Justifying Authority and Claims

I’m not the first person to think that authority needs to justify itself. I don’t know who said it first, nor do I really care, maybe Chomsky or someone else like him, but it seems this is at once a truism and also a terribly misunderstood insight into the vestment of power.

Even if we agree that this concept is supposed to be simple, it is often not. The act of justifying one’s power and authority actually requires much more than mere might or even democratic consensus. Juries and other such institutions of democratic consensus are actually incredibly dangerous in that they are dependent upon uninitiated and emotional perspectives to render objective, even scientific judgments. These are the ‘misunderstood’ aspects I am referring to, both the commonly accepted rationales for authority and the form this authority takes place in.

When we talk about authority, we often think of individuals; a president, a dictator, an eminent scientist or religious potentate. But we rarely consider the authority of groups; such as the jury, the populace, or bodies like the Senate and Parliament. As a result I am going to explore not just the icon of the individual leader, but also of the empowered group, be it a committee or population.

Election as License and Individual Authority

I’m not being facetious when I say elections are a very bad way of determining authority. If merely being elected establishes authority then we need to explain why an emotional, often very biased and uninformed vote, constitutes a justification for empowerment. This, of course, cannot be done. No sane, reasonable and thinking person could possibly explain why dismissing any other standard is a good idea when selecting leadership – especially in times of crisis when that leadership is exceptionally important.

Let us imagine that McCain had not run for president but that Palin had. What would this have meant for the United States? It would have meant that a woman of incredible scientific, political, geographic and even historical illiteracy was at the helm of the single most influential and powerful nation ever to exist on Earth.  A woman who rejected, out of hand, basic scientific facts, was so poorly read she couldn’t name a single newspaper, and so geographically and historically ignorant she could neither locate Germany on a map nor name the decade WWII took place in.

And while the people of the United States were never quite in so much danger of making such a profoundly imbecilic decision, one that would practically justify the removal of voting rights from its people, Alaska did just this. Palin was governor of that ‘great’ state for 4 years. Are we really prepared to say that semi-good looks, some intoxicating demagoguery, and the vote of several hundred thousand Joe ‘Six Packs’ are enough?

Power and authority cannot reasonably be justified by mere democracy, and I do mean ‘mere’. What about sanity? Maybe, if we consider the seat of the American Presidency as an example, we should require not only election but a psychological profile not associated with a person who is prone to beliefs like ‘virgin births’ or ‘sins against God’.  My point here is that standards like age and location of birth are primitive and tribal practices that nations capable of space travel should not be using to determine their pool of potential leaders. Civilized, indeed.

Not to be too specific but I imagine a two-pronged approach to this, to which anyone could apply regardless of age or birthplace. First a psychological evaluation by five independent and prominent, practicing psychiatrists. These psychiatrists could be chosen by a bipartisan committee in the Senate After this you would have 4 exams. The first exam would cover the basics of economics, its many systems and principles. The second would include world politics, in which you would have to be familiar with important and emergent recent and current events, certain world leaders, and the United States’ relationship with certain key nations. The third exam would cover the history of America’s development as a nation and its government, with some comparative government aspects. The final exam would rigorously test critical thought and problem solving skills.

As I said before, anyone could apply for this exam, including those not born in the country, so long as they have citizenship and have maintained residency in the United States for at least two decades, not necessarily consecutive. I think we can justify that being intimately familiar with America, its culture, language, and people are obvious necessities. If you fail even a single exam of this application you may apply one more time and then never again. The exam’s results could be valid anywhere from 5 to ten years, but that’s a minor detail. The psych eval. would be allowed once and only once.

Any claims of abuse and manipulation could be addressed and prevented in a number of ways, but mind you that there are already numerous ways to exploit the system. It is simply an ever present danger and so I don’t really consider it a legitimate refutation, rather, it is merely one figure in the calculus of how we effectively implement these plans.

Nomination by reputation, election by consent of the people, and re-election by result. Voting for voting’s sake is not just bosh, but as dangerous as not voting at all.

Expertise and Community Authority

Now, when concerning general leadership, official degrees aren’t exactly proof positive of capability but when we talk about fields of science like medicine, physics, and chemistry, more than just books need to have been read. So here, when considering expertise, education is very important. But not just education under reputable supervision, such as legitimately accredited and upstanding universities, but also practical knowledge through experience.

Not all fields are equal concerning the nature of their tuition. I don’t mean their worth, I mean how the expertise is acquired. One may informally become an outstanding expert in history, I know of one such person. You don’t need an institution to legitimize your knowledge because the resources necessary to acquiring this expertise are often readily available to the motivated. You can learn topics like theology on your own, rent out books, read online, and do research without guidance if you’re disciplined. But if we consider fields like medicine or chemistry, the technology and equipment alone necessitate a helping hand and then there is the simple fact that much of that brand of knowledge cannot simply be read about, but requires guiding, knowledgeable hands who can assist you in gaining true insight into the field.

There are subjects that require a lot of literature and time, and then there are those that actually necessitate mentorship and practice. Again, this does not marginalize or amplify their value, it is just a fact about them.

This is why we can dismiss the opinion of laymen. Joe ‘The Christian’ Sixpack doesn’t get to have his opinion on genetics, geology, cosmology, or nuclear energy taken seriously because if he isn’t learned and practiced, then he probably has no fuckin’ clue what he is talking about. Many scientists themselves are not well informed about the domains of other scientists. Geologists have no business theorizing at the nature of evolutionary immunology.

But not even a prominent scientist is absolutely authorized by her particular expertise. A scientist can be wrong or misguided, but the difference between the general population and the scientific community as an aggregate is that one is uninformed and unengaged with one another while the other is informed and submitting to critical review. This informed consensus justifies its authority on the basis of its collective expertise and accountability.

This is my problem with theologians and their claims about geology, biology, and cosmology. They are not experts. Many of them have not even a bachelor’s degree in these disciplines and certainly no experience. And indeed, when a priest or believe of any kind claims the Earth is less than 10,000 years old or claims virgin births are possible, these are also claims about geology and biology, since both of these fields and their communities absolutely reject, and by a large majority, those assertions.

Juries are equally problematic, if not more so, because people’s lives are subject to their judgments despite their utter lack of knowledge about law, its practice, and the realities of court and its victims and victors. What does a juror know about the intimacies of lawyer and client relations? And can they really strike that last testament off the record? Judges, aware of the realities both academically and practically, are better fit to arbitrate on their own. Maybe a good substitute for the jury would be a panel of three experienced judges instead of 12, ignorant, and likely incompetent spectators.



Essentially authority and its justification, whether as a claim about something or as a position, can be summed as follows: anything asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence. So if you’re going to assert something, follow it up with your burden of proof.


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