Moral authority

I’ve been discussing morality with a Christian friend of mine. He claims that atheists have no authority to make statements about standards of moral behavior, because they have no basis for such standards.

It’s the usual trope about atheism having no hook to hang its morality on. As I’ve argued at length here (see my essay on morality, for instance), atheists have a rich tradition of secular ethics to draw from, much of which can be defended by reason.

But I still find my friend’s accusation a little difficult to address, partly because some of the concepts it uses need to be  better defined.

Here, I’d like to tackle the concept of authority. What is authority?

As best as I can make out, there are two types of authority:

1. Authority of knowledge. When we say someone is an authority on particle physics or Middle Eastern history, we mean they are exceptionally well-versed in that particular field. They’ve done the research and know the facts. They can therefore speak with authority. They can be trusted more than others to know what they are talking about.

2. Authority of power. When we talk of someone in distress going to the “authorities”, we mean people who have been given some sort of power over the mechanics of society. Police, in particular, are regarded as authorities. They have been given a measure of control over how society operates. The same goes for magistrates, politicians, school principals, factory supervisors, etc.

In both senses of the word, authority involves the handing over of responsibility to others. With authority of knowledge, we yield to an expert the responsibility of understanding, and making progress in, a difficult area of study. This is necessary because we do not have the time to fully investigate all fields of study ourselves. We must therefore assign this responsibility to people who will dedicate their working lives to the task.

Similarly, with authority of power, we yield to certain people the responsibility of keeping law and order in our society and of running our educational, governmental, and corporate organizations. Again, this is necessary because we do not have the time to do these things ourselves. We need people dedicated full time to such tasks, and so we give them the responsibility of doing so.

Crucially, it seems to me that authority is something we acquire. We are not born with it. Either we bestow it upon others or we try to acquire it through hard work.

So what does authority mean when it comes to morality? If moral authority is an authority of knowledge, then a person with moral authority is someone who is an expert in the field. Someone who knows a great deal about moral behavior. Christians would presumably argue that no one knows more about morality than God, so he must be the ultimate authority on the matter.

If moral authority is, instead, an authority of power, then a person with moral authority is one who has been given the  power to impose his or her idea of morality over others. God seems to be in this category also: His followers have ceded the reins of right and wrong to God.

In the Christian worldview, then, God knows more about morality than anyone else and, as a result, his followers have given him the power to impose his moral requirements on them.

Rather than delve into the question of whether God really deserves the authority his followers have granted him, I’d like to ask instead whether the above model necessarily preclude atheists from speaking with authority on moral issues.

The answer must surely depend on what moral knowledge is and where it comes from. If, as many Christians claim, morality is built into the very fabric of the cosmos like some sort of natural law, then perhaps they are right. Perhaps only God has the intellect and power to access this mysterious, hidden moral code.

Unfortunately, I have a very hard time accepting the possibility that morality is “built into the fabric of the cosmos”. This is a grand-sounding idea, but it doesn’t come with any sort of meat to it. What is clear is that morality is a set of guidelines for human behavior. And behavioral guidelines do not generally exist in some mysterious non-sentient form in the fabric of the cosmos, like gravity might be said to do. They are engineered by human minds. The closest they come to being part of the fabric of the cosmos is when they are written down on a sheet of paper.

Putting the “transcendent” morality aside, then, can we still argue for some single ideal set of moral guidelines that is better than any other? If we were to “optimize” morality, would we find a single peak on the moral landscape? Or would we find a range of equally good options?

If a single ideal morality existed, perhaps Christians could argue that only God has the knowledge or power to find that ideal morality. How they could demonstrate this to be true, though, I do not know. It certainly does not seem to be the case that Christians are significantly more moral than atheists or people of other faiths. If the citizens of strongly atheist countries behave just as well, if not better, than citizens of strongly religious countries, then why should anyone believe that the Christian God has spotted some sort of ideal location on the moral landscape?

More to the point, if God has simply found the highest peak on the moral landscape, then multiple authorities on morality are possible. The very notion of a moral landscape implies some sort of yardstick by which to measure the fitness of a moral system: a peak in the landscape is a moral system that excels when measured with this yardstick, while a trough in the landscape is one that fares poorly. So there may be a whole set of moral systems that excel – that lie on very high peaks in the landscape. Just because God’s particular peak is a little higher than the others doesn’t make the other peaks meaningless or useless. They still do very well at achieving the desired goal.

My Christian friend, near the end of our discussion, shared what he felt was the goal of Christian morality. It was to look out for our best interests. Such a broad goal, which is shared today by so many ethicists (atheist and theist alike) is likely to yield multiple authorities. It really is possible for atheists to have good ideas about how to behave in a way that promotes people’s best interests. One does not need to refer to supernatural entities to make a contribution. It therefore follows that atheist moral authorities are plausible, even from the Christian perspective.

(Of course, my friend may be unusual in his view. Other Christians might, perhaps, claim that the sole purpose of moral behavior is to benefit God, not ourselves.)

My basic conclusion is therefore that until some “morality of the cosmos” can be found, there is no reason to suppose that God is the only viable authority on morality.

In fact, until God himself can be found, there is no reason to suppose even he is an authority on morality.


UPDATE: Please read the insightful comment posted by Tom Stewart, below.


7 Responses to Moral authority

  1. Tom Stewart says:

    I think that the Christian arguments from morality are the weakest of all Christian arguments, and elsewhere I’ve put the case broadly similar to the one you are using here.

    However, although I agree that authority can have more than one meaning, and is thus subject to the usual equivocation that we get from apologists, I don’t agree that authority of knowledge involves the yielding of responsibility. That is just as much an example of the use of authority of power.

    Instead, authority of knowledge comes from the knowledge itself. I have used an example of my stepfather in other writings. He was a captain of supertankers and eventually became an expert in the anchorage of ships. There are very few such experts, and for a time – he is retired now – he would be sent around the world on some occasions of maritime disasters such as ships running aground in order to advise on such matters as size and location of anchors. It is the fact that on a rational calculation there would be a “best” configuration of anchors in such situations whether or not he was aware of it, or whether or not his advice actually corresponded to that best configuration.

    In other words, it is the knowledge itself that conveys the authority. If the knowledge didn’t exist, then there could be no authority.

    The Christian argument from authority fails for a similar reason. A Christian apologist will very often argue that objective morality exists, and usually conflate the idea of authority between power and knowledge. But something is objective if it is true independently of our awareness, and therefore would be true whether or not God decreed it or, indeed, whether or not God exists. Usually the apologist then gives some example such as “it is wrong to torture children for fun” as evidence or proof of their God’s authority. (Why they so often choose this one I don’t know). But if it is wrong, morally, then it would be wrong whoever the so-called moral authority is.

    Moreover, the apologists never, as far as I can see, describe or proclaim any barriers to knowledge. Nor, perversely, do they ever seem to accept any rational basis to God’s thinking here. Although an omniscient being would, by definition, never have to use concepts or conditions, the nature of morality, in the mind of that apologist who deprecates child torture, would have to be both conceptual and conditional.

    In other words, God would have to have a purpose for morality just as we humans do. Therefore moral truths must exist prior to any divine interference just as, say, mathematical or logical truths must exist necessarily in the same way. in this way God’s authority wouldn’t come from God.

  2. rudyardh says:

    Good reasoning, Keith! Here’s my five cents worth!

    My understanding is that generally theists believe that God has revealed his moral will to humankind through the sacred scriptures.
    Christians, specifically, believe that Jesus of Nazareth unpacked God’s moral will through the way he lived his life on earth.
    Here’s the rub; all believers must put these moral laws into practice and must learn to interpret them in the light of life in the 21st century

    With regard to atheists, or may we say secular society, who may not be convinced by the validity of God’s moral will, well through experience and, as you stated, the research of learned people they develop a moral code to order life on earth. Moral codes are hammered out on the anvil of life and it is a slow process; we are surely not finished yet? So societies slowly discover what behaviours are acceptable and unacceptable. What actions can be allowed or disallowed. If the goal is an ordered society, then moral laws must be put in place. When morality disolves then a society implodes; eg. Rome.

    I imagine that I am taking a “both/and approach” rather than an exclusive “either/or”. I am much more comfortable with plurality!

    • Tom Stewart says:

      I think, but I’m not 100% sure, that rudyardh’s view chimes with my own. I particularly like the phrase “hammered out on the anvil of life…”. One could say the same thing about the natural sciences.

      Of course, “order” is only part of it. Some of the worst political excesses were characterised by their order – as South Africans this is something of which you must be aware.

  3. Keith says:

    Thanks for the comment, dad. If only more of us were willing to draw from a plurality of moral resources, I think we’d be in better shape. The same goes for agreeing that morality is about ordered society – this seems obvious to me, but apparently it doesn’t to everyone!

  4. L.Long says:

    Morality only exists in the mind of the individual, as morality is what you claim is good and right and what is practiced in the dark(no one watching). The process of living well teaches the actions that work and becomes part of a persons moral code. The only authority for morals in yourself. The real problems occur when people take their moral codes and willy-nilly turn them into common law. Society takes the input of various people (morals) into consideration along with what works for the group cohesion to make ‘moral authority’ or law. One person says stores open on Sunday is immoral (in MA until a few years ago) where another says it is immoral to be open on Saturday (Jews), believers in Odin and Thor think Woden’s-dae and Thor’s-dae should be closing days (no I’m just kidding). But at this rate there is no day to buy food. Silliness of this sort should not be law but at the same time the practitioners are free to do so (follow their morals). God is not the moral authority unless you accept it, and the same for the state. To me killing is not immoral (individual belief) but I don’t do it as it is illegal (social requirement). All morals are with the individual (your morals are not necessarily mine), most everything else is law or customs.

  5. Tom Stewart says:

    I have often seen theists argue that laws are, by definition, institutionalised morality. When pressed with examples such as South African apartheid laws they then backtrack by describing them as “someone’s morality”. i.e. an appeal to subjectivism or relativism. As, at its heart, theism is a worldview that supports and is supported by subjectivism this is not at all surprising. Unfortunately I see even more often support for a subjective view of reality coming from non-believers. I guess that, because theists falsely depict their worldview as objective – and have managed to persuade both themselves and others that this is the case – then opponents take a contrary view.

    But both the theists and these opponents are going down the wrong track. The main characteristic of reality is its truth despite our thoughts, our feelings or emotions. 2+2=4 is true whether or not I believe it to be so and I am not the authority on this matter. As I pointed out in my earlier comment the authority for the truth of this simple equation comes from its relationship to reality – from itself.

    Similarly, the Earth revolves around the Sun, but this is not true simply because Copernicus and Galileo believed it to be true. Their views were thought to be heresy at the time because they went against some imagined authority – indeed, against a subjective notion of the workings of the solar system.

    I am sure L.long would not demur from these examples, as like myself and almost everyone else, he or she explicitly recognises that reality does not conform to our imagination or our consciousness. If mathematical and scientific truth universally follow this rule, based on reality as they are, why would ethics not follow the same principle?

    For morality is like any other feature of the world. What is moral is dependent on real-life facts. The difference is only the difficulty of testing moral theory against the real world. But provided that we can accept a working definition of morality (not too hard) and that we can also accept that moral rules, like any other scientific precepts, are universal, and most importantly, we recognise that we are fallible in our knowledge yet it continues to grow, we must accept that moral knowledge is objective. This would be true whether or not we have true, objective answers to moral questions.

    We now condemn slavery, we now condemn genocide, we now condemn discrimination based on biological factors – or most of us do, anyway. These are just three things that demonstrate that our moral knowledge has improved, if not simply changed, over time. Of course, some would dispute this, and given the subject nature, this is not unexpected.

    Scientifically, work in cosmology or studies of genomes, for example, have shown us that we still have a lot to learn, even though what we have learned is increasing. I fail to see how morality can’t be judged using similar processes.

    There is an argument that morality, reality-wise, is non-cognitive. Curiously, by postulating a power-type authority, theists implicitly accept this. This is why they so often refer to their “standard”, erroneously labelling it objective. Similarly, some non-believers quite often refer to their own standards as autonomous individuals. Both groups are implicitly accepting the non-cognivity of morality. But autonomy, laudable as it is, does not imply the end of knowledge.

    The fact is that, despite the existence of such things as raging inequality, the persistence of discrimination and attempts by the religious to send us back to the dark ages, in general we are better off than ever, and not just economically. This if nothing else should give us cause for optimism, and allow us to recognise that moral problems, just like any other problems, have solutions and that these solutions are objective ones.

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