Imagine you come across a major road traffic incident and there are multiple casualties. Suddenly, someone shouts out to you, “Phone for an ambulance!” Do you think “who put you in charge?!” and refuse to phone or do you phone? That is, do you accept this person’s authority? What kind of a person are you that would not phone?
I use this as an illustration of accepting authority. It is quite congenial for you to phone, because you would after all.1
Do I believe that there is currently a global warming, that is, an artificial climate change brought about by humanity activities that can be brought under some form of control? Yes, but why? Because those who specialise in climate, who study it and use the scientific method2 tell me that this is happening. I trust in their authority in this matter (and I like to think I am intelligent enough to understand their conclusion and evidence.
So we have two types of authority. One of orders and another based on trusting some person or people to have special knowledge. And, as so often happens, we allow the two meanings to elide into one another. This can be serious when we believe our specialists in politics to have specialist knowledge, because of what they specialise in. Politics, like Morality, is not the special preserve of specialists as are various fields of science or arts or farming or almost any activity that is humanly possible and even then any intelligent person can critique that activity. Here, by special preserve, I merely mean an area of human activity that someone specialises in. Politics and Morality are both areas of activity in which all that can, should take part in, although there are areas ancillary to the high-level area that can be left to specialists, but these should remain supportive of the high-level area. They should have influence , not control.
In practice, of course, we have people who claim to specialise in politics and these are of two types: those in (elective) office and those in public service.3
So let’s distinguish the two types of authority as order authority and knowledge authority.
Order authority is there in our evolution. Just look at animals and see how they behave and, apart from occasional challenges, the leader of the herd, pack, flock, etc., is obeyed. A moment’s reflection helps you realise the survival value of this; the group stays together. It is not a collection of vulnerable individuals, but one entity with a common purpose. Authority ensures survival.4
However, just as a bit of further reflection should make you realise that being able to question that authority and getting agreement from as many of the people affected will be more beneficial to everyone. The experience and the ideas of all can make a better decision. This can go wrong when those in authority strive to either not inform or actively mislead. The result will often be a disaster for the collective involved.5
Finally, it should be noticed that following the advice or orders of Authority does not mean that the system is Authoritarian. The idea that it is either due to the elision of the two types of authority so that the advice of the specialists is confused with orders or to think that there is no context in which obeying orders is still compatible with the exercise of personal freedom.
1 There is a part of me that goes why has no one else phoned, especially the one giving the orders? So let’s say his/her battery has run out or s/he is already dealing with a casualty.
2 This will be the subject of another post.
3 This will be the subject of another post.
4 With persons, rather than animals, it is useful, at times and under certain conditions to simply obey. Apart from the armed forces in combat, situations like the one described at the start of this post can be used to illustrate this. Note the restricted use. Danger arises when the authority for a particular situation is extended beyond that.
5 To my mind, this partially (not wholly, of course) explains the result of the UK’s EU Membership Referendum of 23/6/16. Many of the areas that voted for ending membership have a population that is both the least consulted by government and which has had its social and economic deprivation halted or reversed by EU projects. Once these projects stop and are not replaced, then the deprivation will start anew.