Posted by: dacalu | 30 June 2012

Historical Authority (Part II)

Yesterday I began speaking about the history of how we invest authority, the relationships of power and responsibility.  I specifically covered late antiquity and the Middle Ages.  Upon reflection, I don’t think I need to finish off with the last 5 centuries.  the point I’m trying to make is that historically, societies have tried to regulate people with power – to domesticate them so that their powers helped the society and not just themselves.  We lose track of the practical use (if not necessarily the motivation) for a celibate priesthood.  It’s an obligation that tries to insure priests care more about the church than their families.  In centuries of rampant nepotism, it was (if only partially) successful at curbing the excesses of family politics.

Delightfully, we live in an age when we can see the dynamics of authority play out in real time.  The banks and governments (possibly the people too) of Europe have decided they want the kind of stability that comes from a common currency.  They want to be able to communicate and trade value across the continent without the complexities of currency exchange and local inflation.  They know that this will require some central authority – hence the European Union.  Now they’re biting the bullet and attempting to give regulatory power to the EU and giving it more authority over nation governments in an attempt to resolve the debt crisis.

Some economists and sociologists have tended to believe that power always gets more concentrated through time.  It certainly happens frequently.  People realize they can do more as a group and group activity takes leadership.  On the other hand, large groups frequently discover they have given too much authority to a central power and break up to serve local interests.  Think of the collapse of empires after WWII, or the fall of the Soviet Union.  Power may be absolute, but authority is a negotiation.

I have no doubt that some responsibility comes (necessarily not normatively) with all power.  It’s not a question of if, but how.  I think Catholic priests are accountable – to their superiors, to God, and to their parishioners.  The difficulties arise from the occasional secrecy and arbitrariness of those mechanisms.  I like the fact that Episcopal priests are transparently accountable to the legislature, hierarchy, canons, and local committees of the Church.  In the same way, I think that Vladamir Putin is accountable to countless interests and stakeholders in the Russian government.  I prefer Barack Obama, who istransparentlyaccountable to congress, the courts, and once in 4 years, the voters of the US.

Our task is not to eliminate power.  Many have tried, at least in theory.  The problem with communism and other extreme forms of socialism (in my opinion) arises from the actual power of commissioners and secretaries, despite protestations of “comrade”-ery.  In eliminating bourgeois and aristocratic authorities, they did not eliminate power, only accountability.  Always be suspicious of anyone who tells you they’re getting rid of power.  Power will always be there.  It will not always be concentrated.

Our task is not to get rid of power or authority, but to see that the right responsibilities always attend the appropriate powers.  Thus, I really don’t favor the concept of “rights.”  I like the concept, but they place the burden of recognition and enforcement upon those offended against.  I need to stand up and identify when my rights have been violates.  need to judge the proper use of power applied to myself.  Perhaps this is most effective legally (I’m ambivalent).  I find it dubious ethically.  The people who have power are the ones who need to ask whether they act with proper responsibility – preferably before they act.  The vows of priests and soldiers alike do more than seal them to the authority of their superiors.  They usually make them accountable to an ideal such as the Scriptures or the Constitution.

From my perspective, the best morality will be one that helps each of us understand our responsibilities with respect to our power, rather than our rights with respect to our dignity.  It places judgment solidly with the actor – though not solely with the actor.  When we talk about socially sanctioned authority, we have to talk about questions of transparency and enforcement.  We still need to step in when people fail to live up to their obligations, but that doesn’t mean they should get away with whatever they can until someone steps in.

One downside of a “rights” based society is that it can (and in our case does) focus people’s attention on what they are entitled to and not what they are obligated to do.  After all, they can go along without a thought until someone complains, right?  No.  In the most extreme case, dead people don’t complain (real sample bias there).  In less extreme cases those who have been hurt lose their voice or perhaps their belief in their own rights.  A “rights” based culture will tend to selfishness – just as a “duties” based culture (like China) will tend to tyranny.  I have no doubt there are excesses on both sides.  The trick is to see where you are and be aware what moral responsibilities attend your powers.


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