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 (see “Can Belief Be Knowledge?”) 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 logic 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, a category of truth and goodness claims dominated by religion, the class of declarations most reliant on authority for warrant. It is no accident that Lewis picks empirical truths as the examples in this 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 (see “Expertise”). 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. The parent likely accepts the doctor’s expertise as superior to her own authority. Still, her child will seek her reassurance, naturally accepting her authority over the expertise of a stranger. 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, reason, or expertise. Strictly speaking, we are not convinced at all in the correspondentist way that allows our reason to follow the kinds of proof of judgment that bolster individual truth claims. Our trust is engendered by a special kind of prior experience and follows from it without regard to the specific truth or goodness claim it accepts on trust.  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 provides evidence or reasoning in support of it. That is not necessary because the target of the claim has already forfeited the judgment that would arbitrate the claim to the authority who makes 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 from our own childhoods.

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. As an issue of correspondence truth or goodness, the declaration of someone we accept as a personal authority requires rational interrogation based on the reasonableness of the claim according to the four tests of correspondence, but in practice our acceptance is either based on a childlike disregard for that responsibility or at most a casual and passing consideration based on non-contradiction. Our trust places our judgment on autopilot and relieves us of the bother of considering the claim. That avoidance is a convenience for undifferentiated experience. Who would want to challenge the torrent of declarations of family and friends and even if possible, how could that level of doubt fail to damage intimacy? I think it undesirable in personal relationships, but it is worth pointing out that this minimal degree of trust much more closely resembles belief and forces personal authority into the realm of coherence and the virtual circle (see “What Is the Virtual Circle?”). It also disposes of the problem of finding a sufficient warrant for trust in personal authority, for such determinations must be privately derived and defended by at best the logical entailment of the listener’s own experience and reasoning by whatever means she finds amenable. It is true that such a trust may be permissible in just the same way that beliefs are: they do not violate any prior determinations of truth or goodness. This is the baseline of the virtual circle. They gain credence when we can justify them as entailed by prior knowledge conducing to trust. Such a determination would force any rational agent pondering the same situation to extend trust in the same manner. With long experience and thought, one’s trust may be transmuted to an even stronger position: a judgment justified by repeated experiences that confirm whatever determination must be decided. This level of proof is superior to undifferentiated experience but shy of expertise and derives from knowledge of both the person seeking trust and the situation in which it is being sought. Trust beneath the level of permissibility shades into pure coherence. In such cases we cannot say, “You shouldn’t trust that person,” for the decision is as private as the one that prompts affection or dislike. Those outside the perceptual wall of the believer cannot judge the patterns of permissible belief that with repetition and examination conduce to the entailments of trust. On the other hand, we all have experienced the dissolution of trust that follows either cathartic violations or a chain of lesser offenses that gradually erode it, so it seems clear that trust is both revocable and subject to the kinds of coherentist readjustments that mark shifts in the virtual circle, at least when it borders on simple belief.

In light of this categorization of personal authority, let us reexamine Lewis’s claims.  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 entail or 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 (see “Correlation, Causation, Motivation“) 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 based on some degree of experience that allows determinations from the deeply private to the fully justified. Just as my personal trust has been earned by multiple experiences demonstrating reliability with someone I know, my interrogation of institutional authority may reveal reasons to trust or distrust. 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. Authority must always appeal to trust freely granted. To consider us all dupes of cooption is more than insulting to the institutions that enable culture to function. It demeans our moral autonomy to weigh experience for truth and goodness and insults the rational agency that bestows trust.

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 an indispensable component of the weak knowledge that is authority, one of the weakest that still passes the bar of “judged as true by a preponderance of the evidence,” at least in cases where determinations of trust can be entailed or justified. In such matters, we do not so much judge the issue as the authority who decides it. 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 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 (see “Premodern Authority“). In bestowing it, we forfeit the hard-won moral agency that modernism managed to secure in the dismal aftermath of the Reformation, transferring the power to judge to the authority who decides for us. That surrender is reluctantly granted by the modern mind and even more reluctantly bestowed by the postmodern one, for it gives away the power to judge truth and goodness, a dangerous surrender. While that is a relief to conscience, it lies uneasy on the contemporary mind that scans the horizon restlessly in fear of bad faith, betrayal, or hypocrisy and stands ready to reapproriate what it has forfeited at any provocation, a mind ever tempted by competing modes of knowing truth and finding goodness.

This is 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. Surrendered moral agency is reclaimed. The awkward half-bestowal that nowadays passes for trust in institutional authority is withdrawn; the half-hearted grant of personal authority is snatched away. 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 authority itself 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 (See “What Counts as Justification?“). 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 exercise the moral agency to consider the claims of other disputants, and in doing so withdraw the trust that powers authority’s warrant. At that moment, it 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. It must either crush competing warrants, including those that disdain authority entirely, or exercise more tolerance. The former option produces zealotry and fanaticism, the latter a dissolution of trust.


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