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Ethical Authority

Why can’t we legislate decent behavior from people, particularly those in charge? Why, after all the different forms of government that have been developed, do we still have so many social problems?

We have an authority problem, in our culture, and worldwide.

In fact, the whole twentieth century was an exploration of different forms of governmental authority, in many painful attempts at solving the authority problem. Various people in our world went through a number of “-isms,” “-cracies,” and “-archies:” fascism, communism, socialism, totalitarianism, democracy, theocracy, plutocracy, monarchy, oligarchy, and, of course, anarchy.

The essential problem is this: if I give you authority over me, as my government, my boss, my teacher, how do I know you are going to do a good job with it? How do I know that you will use the authority in such a way that I will actually benefit from it?

If I am going to be a safe and productive person in my community, I need people in authority to take care of criminals, plow the snow, allow me to communicate by “snail mail,” put out fires, defend my country, make laws, challenge unfair laws, and so forth. I work at a university, so I need people who will run the university and make sure it is funded so I can do my job of teaching.

That’s really the purpose of authority-it is supposed to be of benefit. The problem is, to whom?

The kind of authority which we bestow upon each other-you are my pastor, you are my boss, you are a police officer in my precinct, you are my governor, you are my senator-has an essential trap in it for the unwary: it can very easily be used to benefit the holder of authority at the expense of those beneath that authority.

We have all sorts of laws that are supposed to prevent the misuse of authority. That’s why, for example, we have background checks on anyone who wants to be a teacher. We don’t want pedophiles in our classrooms.

Yet we are completely unable to legislate how people use authority. We still have abusive teachers in the classroom, selfish senators in the legislature, rogue cops on the street, religious leaders who attempt to control all aspects of their flock’s lives, corrupt CEO’s, bribe-taking judges and bribe-giving lawyers.

Why? Because what controls how we use Positional Authority (see Juanita Price) are the characteristics we possess as individuals.

If I am a mature person, I’m going to be a good user of authority. I’m going to be a good judge or welfare worker or doctor or nursing home administrator or teacher because I know that other people exist, that other people have rights that are the same as mine, that what hurts me is likely to hurt other people, that it is wrong to hurt others, that what I give out is likely to come back to me, that my job is to use my authority in a way that benefits the people over whom I have authority.

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