Authority

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It’s common for liberal/progressive and secular communities to be portrayed as questioning or challenging authority, while conservative and religious communities are portrayed as accepting or respecting authority to a greater degree.

It’s clear on closer view that people across the political spectrum respect and challenge authority of different kinds - for example, religious authority, government authority, and scientific authority.

A critical difference manifests in what authority people trust to dictate the public good - aka “moral authority.”  Conservatives (typically) place it in God, scripture, churches, and tradition, while liberals (typically) place it more in the individual conscience, interpersonal dialogue, science, and reason – resisting moral dictates from “on high.” (This is not to say that liberals cannot be religious and earnestly look to God, although as progressive people of faith would attest, they relate to scriptural and clerical authority in a different way than religious conservatives.) In this way, social conservatives can be strong about individual autonomy regarding things like use of property or school choice, while remaining wary of moral autonomy wherein each person decides according to their own limited conscience (or, worse yet, whim).  

Each person tends to see some forms of authority as sacred and worth defending, and sees other forms of authority as useless or even damaging. In this way, people may feel a stronger affinity to one specific source of authority (say parenthood) than another (say community). In other words, people piece together their views of what sources of authority are legitimate uses of the word “authority” based on their experiences. But most people share the commonality of relishing some kind of authority and challenging other kinds. Those groups most strongly and generally hostile to political authority (seen as coercive) are libertarians and anarchists - with more openness to the authority of reason and science, as long as not mandated by law.  

Instead of asking each other whetherwe accept authority, it might be better to ask which forms of authority we find legitimate, and why.

 

 QUESTIONS TO PLAY WITH:

- Name an authority you respect, then name an authority you don’t respect but someone you know does. Now think: What if the situation was reversed? What would happen? What would you say and do?

- Are there forms of authority you respect but pretend not to? Why do you think you do that?

- Think of a form of authority you know someone else respects but you don’t. What is it about that form of authority that makes it unacceptable to you? What would cause you to respect it?

- If you think about the sources of authority you respect, is there a common thread running through them? What is it you respect about them? What do you value?

Conversation Catalysts: 
The Righteous Mind
by Jonathan Haidt

What Is Authority?
by Hannah Arendt
Contributors: 

Cynthia Kurtz, Jacob Hess, John Backman, Mary Jacksteit, Phil Neisser, Randall Paul, Scott Follett, Jr.

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