Monday, July 26, 2010

Why being authoritative matters

I'm not happy with this post but I'm going to leave it up and see if I can make myself clearer later.

Okay, you may want to sit down for this but I am going to make any argument for why all effective moral teaching must be authoritative. And, furthermore, for why this is so even if:
  1. You are wrong, or
  2. You don't live up to the standards you teach.
Then I'll go on vacation :-)

The first argument is quite simple, if you don't hold, really hold, solid moral views, no one will take you seriously. Someone who just says, here are a bunch of different moral views and here are some of the arguments pro and con without actually backing one or another is implicitly saying that this stuff doesn't matter. Morality isn't like picking your favourite colour, it really matters. If it doesn't show that it matters—and it won't if you don't take a stand and live it—no one will take you seriously and they will be right.

The second argument is that teaching is a way of living. It comes with moral standards embodied in it. Even if you claim not to take a stance your behaviour will imply standards about how people are to interact and argue and these are important points. And, whether they admit it or not, people who teach morality do unhesitatingly assume and impose these sorts of standards. And they are not minimal but they are innevitable.

And that is the quandary. You have to imply standards in your teaching behaviour even though you will inevitably fail to live up to them. Sometimes you will even fail in big ways. But, and this is crucial, trying to dodge it by saying you just want to let other people make up their mind won't do.

And I am going on vacation, as a later post will discuss. If anyone thinks I am wrong and wants to set me straight, please feel to have at it in the comments. I probably won't be responding for at least a week though.


  1. I don't agree that one who purports to teach about morality must be authoritative, I think that most people today would regard that as arrogance. It is indeed a quandry but maybe thats the price one pays for trying to play God. In addition, if you are results-oriented I would think that an approach that would engage people in a dialogue would be more preferable to one that alienates people. The other problem is that many people can authoritatively present their views on morality which are oftentimes in contradiction with one another and which all claim their authority from God. So where does that leave the person who is looking for direction or guidance on moral matters? Ultimately, everyone has to assume responsiblity for his own salvation, and that includes sorting through the various moral teachings--all of which claim to be authoritative and from God--and making up his own mind--I did that and, from what you've written I think you did that too. I think others need to have the freedom to do the same thing, or their moral path will be hollow. I'll have more to say on this before you return from fishing.

  2. To be results-oriented, one would have to be teaching from a position of authority. That is, one would have to hold that certain results are good and want them.

    That is the problem with all attempts to be non-authoratitive. No matter where we stand, we stand on certain principles. Pluralism is is as strong a principle as any other and the pluralist really expects everyone to be a pluralist just like him or herself.

  3. I'm not sure that you're not mixing apples and oranges here, but yes, pluralism is the law of the land in the US, on the authority of the US Constitution. But that means respecting or at least tolerating other points of view, or that other people have the right to their points of view, even those who don't believe in Pluralism. I guess its kind of a paradox isn't it. The irony is that many of those who enjoy the primary benefit of pluralism--freedeom of conscience--would seek to deny that to others by imposing their views on the entire body politic. I'm talking about religious fundementalists and other zealots of every stripe, who are all absolutely convinced that their way is the only way for everyone, and claim that their authority derives from God, or Allah, or science, or whatever. That is not to say that they don't have the right to try to influence public policy through lawful means, but they cannot by edict or unilaterally impose their views on society as a whole. And even there, while the majority rules, the minority have rights.

    As far as results-oriented, it would seem to me that the result to strive for would be that others would be persuaded by one's arguments and come to agree with them. I guess maybe I've been confusing authoritative with authoritarian. It is one thing to authoritatively present one's views with respect--both for the individuals that are being taught, and for the other views that one attempts to discredit, or at least respect for the people who hold those view. To say that if you don't hold to my beliefs you are will go to hell is dishonest, nobody can make that claim because there is no empirical proof that is the case.