- As a warrant, authority must be distinguished from belief.
- Trust definitionally requires a surrender of preferential freedom to authority.
- We are all familiar with the processes of authority from our childhood.
- Extending trust relies upon prior demonstrations of reliability and vastly simplifies morality.
- Personal trust is necessary for loving relationships, but it is diluted in contemporary society or it oscillates with a distrust that prompts re-acquisition of agency.
- Postmodernists distrust authority of any kind, thinking it corrosive of their freedoms and invariably coercive.
- Postmodernists are particularly suspicious of institutional authority, thinking it responsible for past exploitations and deprivations.
- It is an error to think authority can be imposed, for impositions of this kind destroy trust.
- Premodernists consider institutional authority formative of their identity; modernists consider it informative; postmodernists seek performative opportunities to demonstrate their independence.
- Contemporary cultural conflicts over authority are traceable to the collapse of religious authority as a universal warrant for all truth and goodness claims during the Reformation.
- The utter collapse of institutional authority in the twentieth century has precipitated a moral crisis that postmodernism and the human sciences have sought to resolve, but they have failed.
- As a warrant for truth and goodness claims, authority is unique: initially it is quite powerful because the trust that enables it discourages doubt, but once doubt is entertained, authority has no means to sustain the trust that enabled it.
- Institutional authority is unlikely to be resurrected in the foreseeable future, and thus it will not resolve our present moral crisis.
On the fifth of April, 1800, America’s first recorded UFO sighting occurred in the frontier town of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Reported in a letter to Thomas Jefferson by an observer of the incident, William Dunbar, the object “appeared to be the size of a large house, seventy to eighty feet long,” passing approximately two hundred yards overhead. WItnesses reported it moved from southwest to northeast and “it disappeared in a about a quarter of a minute.” Immediately after it disappeared in the northeast, “a violent rushing noise was heard as if the phenomenon was bearing down the forest before it, and in a few seconds a tremendous crash was heard similar to the largest piece of ordinance, causing a very sensible earthquake.” When onlookers arrived on scene, they found “a considerable portion of the earth was found broken up and every vegetable body burned or greatly scorched,” They found no remnants of the object. Though the existence of meteors was at the time a subject of great debate, the flattened trajectory and relatively slow speed of the object has led later investigators to think it something else.
In the year 1224, Francis of Assisi and a companion were on their way to Mount LaVerna for a forty day fast when a six-winged angel appeared to Francis as he prayed. As the vision grew closer, Francis could see it marked by the stigmata, the five “holy wounds” of Christ’s crucifixion. His biographer, Thomas of Celano, writing six years later, picks up the story. “And as his understanding sought in vain for an explanation and his heart was filled with perplexity at the great novelty of the vision, the marks of nails began to appear in his hands and feet, just as he had seen them slightly earlier in the crucified man above him. His wrists and feet seemed to be pierced by nails, with the heads of the nails appearing on his wrists and the upper sides of his feet, the points appearing on the other side.” By this event, Francis was distinguished as the first stigmatist in history, and the miracle of his wounds was used to support his nomination to sainthood two years after his death.
Here we see two stories that strain credulity. Which is more convincing? One event was documented by the American Philosophical Society, the other by an official inquiry of the Roman Catholic church. Both investigations were conducted two years after the purported events. The first offers no explanation for the experience it reported while the second reads the event itself as convincing proof of complex religious dogma despite its unprecedented claims. Even today, we struggle to accord the right degree of confidence to their truth claims. We find in them the contentious and frequently conflicting prerogatives of authority, knowledge, and belief. My goal in this essay is to try to place some terminological distance between these three kinds of warrant for claims to truth and goodness.
I think authority is used with three erroneous meanings when warranting our claims to truth, goodness, and beauty. These involve confusions that equate it with belief or expertise. These in turn muddy our understanding of acceptable applications of authority that contribute to the third and most serious problem: a resentment of all institutional authority.
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.” Persons may believe almost anything. Belief by definition is “judgment biased by desire.” When Lewis refers to “the ordinary man,” he implies that most persons take the facts and theories involving these concepts on faith, but that approach fundamentally blurs the warrants involved. 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. We certainly may accuse the student also of taking those truth claims on faith. But their justification is available to anyone who wishes to examine it. Only laziness or, to put it more charitably, lack of time prohibits us from verifying these claims. This is different from having to accept authority to justify them because no other means is open to inquiry. If the experimental scientist summarizes her results on her blog and also presents them in a juried journal, is their proof dependent on which we happen to come across first or which is easier to grasp? By that standard every kindergarten teacher deserves the MacArthur Genius Grant! Authority as a stand-alone justification is properly reserved for those truth claims unable to be warranted by other, more reliable means of justification. This is a category of truth and goodness claims dominated by religious doctrines and holy texts (see “Can Religious Belief Be Knowledge?”). Religious institutions cannot help but rely on authority for their sole warrant for channeling belief into public commitments. But this stretches knowledge beyond the breaking point when compared to the methodologies of science. It is no accident that Lewis picks empirical truths as his 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. Rather, we trust the many kinds of confirmation open to the scientific method but closed to the proclamations of authority. All of this only demonstrates how a casual understanding of authority can allow religious adherents to equate the claims of religion with the exacting work of science.
And that is a big problem. If “the ordinary man” casually claims the right to accept or reject the truths of empiricism, expertise, and competence on the strength of his willingness to believe, he is equating these powerful correspondentist warrants with his momentary attention based upon…what? His own experience? His momentary preferences? His view of things in general? When we ask the honest “ordinary man” what warrants his belief, what answer might we expect? And if he consults his own schema of preference to say yea or nay to some claimed truth about the world, how can his privately derived justification, one changeable by both desire and undistilled experience, be said to be based on any other “authority” than his own unsubstantiated beliefs? Does it seem reasonable that belief and authority be thought so interchangeable? That belief and empirical science might be? This is not to say that our ordinary man does not have the right to believe whatever he chooses (see “Our Freedom Fetish”). His natural and preferential freedoms guarantee him the ability to decide upon the truths of the world he confronts, so we could hardly say he cannot privilege his beliefs over, say, facts (see “Facts are Fluxy Things.“). What we can say is that he ought not (see “Knowledge, Trust, and Belief”). That assertion, however, is exceedingly difficult to make in the current intellectual climate, one that elevates belief and denigrates knowledge of facts as an axiom of moral commitment (see “What Is The Virtual Circle?“). We do not have to fight that war here to claim with confidence that belief and authority are very different kinds of justifications for our claims to truth, goodness and beauty, a contention I will further explore below.
A second 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 examined. 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, 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 parent’s reassurance, naturally accepting her authority over the expertise of a stranger. In seeking verification, we might confidently assert that the parent knows more than the child, despite contemporary claims elevating the equality of beliefs. 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 knowledge: empiricism, expertise, or competence, . We accept it on the most rickety proof available to public sanction: our own undistilled experience, the moment-by-moment barrage of perception and reflection that changes rapidly as we confront our choices in the world. Now this is a tricky matter to explore through the lens of justification, although its illustration is pretty straightforward. We use undistilled experience as a correspondence proof of judgment more often than any other for two reasons: choice is contextual and experience is accessible. We know that every determination of truth relies on our attentiveness to the experience that provides it and that every experience presents a unique context from which we draw out the relevant truths that then guide our preferences according to our chosen moral schema. The uniqueness of each moment is a problem for our hypothetical judgment that seeks to mine it for value. The most instinctual way to do that is by seeking similarities of present experience to past ones so that we can more fully comprehend what we are facing and can predict the consequences of our choices based upon past outcomes. Life would be terrifyingly odd if we couldn’t use prior experience to guide present choice: each moment would be as unique as landing on the far side of the moon. But we also must admit the fundamental falseness of the effort, for the very contextualization that prompts it also highlights the logical error that motivates it. Time changes context and so undistilled experience is unqualified to find what it seeks, though we use it tirelessly because it is so readily available to preference. The stronger proofs of judgment seek to distill what ordinary experience blurs, to isolate the essences of the experience by repetition and and to explore its elements by thoughtful analysis. We can see that reliability of judgment increases as the uniqueness of the experience is minimized. The exemplar of this process is the scientific experiment that consciously limits variables, sets up a lab experiment with care, repeats it until analysis reveals its essential ingredients, describes it with precision, and tests predicted outcomes. Expertise faces more variability, competence yet more as they grapple with the same problem all judgment faces: how to understand varied experience. Thoughtful repetition allows us to distill experience, to mine it for its lessons until we can present a truth to preference that has been fully warranted by a preponderance of the evidence available to reason. It proves more reliable because it has found concepts fundamental to the nature of the experience and also has found how and why this experience differs from a prior one resembling it. We lose confidence to judge experiences as their uniqueness diminishes our abilities to inspect them, tapering off to the one-off judgments of undistilled experience. This, indeed, was the chain of thinking that led David Hume to dismiss miracles: as experienced by observers, these events were definitionally unique to their experience and therefore unavoidably suspect, so in general any explanation that might rely on a more distilled experiential basis ought to be accepted before one embraces the miraculous. It must be obvious that authority differs from this painstaking reasoning process because it requires no experiences or examinations to warrant it, for it simply relies on a bestowal of trust. So where do we place it on the scale that privileges rational analysis of repeated experience so as to produce reliable judgments of truth, goodness, and beauty?
We can’t. 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 power reliable 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. It begins with belief, a thrust of desire, that we call an openness to trust. In William James’s famous formulation, we will to believe. That initial step is a private commitment of wanting the potential authority to be worthy of our commitment, but it relies at first on nothing more than our own desire. At such an early point, it is the evidence of things not yet seen. But in itself it is not trust. We could explain it as a desire that what follows will earn trust. Over some period of time that varies by circumstance, we accept the authority because a chain of experiences support the authority’s trustworthiness. These begin as undistilled and unconnected, but accrue to reliability or its absence over time as we gradually begin to trust the authority. We see this easily in the personal authority that friends and parents exercise over their loved ones. We have all experienced it as children, but it is more deliberate and obvious in romantic attachments. Any specific experience is not exactly the point unless it proves cathartic. Our trust grows from the verifications of our predictions about the person we are coming to know. These are composed of countless rational examinations of the behaviors of the person we hold in tentative approval. We cannot be said to trust the other person, though, until a vital shift occurs. By its nature, trust requires the forfeiture of rational and moral agency, a willing surrender of natural and preferential freedom to what we can now call the authority to whom we surrender it. This surrender is not merely associated with trust; it defines it. If the commitment to belief can be seen as the activity of preference in the absence of reasons for commitment, the commitment of trust to an authority implies nearly the opposite: a willing forfeiture of agency based upon a previous set of experiences. Belief is predictive and active. Trust by its nature must be retrograde and passive. Belief hopes a future set of experiences will fulfill a desire and so can prove nothing. Trust surrenders both judgment and desire to an authority and can demonstrate to a dispassionate observer its reasons for surrender. This explains why trust is a correspondentist proof of judgment and belief a coherentist one (see “Pure, Poor Systems of Knowledge”). Once extended, trust no longer inspects, suspects, or rejects for the simple reason that it has already forfeited the judgment that would evaluate authority. A kind of bank of good will and reliability supports it rather than any specific judgment of any single experience. Granting authority frees us of our own agency which is disengaged from inspecting those experiences where trust is extended. This might require a clearer explication if all of us were not so familiar with its operation from our own childhoods.
As an issue of correspondence truth or goodness, the declaration or behavior of someone we accept as a personal authority invites our rational interrogation, but in the presence of trust, we exhibit a childlike disregard for that responsibility. It is a surrender of our own agency, and that can be a relief to conscience. Our trust places our judgment on hold and relieves us of the bother of examining experience for value. We assume authority to be more competent to make judgments in our best interests than we are. Since our deepest moral responsibility centers on exercising that agency well, giving it up in trust to another would seem a momentous act, an abdication of moral responsibility. The reason we don’t see it that way is simple: we have all done it, and we have done it before we had the slightest idea of what moral responsibility might be. As adults we can examine what that inevitable feature of childhood looks like, and see the essential quality of trust.
Because it involves a surrender of agency, it must be fundamentally different from other public proofs of truth and goodness. Judgments rely on competent use of rational agency, analysis of experience, and an act of severance in judging context that allows the rational agent to process the experience she faces to determine its essential truths before manipulating them to choose goodness by her own moral schema (see “The Act of Severance”). This act of severance precludes premature closure, which is the hasty analysis of experience aimed at simplifying acts of preference to facilitate choosing, something often done from a desire to privilege one preference over another. Notice how reason must steer and control these complex activities, restraining preference and bias. Beyond the process of granting trust that begins with belief, we see here another reason why trust and belief are so commonly confused. They both involve the suppression of judgment. Belief involves ignoring the act of severance that ought to isolate our judgments of truth from consequent judgments of goodness, and trust transfers all such judgments to the mind of the authority that makes them on the beneficiary’s behalf. Or so we think.
That avoidance is a convenience for undistilled experience. Who would want to take the effort to examine the torrent of declarations and the tangle of interests of family and friends and even if possible, how could that level of doubt fail to damage intimacy? Trust is necessary in the infinitely changeable realm of personal relationships. For children, it begins before conscious awareness and is sustained by the reliability of parents. Children do not sanction the choices parents make on their behalf , at least until they become adolescents. They simply trust that present experiences will be resolved to their benefit as past ones have. Adults are a bit more careful as they begin relationships with at most the desire to find reason to trust (see “The Moral Bullseye”). It grows when they can see a pattern of behavior conducing to the granting of trust and matures when they do grant it. Such a determination would force any rational agent pondering the same situation to extend trust in the same manner, which explains how authority can be called a public proof of judgment. Trust beneath the level of permissibility shades into pure coherence, the emulsion of desire and belief that has us saying, “I wish I could trust you” rather than “You have earned my trust.” In such cases outsiders 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 a commitment to trust. On the other hand, we all have experienced the dissolution that follows either cathartic violations or a chain of lesser offenses that gradually erode our trust in someone we care for. Both force the moral agent to resume inspection, to take back rational agency and re-examine the authority that had once been granted trust, so it seems clear that trust is both revocable and subject to shifts in judgment, resulting in a resumption of agency and an active reinspection of what had once been trusted..
All of these negotiations in personal attachments have been warped by the postmodernist revolution that views authority as exploitative manipulation and abuse of power. Adults are far less likely to extend an open trust today than they would have before modernism made them fully aware of their individual agency and postmodernism made them more suspicious of others’ machinations of it (see ‘The Axioms of Moral Systems”). The upshot is that personal authority is a dilute kind of trust today, rendered even less potent by postmodernism’s preference for private belief as sufficient warrant for commitment to any truth and anyone’s goodness (see “What Is the Virtual Circle?”). It is this taint of suspicion that makes committing to relationships much more provisional today than in the past.
This only confuses the issue for religious authority because even when clearly articulated, 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 purely public claim to knowledge. To examine what is a crucial question for religious doctrines and sacred texts, let us begin by moving from personal authority to institutional authority in general.
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 co-option and a perpetuation of extant exploitative arrangements. I take issue with this view (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 may admire as part of a private system of beliefs. I don’t think personal and institutional authority are all that different. We trust institutional authority similarly, only our allegiance is to the institution rather than the person. So I trust my child’s teacher not because I know her but because I know the system that appointed her and the qualifications that she must hold. This is similar to the trust my child places in her texts. In both cases, trust is a passive substitute for an active judgment within the power of the rational agent. Just as my personal trust has been earned by multiple experiences demonstrating reliability with someone I know, institutional authorities reveal reasons to bestow trust. But we face an axiomatic problem in contemporary society. Postmodernists urge us to withhold the belief that might allow trust in institutional authorities to germinate. Their entire project relies on exercising active agency, inspecting institutions for hypocrisy or bad faith, and peeling away the will to power that in their view is the hidden agenda of every institution (see “Three Portraits”). 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. Trust powers authority, but today’s view is that power is always authority’s concealed goal, so trust should never be granted but should always be retained by the individual. So trust in institutions is rarely granted wholeheartedly as postmodernists seek performative opportunities to prove their autonomy.
If trust is the sole measure of the power of authority, it is an error to view a superior as having the authority to impose her will upon an inferior. Authority as a justification cannot flow downward; it can only flow upward from the submission of trust. It can only be surrendered by the moral agent. That certainly changes the way we see power dynamics, for it places individual agency at the center of authority as power; it is only the beneficiary who can grant it by a single preferential act of trust. Granted, once this is done, the “superior” in the relationship can now exercise power over the “inferior,” but if behavior abuses trust, it will be withdrawn. But, you might object, doesn’t the power continue to be exercised? What do you call power inflicted on an individual who does not trust its use? Ought one call that a relationship built upon authority when trust no longer is willingly granted? If the inferior has not granted or has withdrawn trust, isn’t the relationship inherently abusive? What else could that be but exploitation?
This is certainly what postmodernists see when they look at institutional authority, but they err because they correlate authority with power rather than with trust. Power certainly is at work in the capitalist, democratic, and religious institutions we see all around us, but power is simply the ability to do work, so any functioning institution should expect to see its use. Complex societies cannot function without institutions. If their operations “abuse” their authority by a simple expenditure of power, must they be thought to be abusive? Not at all. In today’s corporate ladder, for example, the relationship between superior and inferior is most certainly not based on trust, and that means authority has nothing to do with their proper functioning. Rather they rely on a modernist form of explicit sanction in which each sides subscribes to specific claim-rights and exemption-rights that are clearly drawn. The boss has power, yes, but his authority, if any, can only show itself in the trust the employee has developed, a trust that disregards the active endowments each party has granted the other. As in family life, this kind of thing is rare in contemporary life and for the same reason: we understand that authorities wield power, and since postmodernism views power as inherently exploitative, we are encouraged in a thousand ways to distrust it. Therefore, we see persistent errors in thinking through power relationships in institutional hierarchies, beginning with the assumption that they invariably abuse their power. Authority must always appeal to trust freely granted and it must transfer agency. To be maintained, it must operate in the interest of the beneficiary; otherwise, trust will be forfeited. None of this characterizes the modern corporation, and to try to graft the structures of traditional authority onto it because both rely on hierarchical power has produced gross distortions in our expectations of how power ought to be wielded in them. Worse, such suspicion attends the operation of all institutional authorities, including government and, of course, organized religion.To consider us all dupes of co-option 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 or sustains an active loyalty. Some institutions can survive that insult better than others. The student’s mistrust of her text or the parent’s of her teacher can be replaced just as it is in corporate life: by an active sanction that awards or withholds conviction based on other warrants appropriate to their function. This makes dealing with institutions much harder and breeds suspicion, but at least those that can appeal to active sanction can survive public scrutiny once individuals activate theirs. They do that just as my child’s text does, by empirical evidence, the work of experts within the institution, or by a continuing display of competence. This has sharpened the work of corporate institutions whose members constantly scan the horizon for threat or opportunity. But what can religious institutions that lack these kinds of public justifications rely on for their public pronouncements once trust has been revoked, particularly since contemporary views of authority are attended with so much suspicion? We see the answer in the alienation from orthodox religion that characterizes contemporary life. Religion now is a product of belief rather than authority, but to see the difference requires us to review the era when religious authority was deeply trusted, the pre-Reformation era.
This gulf between the real nature of authority and our perception of it has deep historical roots, of course, for institutional religious authority has been the battleground between modernism and premodernism for half a millennium. In post-Reformation Europe, the claims of the organs of tradition to public moral dominance abraded most forcefully upon modernist axiom of individual autonomy, which eventually produced postmodern charges of usurpation and disguised exploitation (see ‘The Victorian Rift”). In contemporary cultures, persons’ view of authority is an indicator of the axiom of moral commitment they embrace. It can be fairly easily discerned by the observer. Premodernists view institutions as formative of their moral outlook and value deference to authority conducing to a commitment of trust. Of course, they are committed to belief as the open door to trust. Their devotion to traditional institutions derives from their willingness to be guided by the wisdom of the past. Modernists who build their worldview on universal reason applied to individual experience are unlikely to endow institutional authority with their trust, preferring a mutual interaction of provisional sanction that is frequently inspected for violation or revision, a very difficult moral position to sustain. Today’s corporation is a modernist invention as are the institutions of democratic government. Modernists regard their interactions with institutional authority to be informative: both sides evolving to mutual benefit as each engages in a kind of active inspection that in no way resembles a grant of trust. It was this interaction between modernist institutions and premodernist claims of authority that caused the great justificatory crisis at the dawn of the twentieth century and produced the continuing crises of postmodernism (see “One Postmodern Sentence”). Institutional authority was at the core of that crisis whose salient characteristic was the suspicion of exploitation with a consequent corrosion of even the possibility of trust. Postmodernists can be identified by their profound distrust of institutional authority of any stripe, which they regard as the iron fist in the velvet glove of co-option. They may express a vague belief in some of the goals of some authorities, but they utterly withhold trust, regarding their own agency as their birthright always under the threat of authoritarian assault. Therefore, they regard interactions with institutional authorities as performative opportunities to demonstrate their independence. It is painful to see how thoroughly their antiheroics have permeated today’s cultures if only because they must sabotage the institutions necessary to sustain civilized life (see “Freedom, Antihero, and Zeitgeist”). Because they think reason to be as idiosyncratic as experience (and indeed they think it formed by experience), postmodernists are convinced authorities can only reconcile public moral dispute through the arbitrary imposition of power, in which they invariably see an opportunity for resistance.
All sides have a case to make, for institutional authority has merited the deep suspicions and doubt that attend it. These have most corroded the precepts in religious institutions that once formed moral touchstones for most of the world’s peoples. It has led to the contemporary clash of autonomous individuals in the public square (see “Belief in the Public Square”). Before the Protestant Reformation, authority was trusted to resolve their conflicts, but in our present moral crisis rooted in incompatible axioms of commitment, we must ask the question: is trust in authority ever merited? Can authority ever be what it claims to be: a form of public knowledge and a source of public moral consensus?
We can answer that question by reference to history or theory and draw opposing conclusions.
Historically, religious institutional authority has underwritten public morality more powerfully and with greater success than any other warrant (see “Premodern Authority“). In some parts of today’s world, it still does. Even in countries where it no longer holds sway, many persons who would never question their own moral autonomy attempt to resurrect their own understanding of its former power, but what they seek is really the universalization of their private beliefs, not a real trust. Today’s religious believer not only refuses to subject her beliefs to religious authority, she refuses to surrender them to expertise or empirical warrant either. Her “truth test” is the passion of her commitment: it is true because she believes it so strongly. Surrender is the last thing she is prepared to do. Because trust is an indispensable component of authority, we can conclude that it is now the weakest correspondentist means for the public to “accept truth by a preponderance of the evidence,” at least in cases where trust cannot be replaced by stronger verifications. Because of its former power, some persons now wish to revive religious authority, but they seem unable to surrender autonomy, retaining the power to indulge their belief but refusing to submit their own judgment to its dictates. They correctly view themselves as moral agents capable of discerning truth and choosing goods of their own determining by whatever values they happen to prize, and they seek to retain the option to change those values when they wish (see “The Problem of Moral Pragmatism“). This preferential agency exemplifies the active exercise of moral autonomy, so how can authority find a foothold for trust?
And that is the problem when we acknowledge that religious authority was the sole and final source of public moral consensus for most of human history. Though it has tried, empirical science has utterly failed to provide moral direction (see “The Limits of Empirical Science.”) And in a distinction that is too-little observed, the human sciences have failed even more spectacularly over the last century as well (see “The Calamity of the Human Sciences“).
All sides have tried to fill the vacuum that authority’s collapse has created, particularly in matters of public morality. Premodernists who wish to return religious authority to its former role as public moral arbiter are relitigating a lost case, and they could prove that to themselves by asking how willing they would be to surrender entirely their own interpretation of divine will to some external source, trusting not only its power to define truth for them but also to dictate their moral preference (see “Tao and the Myth of Religious Return”). They certainly are willing to believe, but in Western society they are likely to be unwilling to extend trust to religious institutions except in the most hypothetical and pragmatic sense, both terms indicating how clearly they cling to their own powers of preference. Postmodernists who wish to see moral agency relocated to that shadowy power they call “the culture” ignore the defining power of human dignity that is the sole source of all rights and justification for government (see “Cultural Consensus”). Modernism paid for our preferential freedom in blood, and we still pay for it now in responsibility. If we know history, we know that in forfeiting our agency, we forsake the hard-won preferential freedom that modernism managed to secure in the dismal aftermath of the Reformation. What contemporary adult would willingly transfer the power to judge, to choose, and to act to an authority who would determine her life for her? That surrender is not granted by the modern mind and cannot be bestowed by the postmodern one, for it gives away the power to judge truth and goodness contrary to all axioms of individual agency. While trust may be 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 reappropriate what it has forfeited at any provocation, a mind ever tempted by competing modes of knowing truth and finding goodness.
This is not much of an endorsement of authority, but we must weaken it even further by pointing out what may be an even more disqualifying objection. Because it is so weak a knowledge claim, because it relies completely 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 (see “The Fragility of Religious Authority“). The very existence of competing axioms of moral commitment have reduced trust to a hollow shell, though in non-Western cultures we still see the old battle of competing religious authorities (see “Which Clash of Civilizations?“). In today’s world, in those conservative societies wherein the truth claims of authority seem to those secure in their trust to be solid foundation for social comity, trust will still be weakened by the intrusion of other authorities or other axioms of moral commitment. 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; in loving relationships, the half-hearted grant of personal authority is snatched away. In those areas in which authority is the only 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 underwrites all 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 scientists can examine their experimental results, and so on. Even undistilled experience, a weak 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 they withdraw the trust that powers authority’s only claim. At that moment, it finds itself incapable of justification without appeal to some different 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 further dissolution of trust.