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morality and authority

Returning to an earlier theme, here's something from my book The War For Children's Minds on whether it is a good idea to get children, or individuals more generally, to defer to some authority on moral and religious questions.

Deferring to authority isn’t always a bad idea. We do it all the time. No doubt you go to a doctor for a medical opinion, to a plumber for expertise on central heating, to a lawyer for legal advice, and so on. It’s pretty reasonable to take the authority’s word for it in these cases.

In fact, modern life demands that we trust the expertise of others. The world is now so complex that any one of us can only properly understand how a tiny bit of it works. We can’t all be experts on plumbing, science, the law, car mechanics, psychology, and so on. We have to seek out others upon whose expertise we inevitably have to rely.

So what if you go to an authority on some matter, and they give you bad advice? Who’s to blame, then, if things then go awry? Suppose, for example, that a student new to chemistry wants to know whether it’s safe to dispose of a large lump of potassium by flushing it down the sink. They ask their chemistry professor, who tells them it will be perfectly safe. So the student drops the potassium in the sink. There’s a huge explosion that kills another student. Is the student who was given the wrong advice to blame? Can she excuse herself by pointing out that her authority told her to do it?

Yes she can. It was entirely reasonable for the student to trust the advice of their chemistry professor. She had every reason to accept the professor’s advice. Generally speaking, if we go to the acknowledged experts for advice, and those experts assure us that something is a good idea when in fact it’s a very bad idea, we’re not morally culpable when things go wrong as a result.

But if it’s sensible to trust the word of medical, legal and plumbing experts – if we are justified in simply taking their word for it – then why not the word of moral experts?

Suppose someone wants to know what sort of attitude she should have towards those who don’t share the same religion as her. She goes to her community’s religious and moral Authority for the answer, the Authority to which she has always deferred in the past. Suppose this Authority tells her that it is her moral duty to kill those who don’t share the same religious beliefs as her. In fact, suppose this Authority tells her to go out, wire herself to some explosives, wander into a supermarket full of unbelievers, and blow herself up. She takes her moral Authority’s word for it (as she always has) and goes out and kills several hundred people. Is this person also blameless?

Intuitively not. Someone who goes out and kills on the instruction of a religious or some other moral Authority does not thereby avoid moral responsibility for what they have done. “I was only following the instructions of my expert” is not an excuse.
Of course, in the case of the suicide bomber, there may be mitigating factors. If we feel this individual did not really make a free decision – if she had been heavily psychologically manipulated, perhaps even brainwashed – then we might be slightly more forgiving. She might, for that reason, be less blameworthy. The point remains that she can’t absolve herself from responsibility simply by saying, “My moral expert told me it was okay” in the same way that the chemistry student can absolve herself of responsibility by saying “My chemistry expert told me it was okay”.

None of this is to say that we shouldn’t seek moral advice, particularly when it comes to complex moral dilemmas. The advice we receive might be valuable. It might lead us to recognize that we were mistaken in holding a particular moral belief. No doubt some people really are better judges about what’s right and what’s wrong than are the rest of us. They’re ‘moral experts’ in that sense. Arguably, these moral experts include some priests, imams and rabbis. If so, we might learn by listening to them. They may, in this sense, be “authoritative”.

However, to accept that some people may be “authorities” in this sense is not to say that we should more-or-less uncritically defer to them on moral matters. It’s not yet to say that anyone should be considered an Authority with a capital “A”.


Anonymous said…
I'm currently reading through this book at the moment. Intersesting stuff so far (about a third through).
Steelman said…
I agree that the complexity of the modern world forces us to seek the advice of experts. However, even in the case of consulting with a physician, I think we should choose our physician carefully (check for malpractice suits, ask friends about reputation, check where they got their degree, if they are a proponent of "alternative medicine", etc.) Further, if that doctor gives you a diagnosis that involves a life changing treatment regimen, then you should also get a second opinion.

If we are that cautious about our doctors' medical qualifications and advice, professionals whose expertise is supposed to be based on hard science, then how cautious should we be of the advice given by moral experts? More cautious, I think. I can say this because I live in a free society that allows the existence of a marketplace of ideas, and I'm not part of an authoritarian subculture that discourages thinking about those ideas and deciding for myself which might yield the best consequences.

As for suicide bombers, I agree that the subject of morality, for the mentally unimpaired individual, is not esoterically on par with chemistry. I know insanity (temporary or otherwise) is a valid legal defense, but should brainwashing or growing up in the "wrong" culture be considered valid as well? Can sane, mentally average people really claim they "just didn't know any better"? While I think brainwashing and cultural influences are factors in establishing intention and responsibility, I wouldn't want to live in a society where religiously indoctrinated explosive vest makers get a free pass because they honestly believed they were making the world a "better" place.
Gail Renard said…
Your argument is compelling, as always, but mightn't it be just a hop, skip and a jump away from "I vas just following orders?"

As far as children are concerned, I'd agree that one trusts authority until one begins to doubt or know better. That's where free will and intellect come into play, if you're privileged enough to have access to either.

To me, the only place where your argument falls flat on its face is when you say that one should trust plumbers. Come on! That's entering the realms of fantasy.

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