concepts section: copyright Robert Ellis 2011

Moral authority 

Moral authority is a quality possessed by people to varying degrees. In Middle Way philosophy two types of moral authority are distinguished: dogmatic moral authority and moral authority justifiable through experience. Dogmatic moral authority gives no indication of moral objectivity, and may even suggest the opposite - that we should avoid doing what a dogmatic moral authority commands. Moral authority justified through experience, however, can provide a useful practical guide to moral objectivity that can be helpful in moral decision making.

Dogmatic moral authority can be identified primarily through its appeal to metaphysical claims. One is given a reason for believing what this person says that lies beyond our experience, such as that he has received a revelation from God, that she represents an esoteric tradition for passing down the truth, or that he has discovered the laws of the universe through scientific (or pseudo-scientific) means. The fact that this person invokes metaphysical authority (or that others invoke it for them) suggests that their pronouncements have no justification in the terms of experience, and indeed the metaphysical basis of authority tends to distract us from assessing their claims in the terms of experience. It may be necessary to accept their authority in order to fit in with a group. Their claims also tend to be absolute and/or sweeping in nature. The Pope is an obvious example of a dogmatic moral authority, but they are not confined to the religious sphere. Political leaders, management gurus, or even media celebrities, may have such dogmatic authority if they are given it by a group. It may be reinforced by personal charisma or an institutional role. Particular writings may also be given dogmatic authority by extension because they are attributed to dogmatic moral authorities.

However, moral authority can also be justified through experience when we are able to assess a person's character and degree wisdom for ourselves over a period of time. Such experienced moral authority must be incremental, so that we are relatively better justified in following it when we have a greater amount of experience to go on. If we think we have identified a moral authority after a short time, or based on second-hand information, we may well be deceiving ourselves and confusing metaphysical justifications with experience. However, with experience we may conclude that we are justified in believing that a certain person has more integration than we do, and thus a greater understanding of conditions unimpeded by delusions. 

Even this does not justify absolute reliance on that person. However, we might then start to use them as a short-cut to help us understand conditions and respond appropriately to them. If in doubt, their moral advice may be worth taking a chance on. Discovering minor weaknesses in a moral authority figure should be a confirmation that we are working from experience rather than dogma, rather than a cause for dismissing them, but of course important weaknesses might also lead us to lose our provisional faith in them. Moral authority figures may also turn out to have virtues that are lop-sided (see asymmetrical integration), in which case we may decide to follow them in some areas but not others.

We need moral authority figures because of our relative lack of integration, virtue, and wisdom, so it is important to accept their role in our lives. However, it is better to use direct experience to assess moral authority (through friendship) rather than accept popes, gurus, or ranting journalists on their own terms at a distance. Distant moral authorities can only give general moral guidance which is not geared towards our specific circumstances. Our confidence in these figures is always unavoidably provisional, and the first hint of unconditional commitment introduces metaphysical faith.

Links to related discussion

Moral authority (from chapter 8 of thesis) discusses these points in detail

'Friendship' from thesis (scroll down to 5.e.iv)

'The trouble with gurus', from 'The Trouble with Buddhism'

'The trouble with scriptures' from 'The Trouble with Buddhism'

The Way of Trust (talk given to members of Western Buddhist Order - external link to FWBO discussion site)


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