Commentary - Authority
We use the word authority very broadly and therefore use it to refer to things which are quite disparate in nature. The word authority has the same root meaning as the word author, and this is also the root of the real meaning of authority. An authority, in this sense, is the one that creates something, the originator of an idea or thing. They are the authority because they are the author, the one that brought whatever is in question into existence.
By logical extension, the word is also applied to those who actually experience or are involved in something. In all cases where there is a question about what someone actually intended, how a thing was actually done, what actually happened, or what one actually experienced, the authority is the one that had the intention, did or participated in what was done, actually observed the event, or had the experience.
By further extension, which is not so logical, we use the word for anyone we intend to depend on for correct information. So long as the information we seek and the authority we depend on falls into one of the categories above, such an authority is useful. The problem is, most of the authorities people place their confidence in have no legitimate authority at all.
Most authorities come in one of two flavors, the "might-makes-right" authorities, and the "secret-knowledge" authorities.
The "right-makes-right" authorities are those with guns, or who are backed-up by those with guns, who can slap handcuffs on you and haul you off to the slammer (or have someone else do it) if you don't do what they want you to do. These are the government authorities, that is, anyone who officially or unofficially works for or is "authorized" by the government, and includes everyone from the president of the United States, to the kindergarten teacher in a state school.
The "secret-knowledge" authorities are those with knowledge you don't have, and their knowledge is secret because it is secret from you. In some cases the knowledge is only secret because you haven't bothered to acquire it, though it is available to anyone who wants to make the effort to acquire it. These authorities are often called experts and include everyone from our auto mechanic to our doctor.
In other cases, the knowledge is not readily available and efforts are made to keep it secret, but still is available to those who are willing to pay the price of acquiring it. These are the licensed authorities, like the plumber, electrician, and our medical providers.
In still other cases, the secret knowledge is so secret, that you cannot get it, nor can anyone else who does not already have it. The reason this knowledge is secret is because it is made up, and didn't exist until the authorities made it up. These are authorities like politicians and religious leaders of various sorts.
It is almost always wrong to leave one's decisions to authority. There is a difference, however, between using expertise and relying on authority.
There are many things it would be foolish not to leave to experts who have devoted themselves to learning and developing skills that enable them to perform services that the average person cannot, and usually does not want to perform. When I hire a plumber, electrician, or take my car to a mechanic, I am depending on him to have knowledge I do not have to perform the service I am paying him for. Quite frankly, I don't really care if he has any more knowledge than I do, or if it is sheer luck, so long as the service I'm paying him for gets done correctly. (Unfortunately, many who perform services today seem to depend more on luck than knowledge, with the obvious results.)
I do care that my doctor has the knowledge required to perform his services and I will not take any doctor's word for anything he proposes if he cannot make me understand it. I will not make any medical decision based only on a doctor's authority, (or ten doctors, for that matter). Certainly there are situations where some of us are not going to be able to understand all the ramifications of a medical condition, short of attending medical school, where it will be necessary to make a decision without completely understanding everything perfectly. In those cases, one must learn all they can, learn all they can about the doctor or doctors involved, and make the best objective decision they can.
Is the use of the services of an auto mechanic, plumber, or doctor submitting to authority? It might be, but is not usually. The use of the services of others is an economic choice which takes advantage of the principles of specialization and the division of labor. We could all do everything for ourselves, of course, from growing or hunting our own food, to building our own homes, even building our own vehicles. But these things would be next to impossible if we really chose to do everything ourselves, because that would include, finding and preparing all the material, creating the tools, and discovering methods that worked to do all these things.
The difference between submitting to authority and simply taking advantage of the specialized services and products of others is in the principle by which the choice is made. To choose the services of others based on one's own best understanding of the most practical way to acquire or achieve a desired object or goal (should I bandage this myself or go to a doctor, should I build the shed myself, or hire someone else to build it?), is a completely rational and objective choice. To allow one's choices to be determined by blind reliance on the authority of another, depending on nothing but the belief they are an authority, is irrational.
In Basic Principles, under Individualism we said:
Minds exist one to an individual. Knowledge is gained only by individuals using their own minds to carry out the process of reason by which they understand and learn. Knowledge cannot be transferred from one mind to another. The process of teaching requires one individual to explain what they know to another individual who must use their own mind and reasoning to understand what is being explained to them.|
By the individual, we mean you.
Until you have come to understand something by your own reason, it is not knowledge. Another may teach you, by explaining what they know, but it is not your knowledge until you understand it. You can never know if another has reasoned correctly unless you, yourself, understand the process of reason used to reach the conclusion.
Your choices must be based on your knowledge or lack of it, and you must bare the consequences of your choices. No matter what someone else knows, or how much they know, if you base your choices on anything other than your own knowledge, you can never be certain you are making correct choices. Not only can you never be sure that another's presumed knowledge is the result of correct reason (because you don't know what the reasoning is) no one else can ever know as much about you as you do. No one else ever has enough knowledge to know what is best for you. Ultimately, you must bare the consequences of your choices, whether based on your own knowledge, or the word of another on the basis of their presumed authority.
The success of quacks and con-men of every ilk is largely because most people have an irrational superstitious "faith" in experts and authorities. Even when one's confidence is in legitimate medicine, for example, for example, that confidence most people have in it is not based on any understanding of the nature of the biology and physiology medicine is based on. The faith most people have in medicine, even the most objective rational kind, is as superstitious as those who put their confidence in holistic medicine and acupuncture. This entire superstitious faith in medicine is explored in If They Believe That - Medicine
Perhaps the most insidious and dangerous misplaced faith in authority is in the area of moral values. There is not such thing as a moral authority.
Moral values are not dictated, nor are they determined by fiat of any authority, nor are they contingent on anyone's opinion, choice, or knowledge. Moral values are determined by the nature of the beings to whom they pertain and the nature of the world they live in. Moral values are those values that determine what is good and what is bad for human beings living in the real world, as delineated in theIntroduction to Autonomy, under Values
Many a man that can't direct you to a corner drugstore will get a respectful hearing when age has further impaired his mind. ---Finley Peter Dunne
Many so-called authorities are considered so only because they have managed to outlive everyone that knew better and could have testified to the fact that they are nothing but frauds. Bertrand Russell comes to mind in the field of philosophy.
So, you only rely on authority when you don't feel competent to make a decision because you don't have enough knowledge about the case. You do feel competent to know who does have enough knowledge.
How do you decide what authority to depend on? If you do not understand your religion, your philosophy, your politics, how do you know the one you are depending on understands these things better than you, or even as well as you?
Better to base your decision on your own knowledge, however limited it may be, then to depend on the knowledge of someone else, whose competence you have no way of judging. If your choice is mistaken, you will know why you made the choice and be able to correct your thinking. If you depend on someone else, and the choice is mistaken, you have learned nothing, and must either find a new authority or finally think for yourself.
The final authority in all choices is your own mind, like it or not.
Ultimately, every choice you make and every thought you think is yours. Even if you depend on some authority to tell you what to think and do, you must choose the authority and choose to believe and obey. You cannot escape responsibility for you choices, because the final authority is always your mind and your choice.