Authority and Authoritarianism

Authority and authoritarianism are difficult concepts to sort out, and the device of four fold tables, once popular in sociology, can help in doing that.

Authority is the sense that being subordinate is the fitting and proper way to feel and behave, whatever the consequences. Indeed, subordination can be perceived as the only way it is possible to feel and behave in that there is no way to live without having an authority to govern one’s life, whether that is the authority of God or a government or an ethical code. Kierkegaard, of course, is the exemplar of the thinker who places such authority in God, His authority beyond the moral plane in that one should even be willing to sacrifice one’s own son if God demands it. Governments provide an authority that is like that, though they reserve only to wars as the times to demand ultimate sacrifices, governments most of the time treated by their citizens and subjects as perhaps beneficial authorities or as troublesome nuisances. Mostly, Constitutional documents are ones which are cited when one of their provisions are in dispute, but it can be said, in the United States, that the ideas of due process and equality before the law make up a set of common concerns that are of interest to most citizens. Kant is the one who most clearly posits a moral code as the ultimate authority in that the introduction of the word “should” into a sentence is sufficient excuse to demand all of the sacrifices required of a believer: to turn one’s friend into the police, to treat someone with disdain as an evil doer, to guide one in everyday undertakings. Far from being a proponent of a common sense allegiance to practical morality, such as when one is advised to do what the job dictates rather than decide to assume responsibilities for which an employee or a person may not know enough about to carry out successfully despite all good intentions, Kantianism can lead to an absolutism that says “I was just doing my job” or “Mine is to obey and not know the reason why”, although to give Kant his due, he did not have to contemplate how to morally act in Hitler’s world even if he had the historical example of Calvin’s Geneva before him. Kant didn’t think an authority would be unreasonably cruel.

Read More