Roles of Authority

Why are people in authority allowed to do things that the average person is not? What exactly is authority, apart from the use of organized force to pursue some agenda?

We have trouble forming a clear picture of concepts like these because we are trapped by inwardness. The modern turn toward the inner life as the center of human experience has been, as Charles Taylor puts it, a real epistemic gain. But it exacted a price, often in the form of impoverished theory.

Prior to the inward turn, ontology was implicitly centered on what we would now call intersubjectivity. They did not have a word for it. We have a word for it precisely because various modern philosophers have explicitly sought out to recover our understanding of this layer, which was largely lost after the inward turn. The word they chose still subordinates this layer to the subjective—one reason why I personally prefer Deirdre McCloskey’s term “conjective”.

In the pre-modern hermeneutic situation, rights, duties, and authority were not tied to persons, but to roles. A king could tax his citizens because he was king; this authority or ability was tied to the role. But duties came with that authority as well.

The inward turn, and especially the Lockean turn towards the natural rights of the subject, has rendered this problematic. A right is now something we have as human beings, not as this or that role which exists in a social rather than personal context.  Authority is created by the joint acts of will on the part of all those individuals who will be subject to it.

That willful participation may be withdrawn; it has the contingency of a contract, albeit of a very special sort. Authority is made intractable by this framing, regardless of the many ways social theorists have attempted to compensate for it. If authority depends on active consent, then people can always withdraw that consent. Moreover, they can be opportunistic about it, withdrawing their consent only when they’ve broken the law. The Lockean turn has left us without the resources to marshall a rigorous defense against this kind of opportunism.

But the older ways tended to calcify into some variation of the Great Chain of Being, in which everyone has their place in the hierarchy, and it is immoral to take one single step outside of one’s station. Deirdre McCloskey contends that the shattering of this worldview by classical liberalism freed an untapped well of talent, which burst forth and gave us the Great Enrichment. Reactionaries since then have dreamed of reestablishing some idealized version of the old social hierarchy.

We need not become reactionaries to understand authority. We simply need to recover the ontological priority of the conjective.

The human social order can be seen as a series of nested and interlocking games. We are thrown into these games, already active when we get there, and we have to quickly take stock of their roles, rules, and spirit.

There are already authoritative roles when we join in, and we are too busy getting our bearings to wonder why these roles have authority in the first place.

Eventually we may wonder just that, especially if we notice that the game is constantly in motion, changed in subtle or big ways by how it is played.

Those of us who look inward tend to look for two kinds of reasons: what might be called authorial intent, as well as reader experience. We can talk about the former in those cases where a game can meaningfully be said to have creators; we might then ask what their reasons for designing it the way they did. Why did the creators of Dungeons and Dragons decide to include the Dungeon Master role? Why did the founding fathers decide to propose a bicameral legislature?

The second inward reason focuses on the players. Why did Americans ratify the constitution, and why do they continue to vote? Why did early Twitter users start using the @  sign to show that they were directing a comment at some specific person? Why do secular people continue viewing christian art?

But the crucial level of analysis needs to be the game itself—the game is the thing. Just as a text transcends authorial intent or the subjective experience of readers, the actions of players can only be understood in the context of the game itself, and its relation to other games.

It is not that we play political or commercial or military games in order to support a way of life. The unity of these games is the way of life; they are what constitutes it. Purpose emerges from the goals internal to the games.

Will Wilkinson has used the example of a coach in basketball.

If the Golden State Warriors’ starting five had never met, but you threw them on a court against pretty much any five random guys, they’ll almost certainly destroy them. But if you throw them on a court against a well-coached Cleveland Cavaliers team, they’ll get absolutely throttled. They won’t be able to coordinate with the level of planning and precision needed to compete. Steve Kerr and Tyronn Lue are there (and are lavishly compensated) for a reason and the reason is authority. You may think it’s just that the Warriors need a strategy. It’s true, but it’s not just that. Who decides on the strategy? Who gets everyone on the same page? Who decides when the strategy needs to change? How do you get the sort of tightly-knit, well-oiled (oiled fabric is a thing!) collective compliance that makes strategy effective? Authority. There has to be someone whose judgments are decisive, and whose judgments are treated as decisive.

A military unit presents a starker example. If soldiers work at cross purposes, not only will they be ineffective and risk death at the hands of the enemy—they may end up killing one another in friendly fire. Just having someone whose role it is to give orders, even if the specific person occupying the role isn’t the best suited for it in the group, improves the effectiveness of the unit.

This scales up to the level of the whole military, and indeed society as a whole. This is what is entailed by specialization—indeed, specialization is just a word for the existence of distinct roles.

The structure of the unit is best understood in terms of the game of war and of nations, not the individual wills of the soldiers or commanders, much less of citizens.

That said, the individual player does not simply vanish, and I must reiterate my agreement with Taylor that the moral sources of modernity constitute a gain for mankind. I simply also agree that our articulations of those sources have been poorly thought out, and we have rejected many valuable notions too hastily.

To recover a picture of authority beyond the internality of the subject is not to call for meek subservience. Liberalism has radically altered the rules of the game, and I believe largely for the better. Individual rights can be seen as specific demarcations within which our own authority—-that is, the authority of every citizen—is supposed to trump anyone else’s in all but exceptional circumstances.

To the extent that this dramatic, if domain-restricted, leveling of authority is the hallmark of liberalism, those who view it as an impediment to progress are seeking to play an illiberal game.

Beyond liberalism, civilization itself is characterized by vital commercial, artistic, and intellectual production and intercourse. All of these broaden our horizons, which change the way we see the authoritative roles in the games we play. Such ongoing conversations provide the resources for criticism or defense of established authorities. They also feed into how various players will work together to seek reform or revolution.

This game-centered and conjective approach therefore does not preclude the moral sources of liberalism from the outset, including the ability to take a critical stance to the status quo. It does allow us to see the nature of authority, and social roles in general, much more clearly than the stance of inwardness is capable of.

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