Cross-post: In defense of conservative authoritarianism

Some say that the conservative veneration of authority is mere nostalgia, an outdated model of society, or even anti-Christian. I strenuously disagree-authority is a core category of the social world, and its moral quality cannot be understood without it. However, it must be properly understood. In particular, it must be clear in what sort of social analysis one is engaged when one speaks of authority.

Each society has what Marxists call an ideology, a set of officially-sanctioned concepts and beliefs that the society uses to articulate its explicit understanding of itself. The Marxists are correct to note that these ideological categories can be self-serving nonsense, and in our society they assuredly are. Consider our labeling of the most despised segments of society as “privileged” or the fiction of the public-private distinction according to which the major media, large corporations, and universities are not part of the government in some meaningful sense.

These pretensions can often be debunked by engaging in an amoral, “view from outside”, sociological analysis of how decisions are actually made and where power (including psychological influence) is actually held. When done honestly, analysis of this sort must be agnostic about all claims of right or justice, considering them only by the effect of such claims on power dynamics. This sociological-power perspective abstracts away much of the all-important “surface” of social life and is thus seriously incomplete, but it is perfectly valid in its own methodological domain. These are, then, two modes of understanding the social order: the ideological and the sociological.

The conservative analysis of authority belongs to neither of these, but to a third mode of analysis which I will call the analysis of moral experience. Like sociological analysis, this third mode abstracts from the narratives the society uses to explain itself; the truth or falsity of these is put to the side, and they are relevant only to the extent that they affect the moral “facts on the ground”. Unlike the sociological mode, analysis of moral experience includes all dimensions of man’s existential situation as a sexual, social, rational animal who finds himself already in a net of dependencies on those for whom he is responsible and those to whom he owes gratitude, who can only become an integrated moral being by having a rational ordering of the goods making claim upon his loyalty. It infers that, given basic biological and moral facts, not only men but also institutions have essential natures, that their functions and responsibilities are not entirely a matter of human choice. (One might call this the “Confucian principle”.) For example, one can imagine a government formed by social contract entirely for the protection of property. However, once an organization has aggregated to itself such power, it would be unjustifiable not to use it to protect life and to interest itself in basic aspects of the common good as well. In short, it must assume all the essential functions of government.

The duty to obey certain people precedes any legitimating narrative. You might object that this is logically impossible, that a sense of duty cannot precede its ideological justification, except that we have all experienced this. Government existed for millennia before anyone invented the theory of social contract; the theory of the divine right of kings is scarcely older; nor have commoners probably ever interested themselves much in rules of succession. I am aware of no extended arguments for the authority of parents; such a thing is obvious, a premise rather than a conclusion of political philosophy. When analyzing moral experience, we are not attempting to invent stories to justify these feelings of obligation. Nor do we attempt to debunk them–they are prima facie legitimate simply by virtue of existing. We just want to understand them.

When we observe authoritative relations, here are some things we find.

There are authorities but no absolute sovereign (unless we are analyzing in the sociological-power mode, e.g. Schmitt). That is, there are multiple Earthly authorities, all deriving their mandate directly from God, rather than one of them holding a plenitude of authority and delegating to the others. The government is one authority, but so are parents, priests, professional societies, and even humble homeowners (when you’re in his house, you follow his rules). The defining act of tyranny is overriding other authorities in their rightful claims over their subjects, rather than overriding some personal freedom.

To be a relation of authority, it must be ordered to a common good and a commonly recognized moral order, not merely transactional. It may take careful thought to determine if, in a given society, the relation of employers to employees is one of authority or merely one of exchange. Obedience becomes vexing when the holder of authority personally rejects aspects of the moral order. However, the holder of authority is to be distinguished from the operation of authority; as long as the latter is unaffected by the holder’s immoral beliefs, its prerogatives remain.

All authority derives from God, and is therefore a mode of His presence to us in the world and is therefore in a sense sacred and entitled not only to our obedience but also to our honor. The paradigmatic case of authority is, of course, fatherhood, and to the extent that an authority participates in the Form of fatherhood, it is entitled to a share in the reverence of filial piety.

An authority we are obliged to obey only when we agree with its orders is no authority at all. Usually, we are obliged to obey even orders that we think foolish and counterproductive. We should, of course, refuse to obey immoral orders. This restriction is broader than a requirement that we abstain from the positive commission of intrinsically evil acts. One should not, for example, obey an order that a man should not be fed even when there is sufficient food but rather allowed to starve, or (the spiritual analogue) that no one should teach him the Christian faith. By natural law analysis, starving a man is objectively murder just as much as shooting him, regardless of an intention merely to obey orders. Authority may still lawfully command that you refrain from giving him things not needed for his survival or not giving him knowledge not needed for his salvation. Prudence is undoubtedly needed in ascertaining the limits of lawful obedience.

We find that the extent of authority–both of who and what it may command–is quite variable, although there is more uniformity for certain “natural” authorities such as those of husbands, parents, and government, for which universal social Forms come into play. What is or is not theoretically authorized by the reigning political ideology is irrelevant per se to the moral facts on the ground.

Authority lays claim to obedience, not belief. We must obey our rulers, but we are under no obligation to consider their rules wise. Authorities may offer reasons to sway our belief, but they cannot command belief. We trust our parents (at least when we are young), but that is a separate matter from their authority. (An example of the latter would be helping your brother pick up his mess because your mother told you so, even though you still think it’s not fair.) The Church can rightly command our belief, but that is because she is infallible, which is a separate competence from her authority.

Saint Paul and Jesus Himself affirm that all authority on Earth comes from God. Satan remains the Prince of this world, not that he has any rightful authority over us–God forbid!–but that he remains the preeminent power. (You’ll have noticed that wars are almost always won by the more-evil side and how events always seem to conspire to advance the Left.) One might say that his princedom applies to the sociological-power analysis mode (imagining, if you will, a non-positivist, spiritually-aware power analysis) rather than to the mode of moral experience.

Obedience to authority is not a necessary evil, a regrettable consequence of the Fall. Nor is it a mark of spiritual childishness, something we are ideally destined to outgrow. It is an intrinsic good, a key way whereby men can experience their social world as rational, as integrated to the moral order and its Author.

3 Responses

  1. Two points, if I may

    I am aware of no extended arguments for the authority of parents; such a thing is obvious, a premise rather than a conclusion of political philosophy

    This recalls the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher, Thomas Reid’s ethical theory. For Reid, the moral sense is a form of non-inferential knowledge; just as we do not reason or infer or conclude that an object is red, but perceive it to be red, so we do not reason or infer or conclude that an action is unjust, we perceive it to be unjust.

    So, too, with duty: “With regard to the notion or conception of duty, I take it to be too simple to admit of a logical definition. We can define it only by synonymous words or phrases, or by its properties and necessary concomitants; as when we say that it is what we ought to do, what is fair and honest, what is approvable, what every man professes to be the rule of his conduct, what all men praise and what is in itself laudable, though no man should praise it.” (Essay on the Powers of the Human Mind III 6). “Simple” is here used in the old sense of unanalysable, the opposite of compound.

    Authority lays claim to obedience, not belief

    St Ignatius Loyola thought otherwise. The key elements of the Ignatian notion of authority are the following:

    — The mere execution of the order of a superior is the lowest degree of obedience, and does not merit the name of obedience or constitute an exercise of the virtue of obedience.

    — In order to merit the name of virtue, an exercise of obedience should attain the second level of obedience, which consists in not only doing what the superior orders, but conforming one’s will to that of the superior, so that one not only wills to obey an order, but wills that that particular order should have been given – simply because the superior willed it.

    — The third and highest degree of obedience consists in conforming not only one’s will but one’s intellect to the order of the superior, so that one not only wills that an order should have been given, but actually believes that the order was the right order to give, simply because the superior gave it. ‘He who aims at making an entire and perfect oblation of himself, in addition to his will, must offer his understanding, which is a further and the highest degree of obedience. He must not only will, but he must think the same as the superior, submitting his own judgment to that of the superior, so far as a devout will can bend the understanding.’

    — In the highest and most meritorious degree of obedience, the follower has no more will of his own in obeying than an inanimate object. ‘Everyone of those who live under obedience ought to allow himself to be carried and directed by Divine Providence through the agency of the superior as if he were a lifeless body [perinde cadaver] which allows itself to be carried to any place and to be treated in any manner desired, or as if he were an old man’s staff which serves in any place and in any manner whatsoever in which the holder wishes to use it.’

    — The sacrifice of will and intellect involved in this form of obedience is the highest form of sacrifice possible, because it offers to God the highest human faculties, viz. the intellect and the will.

  2. One might say that, for Ignatius, the perfection of obedience is trust.

  3. Indeed.

    Latin has a number of different words for “authority.”

    There is imperium, the power of a commander-in-chief over his troops; there is potestas meaning a legal power; there is auctoritas, meaning personal standing and influence that begets trust and confidence. Augustus famously possessed all three, his auctoritas as leading citizen, his imperium proconsulare or proconsular power and his tribunicia potestas or tribunician power of veto over actions of magistrates of the Roman People.

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