically related. They must be different enough to draw ever finer distinctions through thoughtful analysis but similar enough to allow classification of their essentials. Expertise is a very strong proof of judgment in correspondence truth theory, but authority enjoys a much lower status when used as a stand-alone justification. The pediatrician has told far more children to “say ah” than the parent and has spent many more hours studying the symptoms of the illness that brought the sick child and concerned parent into her office. Certainly, the parent accepts the doctor’s expertise as superior to her own authority. Still, her child will seek her reassurance, naturally accepting her authority to mandate treatment. We see in this instance as in so many others that authority does hold warrant for claims to truth and goodness. But why should it?

The answer to that question must invoke the trust of the beneficiary. We accept the authority’s declarations of what is true or good or beautiful not because of any of the three powerful proofs of correspondence: empiricism, logic, or expertise. Strictly speaking, we are not convinced at all in the way that our reason might follow the kinds of proof of judgment that bolster stronger claims. Our trust is engendered by a special kind of experience. We accept the authority of the speaker because of a chain of personal interactions that support the authority’s honesty or accuracy in other matters. This personal authority is the kind friends and parents exercise over their loved ones. The specific claim is not exactly the point because neither the speaker nor the listener can provide stronger evidence or reasoning in support of it. A kind of bank of good will and reliability supports this new claim rather than anything specifically relating to it. This might require a clearer explication if all of us were not so familiar with its operation. I hope it is not putting too fine a point on this kind of relationship to also draw a distinction between the judgments we make based on personal authority and the beliefs we form about the person exercising that authority. Our judgments are those things we think true, and the word “judgment” strikes the appropriate tone of impartiality in light of a preponderance of evidence.  Our beliefs are those we want to be true. Strictly speaking, the truth claims of someone we accept as a personal authority should be matters of judgment based on  experiences that strengthen our belief that this person will justify our trust. The two are really different kinds of mental operations but are frequently conflated because they are so closely correlated in practice, producing the kinds of confusion C.S. Lewis reveals in Mere Christianity.  In all matters of trust, belief and judgment rub shoulders. That calls into question whether trust in authority can ever adequately justify any claim to knowledge. More on that momentarily.

It might seem that institutional authority is something rather different from the personal variety. After all, I don’t know the policeman who tickets me, the instructor who teaches me, the congressman who represents me, or the clergyman who interprets Scripture for me. Certainly, I might hope that these authorities are also experts in their fields and that I might benefit from that expertise just as I would from the mechanic who fixes my car or the engineer who builds the airplane I fly in. But expertise is not a requirement of institutional authority. These people make their declarations of truth, goodness, and beauty based on nothing more than the say-so of those who installed them in their positions. On what grounds should I accept their truth claims?

The postmodern view is that I shouldn’t, or at least shouldn’t too quickly. In their suspicion of institutional authority, postmodernists urge us to challenge authority, to “speak truth to power.” Since this kind of authority is power freely granted, postmodernists would have us be more judicious in granting it, charging that all institutional power is a kind of cooption and a perpetuation of extant exploitative arrangements. I have taken issue with this position before (please see my post of August 28th of last year) because it strikes me as simplistic to consider institutional authority as inherently coercive and deceptive while granting a pass to personal authority, something postmodernists admire. I don’t think the two are all that different. We trust institutional authority in a similar way, only our allegiance is to the institution rather than the person. So I trust the courtroom judge not because I know her but because I know the system that appointed her. Just as my personal trust has been earned by multiple experiences demonstrating reliability with someone I know, so too has the institution responsible for the authority I accept demonstrated something similar. To those who say I obey the policeman less because of his badge than his gun, I say that such obedience has nothing to do with justification or with truth or goodness for that matter. “Go along to get along” is the pragmatist’s mantra. Not much room for trust there. If the postmodern suspicion that institutional authority is just the iron fist in the velvet glove, then no issue of warrant arises. No truth, goodness, or beauty is gained over the barrel of a gun. The gulf between these positions makes the postmodern notion of the equivalency between power and authority seem slightly ridiculous.

I’d prefer to focus on the relative strengths of warrants for declarations, and therefore on the world of difference between force and trust. But one question still remains on the issue of trust: is it a form of knowledge? I would argue that trust is indeed a kind of very weak knowledge, perhaps one of the weakest that still passes the bar of “judged as true by a preponderance of the evidence.” In matters of trust, we do not so much judge the issue as we judge the judge. The individual in matters of personal authority and the institution in matters of institutional authority have demonstrated sufficient reliability in other experiences that we trust them in this one. Of course, our trust in this situation is alloyed with attachment and loyalty; these are constituent not of judgment but of belief. And belief cannot be knowledge. Still, that is the crux of it, and if this level of knowledge just barely rises to the definition, in the absence of better proofs of judgment, it will have to be enough in cases in which nothing stronger can be laid before us. But bear in mind that all knowledge is provisional and open to revision by better evidence or reasoning. If such tentativeness characterizes the best proofs of judgment, it certainly must apply to that dilute thing we call authority.

That being said, I would be derelict if I didn’t also mention the dark side of authority of whatever stripe. Because it is so weak a knowledge claim, because it relies so thoroughly on trust and the assent of the beneficiary, authority can disappear as easily as a soap bubble on a breezy day. All it takes is the withdrawal of assent produced by a corrosion of trust or challenge by authority of equal weight. The truth claims of authority seem to those secure in their trust to be solid foundation for judgment… until trust is weakened. Then the evanescence of authority is made clear, and all of its claims come tumbling down. In those areas in which authority is the best available proof of judgment—in matters of religion, for instance—adherents should be aware that credible challenges to the truth claims by competing authorities or any suspicions that cast doubt upon the trustworthiness of the authorities themselves are sufficient to destroy the trust and therefore the warrant of authority that supports its truth and goodness claims. Note that it is the challenge itself, not its truth, which shatters the warrant of authority.  This is because of all the proofs of judgment, only authority lacks the means of resolving conflict within its method of warrant. All other proofs of judgment can demonstrate error by more careful application of the warrant itself. Two conflicting experts can resolve their differences through analysis of how their expertise applies to their disagreement; two mathematics students can compare their answers to determine which made a logical error; two scientists can examine their experimental results, and so on. Even undifferentiated experience, the weakest proof of correspondence truth, allows us the luxury of attempting to replicate an experience whose truth is in doubt. I can return to the place where I thought I left my keys. In every other kind of warrant, challenge to a declaration spurs reexamination of the warrant for better evidence or reasoning. But authorities, relying only on the trust of their beneficiaries, have already destroyed that trust by the act of disagreement itself, provided the beneficiaries have previously trusted other disputants, and authority then finds itself incapable of justification without appeal to some other kind of warrant. The implications for truth claims backed only by authority should be obvious. Either stronger warrants or more tolerance in the face of challenge is required.

Have a good week!

S. Del


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