Judging an authority to be trustworthy

Judging an authority to be trustworthy
Everyday Philosophy

Is there something immature about deferring to authority on moral questions? If your reason for doing something is that “person x said it was good” or “x group says it is morally mandatory” is that ever legitimate?

Immanuel Kant is often thought of as arguing something like this. Kant thought that the only truly moral actions were ‘autonomous’ or self-directed, emerging from the person’s own judgments about what is right and wrong. If you made your decisions on the basis of some external force, that was ‘heteronomy’: being directed by the will of another rather than your own. When Kant talked about autonomy he didn’t mean a lot of the things we now associate with the term. His morality was rigorous, not lax, and he thought that what people should choose for themselves is to follow the moral law. But he believed that if you aren’t making that choice for yourself, you aren’t even acting immorally. You aren’t acting as a moral agent at all.


As always, whether this is correct or not depends on exactly what is meant by it. I don’t know enough about Kant to say what the correct interpretation of his concept of ‘autonomy’ is. But his ideas give us an excuse to think through the different things that people mean when they talk about the goodness or badness of following authority.

As the great 20th-century Catholic philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe points out, there is one sense in which it is actually impossible to defer to authority in moral decision making. That is because, absent science-fictional mind control, only you can actually choose whether and how to move and act. At any given moment, you have beliefs about what is right and wrong. You can either act in accordance with those beliefs or against them, but you can’t actually make it the case that someone else chooses your actions for you. You can say “I’ll let you decide what I’ll do, Tim” and Tim can then tell you what to do. But it is still your choice whether to do what Tim has said. You could change your mind and do something else, and even if you don’t, that will be your choice. This kind of ‘autonomy’ is completely inescapable. It’s not a matter of whether you should make your own decisions or not. In this one sense, you simply have to. No one else can.

A man may have reason to judge that another man’s moral counsel is more reliable than his own unaided conscience”

Of course, Anscombe goes on to point out that one of the things you could choose to do is obey an authority. You could choose to do what Tim said you should do. Now, is there something bad about this? Some objectionable outsourcing or denial of adult responsibility?

Anscombe doesn’t think so: “Just as any reasonable man knows that his memory may sometimes deceive him, any reasonable man knows that what one has conscientiously decided upon one may later conscientiously regret. A man may have reason to judge that another man’s moral counsel is more reliable than his own unaided conscience.”

If you have more confidence in your judgment that Tim will be right about what to do in a given situation than you have confidence in your own judgment, it makes sense to defer to Tim. This can be so even if you can’t see from your own perspective why Tim’s answer is right – you might just trust his judgment to the extent that you don’t need to, and this might be perfectly rational. Compare fixing a car: you might defer to the mechanic even though you have no idea why he thinks your vehicle needs a new fan belt (and no intention of finding out).

Choose the wrong moral authorities, or give them too much trust (or too little) and the results may be far worse”

So there’s nothing wrong with deferring to authority in matters of morals. But a word of caution. In order for it to be rational to trust the judgments of some authority, you will have to judge that authority wise or trustworthy. And that judgment will be one that you have to make using your own standards. The judgment “I trust this authority’s moral judgments more than I trust my own” is a judgment of your own! There is nothing paradoxical about this. After all, “I trust this mechanic’s judgments about fixing cars more than I trust my own judgment about fixing cars” is your own judgment about how best to go about fixing cars. Again, in a sense there’s no escaping autonomy.

What this means is that you’re (at least most of the time) responsible for any choice of guiding authorities that you might make. Choose the wrong mechanic and your car may not get fixed. Choose the wrong moral authorities, or give them too much trust (or too little) and the results may be far worse.