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.

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Good Faith


A lot of philosophy and social science boils down to the quest for the right standards.

  • What standard of measurement shall we use for overall or even individual well being?
  • What standards of behavior should we hold ourselves and one another to?
  • What standards of justification should we use to undergird our use of the other standards, and how could these standards of justification themselves be justified?

The standard, as an ideal, is supposed to be something set apart from our particular interests, biases, and social status—in short, they’re supposed to be fair, and perhaps even neutral.

I was recently reminded of a metaphor my dad had for standards internal to most bureaucracies: the treadmill.

The ideal is for the treadmill to be used to determine whether or not you qualify for something. A baseline standard of health is set, and everyone gets to be tested against it. It sounds impartial, even egalitarian. It doesn’t matter who you are—so long as you can pass the treadmill test, you qualify.

Unfortunately, the people who run the test are part of the political machinery of the bureaucracy, and it turns out to be quite easy to put their thumb on the scale.

When the powers that be want someone to qualify, they are given a much less taxing experience on the treadmill. Meanwhile, if those powers are determined that you will not qualify, they crank up the speed and leave you on until you die of a heart attack.

Standards can never be neutral, but they can be fair. But only when we’re able to trust one another to act in good faith.


I am fascinated by the questions that philosophers have asked for thousands of years, but amused by how completely worthless all our answers are without a foundation of faith.

Increasingly I’ve come to believe that trust is the most important aspect of faith in this respect. How is coordination and cooperation among millions of strangers possible? A widespread trust. How are we able to learn anything? By trusting in certain authorities and in the authority of certain sources. How has science advanced? By creating specialized communities of inquiry who trust each other enough to learn from each other, and develop standards of evidence that they believe will be employed in good faith.

What you believe is, I think, much less a factor of your theoretical pre-commitments, or your religion, or your politics, than of who you trust. Indeed, your pre-commitments, religion, and politics are largely determined by a combination of who you trusted in the first place and your own judgment.

The so-called culture war is nothing more than the professionalization of political mistrust, the monetization, glamorization, and weaponization of bad faith. We are more likely to trust people we don’t know who espouse beliefs similar to the ones we do, than people we don’t know who disagree with us. If people in the first group are pouring a lot of energy into portraying people with different beliefs as untrustworthy and cynical opportunists, then the already existing divisions in trust will only grow wider.

I like to use the example of anti-vaccine people, something I trust most of my audience will agree is an instance of a group being simply wrong about something. This piece depicts how often this group makes other choices outside the mainstream, opting, for instance, for alternative forms of education for their children. When it comes right down to it, trusting the authority of doctors and medical researchers is conventional. It therefore makes sense that communities who reject big, central conventions in one area (like the standard American education) would also be more likely to mistrust those who are conventionally trusted.

Note that even a fairly nuanced piece on this group is entitled “Vaccine deniers: inside the dumb, dangerous new fad”. The intended audience is clearly not the “deniers”. And any denier who saw this piece would no doubt dismiss it out of hand, without reading it, since it leads off by insulting their intelligence.

Imagine you wanted to persuade a member of this group that they are mistaken about vaccines. Would you lead off by demanding that they prove they even care about their children’s health, or the health of the larger community? Of course not. No amount of “proof” could suffice; trusting that they do care about such things is always a leap of faith, one that can only be given and never earned.

The problem is precisely that they trust sources that spread skeptical narratives about vaccines and the authority of mainstream medicine, while mistrusting the conventional authorities on the subject. Any hostility directed at them from people whose trust is more conventional only reinforces their belief in the bad motives of those people, and their defensive responses surely only reinforce the reciprocal assumption of bad faith on the other side.

I have no solution to such deficits of trust, other than to do the best you can to be worthy of trust yourself—by striving to act in good faith—and to start from an assumption of good faith on the part of others. If you can’t grant this assumption, if you can’t extend your trust, then there is no point to having a conversation at all.

If my father is correct, then we are living through a time when trust in conventional authorities is bleeding away at an alarming rate, with no clear successors in sight. I hope he is wrong, or at least that the trajectory can be reversed or a better one found. Such a path cannot lead anywhere good.

Tradition, Authority, and Reason

When I started reading up on the virtues and following the trails through philosophy that I found along the way two years ago, I was pretty sure that I was a Burkean traditionalist of some sort. It was Alasdair MacIntyre who began to throw a wrench in this when he pointed out that Burke treated tradition as a sort of black box—something that actual adherents to traditions do not do. Moreover, Burke somehow did this while remaining an economic liberal for his day, something very much not traditional to his nation.

We are apt to be misled here by the ideological uses to which the concept of a tradition has been put by conservative political theorists. Characteristically such theorists have followed Burke in contrasting tradition with reason and the stability of tradition with conflict. Both contrasts obfuscate. For all reasoning takes place within the context of some traditional mode of thought, transcending through criticism and invention the limitations of what had hitherto been reasoned in that tradition; this is as true of modern physics as of medieval logic. Moreover when a tradition is in good order it is always partially constituted by an argument about the goods the pursuit of which gives to that tradition its particular point and purpose.

MacIntyre presents a different sort of traditionalism from Burke, one more like Michael Oakeshott’s. There is reason and reasoning but these are only made coherent by the traditions they are situated within.

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