Thursday, August 10, 2006

What Is "Moral Authority"?

I was pondering Goldbricker's post from a couple of weekends ago in which she points to James Dobson's checkered past as he, himself, tells it in his book The New Strong Willed Child.

Dobson admits in one of his books that as a child he arranged a fight between two mismatched dogs. The battle involved a tenacious bulldog and a "sweet, passive Scottie named Baby," and Dobson provoked it by throwing a tennis ball toward Baby. He writes what happened next: "The bulldog went straight for Baby's throat and hung on. It was an awful scene. Neighbors came running from everywhere as the Scottie screamed in terror. It took ten minutes and a garden hose for the adults to pry loose the bulldog's grip. By then Baby was almost dead. He spent two weeks in the animal hospital, and I spent two weeks in the doghouse. I was hated by the entire town."
Does this matter? For the evangelical set, we see things like this, Bill Frist's getting cats from the SPCA under the auspices of adopting a pet and then taking them home to dissect, and George W. Bush's past "infelicities" all get wiped clean by being born again. But when we look at the ethics and not the theology of the question, it becomes should the character or moral history of the source of moral proclamations make a difference in how seriously we take the proclamation?

When the whole Clinton blue dress thing was going on, one of the refrains we heard was that he had now lost his moral authority to speak from the bully pulpit. This seems to be the heart of the matter. What is meant by the phrase "moral authority," how does one gain it and does one lose it by acting immorally?

It made me think back a few weeks when I was on the BART train from Berkeley to San Francisco when two guys got on in Oakland. The older, an African-American gentleman was preaching to the younger, an African-American teen. His words were ethical , not religious. He was preaching self-reliance. "The system is stacked against you," he told his young companion, "It's out to screw you and if you try to fight the system, it will only come down harder on you. You need to live right, get an education, and realize that you have to struggle harder. Is it unfair? Damn straight. but as a black man today, that is what you are stuck with." His advice was mingled with talk about the CIA unleashing crack on the black community and other conspiracy theories, and he was louder than one usually is on a subway and many around rolled their eyes at him. When the teen got off at his stop, the man continued talking to whoever would listen.

The man next to me was an older African-American gentleman, clearly a janitor or maintainance man on his way home. He was very attentive and vigorously shaking his head in agreement. At one piece of moral advice, he muttered to himself, but loud enough for me to hear, "That's right. but what do I know, I'm stupid." I said to him, "I don't believe that, but even if it is true, it is not a matter of being well-educated, it is a matter of being thoughtful about your experiences in life." He had ruled himself out as a moral authority, even for himself.

When the preacher said that you could never look to the city government to solve any problem because the government represented rich and poor, black and white and no two had the same problems and there were no one-size fits all solutions, I respectfully asked whether there weren't some problems that were common to all groups that could be addressed well by the government? The strangest thing happened at that point, the Asian, Latino, and well-off African-American passengers around me looked up and changed their expression with respect to the conversation. They now showed that they took it seriously, they allowed themselves to be engaged. Now, I look like a philosophy professor. I'm a white, clearly Jewish guy in my mid-30's with a beard and the receding hairline/ponytail thing happening. I also live 3000 miles away from this subway line, so no one knew me beyond what they inferred from visual first impressions. Yet, the way I looked and the way I asked my question instantly conferred moral authority upon my point. Should it have? We do take certain people's advice more seriously, and we should -- people we know and respect for their thoughtfulness, resourcefulness, their ability to be empathetic, their ability to be rational when passions could easily cloud judgment. But does that or should that make someone a moral authority?

I have to admit, the whole notion of moral authority seems odd to me. Arguing from authority on factual matters is a perfectly legitimate thing. No one knows everything and we have a division of intellectual labor. If you need to know something, ask an expert. Legitimate authorities should be taken seriously with regard to questions of fact. But there is a difference between factual matters accessible through study and moral matters. If I need to know the atomic weight of a particular isotope of calcium, a chemist's word should be sufficient. I can accept the answer and not have to think any more about it. But if I want to know what should I do in a complicated ethical matter, it seems like seeking a "moral authority" is problematic.

Certainly, there is nothing wrong with asking advice on such matters from people you respect. In fact, it is quite a good idea. But simply accepting someone's authority and taking marching orders from them seems to be a serious dereliction of ethical duty. You need to think and make the decision, not the other person. There is responsibility for personal consideration in the ethical case that is not there in the factual case.

Further, the qualifications of an authority seem rather different. If someone plays the horses every day and never picks the winner, he might not be the best choice for tips on picking a pony at the track. On the other hand, if Keith Richards tells you to stay away from heroin, Michael Moore suggests a healthy diet with plenty of exercise, George W. Bush advises you to take your studies seriously, and Dick Cheney urges you not to drink and handle firearms, you should listen. Good advice is good advice because it is good advice no matter whose mouth it comes out of. Sometimes when people say "do as I say, not as I do" they are right.

In moral matters, we need to think hard and carefully about actions and consider arguments from all sides seriously. The notion of a moral authority bypasses this entire process of deliberation. Those who claim "moral authority" seem to be claiming a whole lot more, the ability to make decisions for you while you claim the moral responsibility for having done them. It's like when the little brother gets in trouble for doing something the older sister put him up to.

But this is exactly what people like Dobson are claiming. They contend that you need to listen to them and follow what they say or else. The question therefore is not whether they are qualified or not for the position because it is a position that should not exist.