When it’s sensible to trust an authority
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.
Why moral authorities are different
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”.
Taking advice from moral experts and authorities
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”.
Many will reject this of course. Some may point an accusatory finger and say, “You believe you should make your own mind up about what’s right and what’s wrong? The arrogance! You are playing God!”
But actually, like it or not, playing God is unavoidable. For how am I to know which religious book, which religion, which religious sect and which interpreter of the book I am supposed to listen? Those who defer to religious Authority can pretend these judgements don’t have to be made. But they are unavoidable. Even just sticking with the religious authority with which I was raised requires that I make them. And they are moral judgements. They involve the question, “Ought I to follow the moral advice I’m being given?” However we’re raised, we inevitably have to rely on our own moral compass – our own sense of right and wrong – in weighing up to whom we should listen and whether or not to accept the moral advice we are given. Like it or not, we have to “play God”.
This is at least part of the explanation for unavoidability of the responsibility for making a moral judgement. The judgement whether someone can be trusted to be competent in some technical area like chemistry or plumbing or car maintenance need not itself be a technical judgement. But the judgement whether someone is a moral expert whose advice ought to be followed is itself a moral judgement. Hence the responsibility for making a moral judgement cannot be avoided.
But then those who say, “The arrogance! You’re playing God!” deceive themselves if they suppose they’re not playing God themselves. Moral responsibility is indeed like a boomerang. Try and throw it to someone else if you like – but you’ll find that, in the end, it always comes back to you.
That’s precisely why you can’t absolve yourself of responsibility for having committed some atrocity wrong by pointing out that the moral Authority to which you defer told you to do it. If Stalin, the Pope, an Ayatollah or even the voice of ‘God’ in your head tells you to go out and kill the unbelievers, and you obey, you’re still culpable.
The truth is it would come as something of a relief to me if I could hand over to someone else responsibility for making moral decisions. That kind of responsibility weighs heavily on my shoulders. How convenient it would be if, whenever I was faced with a moral choice, I could transfer responsibility for making it to someone else. Unfortunately, I can’t.