How formal authority works

Over the past two years, a lot of people have asked about whether anyone is bound to obey this or that decree by this or that authority. Sometimes it’s about the secular government, and sometimes it’s about an ecclesial figure, but the common thread has been confusion about when obedience is good or bad. In practice, I see people flee to extremes: one group acts as though the government has absolutely no authority to deal with COVID while the other group acts as though there could never be such a thing as government overreach. One group acts as though a bishop or the Pope has no authority that could practically affect them, while the other acts as though a prelate’s most casual remark overthrows all other moral considerations. Often, I see individuals vacillate between these extremes depending on the issue at hand.

At root, it appears to me that most people lack a coherent notion of what authority is. This is a strange thing, since we live with authorities all the time: parents, teachers, employers, club presidents, priests—we have a lot of concrete experience, but we seem bad at tapping into that experience to deal with new questions.

This post offers a definition of authority and an explanation of how authority works. I am not addressing any particular controversy, but offering a general account applicable to all controversies.

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An authority is someone who can oblige people to something. That is to say, when a governing authority tells people what to do, they are morally obliged to do it (barring strange circumstances to be discussed later).

To be morally obliged to do something means that every other course of action is unreasonable. The mind is tied down, so to speak, to one course of action and one only. So to oblige people to something means to make it unreasonable for them to do anything else.

What makes it reasonable to do one thing and unreasonable to do another? There can only be one answer: the good. The first principle of morality is that it is reasonable to do good and unreasonable to do evil. But since evil is simply what is opposed to the good, the one thing that makes actions reasonable or unreasonable is: the good.

So the key to understanding authority is to understand its relation to the good.

The good that relates one person to another, that might for example put one person in authority over another, is not an individual good. The individual good is the individual’s responsibility. Rather, the good that relates people to one another is a common good, one that is good for many people at the same time without being diminished or divided. The common good is better than the individual good, that is to say, it is better even for the individual than his merely individual good. This is important, because it means that it will always be unreasonable to choose the merely individual good to the detriment of the common good. If the two come into conflict, the only reasonable thing to do is to choose the common good.

So the key to understanding authority is to understand its relation to the common good.

Even though the common good is better than a merely individual good, the merely individual good has one inherent advantage: it is some individual’s responsibility. In contrast, the common good is everyone’s responsibility and so can easily become nobody’s concern. Since it is everyone’s good equally, every individual can assume that someone else will take care of it. Moreover, even if every individual acts to preserve the common good, it will not always be clear how this should be done and so even good-willed individuals will disagree with each other and take conflicting courses of action. And beyond that, even if every individual acts to preserve the common good and all individuals agree on what should be done in principle, in many cases there is no one best thing to do: an arbitrary choice must be made and followed by everyone. An example of this would be choosing which side of the road to drive on.

Since the common good obliges everyone to act to preserve it, the very first thing it obliges everyone to do is to have or create a way to solve the problems I have just described. The solution in some cases could be a system of group voting in which the majority vote binds the minority dissenters. In other cases it will be necessary to delegate certain decisions to an individual or to a smaller group, because group voting on everything necessary would be too cumbersome or otherwise ineffective. One way or another, though, the common good itself obliges us to have some structure in place for determining a course of action for preserving the common good.

This structure is what we mean by an authority. Again, it could be a group voting system, an individual who makes decisions, or a group who makes decisions together, but in each case its existence is required by the common good.

This explains how an authority can morally bind people. Since the common good demands that the authority make decisions, and since disobeying the authority is acting against its ability to make decisions, the only way I can disobey the authority is by acting against the demands of the common good. What makes an authority authoritative is the fact that it can place the common good between the individual and his proposed course of action, saying in effect: “You can only do that by trampling the common good.” That instantly makes the proposed course of action unreasonable, i.e., immoral. And if the authority says, “Do this,” then it has placed the common good as an obstacle between the individual and every other course of action except the one commanded, so only that one course of action is now reasonable.

The account of authority I have offered here is perfectly general. Even God’s authority is rooted in the fact that he is the absolutely common good of the entire universe: just as it would be irrational to disbelieve the word of Truth itself, so it is evil to act against the command of Goodness itself. His authority is rooted not in his power but in his goodness.

All of this may seem very abstract, but my goal is to help us think less abstractly about authority. These days, we tend to think about authority very, very abstractly. Even though every authority is called into existence by a concrete common good, we tend to think of that authority’s power not only in abstraction from the concrete good but even in abstraction from every good. We are left thinking of the authority as a kind of efficient cause that can “oblige” us almost in a physical way, by coercing us to a course of action, and as a result we think of the limits on its power as a simple quantitative question: How strong is it? How many units of authority power does it possess?

But when we do this, we end up with insolvable conundra. For example, a husband and wife together as parents have authority over their children, while the husband has traditionally been seen as the head of the family. Does the husband’s fullness of power over the family mean that the wife has no authority of herself? Does his power mean that her power is just delegated from him? To anyone who lives in a family, the answer is obvious: No. The answer is obvious because we are close to the concrete goods that call the authority of the wife and the authority of the husband into existence. The question is only difficult when we think abstractly.

We have to re-root authority in the concrete goods that give it moral power.

So far, I have explained how it is that authorities create moral obligation. I have not addressed the fact that authorities sometimes fail to create moral obligation, and what I have laid out here is not enough to address all such situations. But a few things do follow directly from what I have said:

To begin with, an authority has authority only in relation to the good that grounds it. For example, since the government of the United States has authority grounded in the common good of the United States, it has no authority in France. If an authority attempts to issue commands beyond its sphere, one need not obey.

Moreover, the very good that grounds authority eventually limits it. If the President of the United States directed the military to destroy the United States, no one would have to obey. An authority only works by saying, “Unless you do this, you will trample the common good [in the form of my office].” It cannot say, in effect, “Unless you destroy the common good, you will trample the common good.”

This last point needs some exposition. On the one hand, we cannot disobey an authority every time we disagree about whether that authority has truly acted for the common good. For example, we cannot refuse to support a war duly declared by Congress just because we disagree about whether the war is likely to turn out well. This kind of disobedience nullifies one of the very things authority exists to solve, namely disagreement about which course of action will be best.

On the other hand, the authority’s decree only binds because a person’s reason can perceive the weight of the common good behind it. If that decree is destructive of the common good in a way that the person’s reason cannot be uncertain about, then the decree loses all moral force. Obedience is always rooted in reason’s grasp of the good. It is not arbitrary or blind.

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Author: Dr. Holmes

Dr. Jeremy Holmes teaches Theology at Wyoming Catholic College. He lives in Wyoming with his wife, Jacinta, and their eight children.

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Fr. Joseph Bolin
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“Since the common good demands that the authority make decisions, and since disobeying the authority is acting against its ability to make decisions, the only way I can disobey the authority is by acting against the demands of the common good.” What makes an authority authoritative is the fact that it can place the common good between the individual and his proposed course of action, saying in effect: “You can only do that by trampling the common good.” That instantly makes the proposed course of action unreasonable, i.e., immoral. This seems a bit oversimplified. Acting against an authority’s ability to… Read more »