Authoritative Morality and the Why Question

The context of this post defines morality as the actions that individuals and/or groups actively work to encourage or discourage in themselves and others. This encompasses a greater range of actions than is traditionally thought of as morality. This allows us to better understand and discussion the impact on the totality of human experience.

In American society (and in many places worldwide), the primary model of morality taught is an authoritative one. As the name implies, authoritative morality is dictated by an authority figure and the receiver is expected to accept and obey without question. All questions of “why” one should obey the command are answered with “because I say so.”

At a larger scope, almost all wide-spread religions hold similar moral views. Take a look at the Ten Commandments. All are dictated as required behavior in all things, without any support explanations. The entire book of Leviticus is similarly filled with arbitrary moral commands.  Eating pork is a sin, just like to kill a person is a sin. No exceptions.

An alternative approach is a qualified morality, where each command has specific reasoning to support it. A questioning of the command of “Go to bed now” is now followed with an explanation about how one requires eight hours to be remain health, and given a specific wake up time, going to bed now is required to fulfill that requirement. This explains the receiver why the command should be followed. So, you ask, what does it matter? Aren’t they supposed to follow it anyway? Well, yes, in general. But few moral commands are actually absolute.

Homicide is a good example – the general rule is that killing another human is wrong. It even makes it into the Ten Commandments. The reason for this moral rule is that homicide denies the victim their own agency, in the most absolute sense of the word. A victim of homicide loses all bodily autonomy permanently.

Even this universally denounced activity is not an absolute moral rule. There are situations where it is acceptable, even desired to commit homicide. A soldier’s job is commit homicide on the battlefield, but we accept that under the condition of war. We have an entire category of domestic laws throughout the world to deal with “justified homicide,” of which self-defense is the primary example.

Having an explanation empowers the receiver to know when NOT to follow a command. Homicide in self-defense is acceptable because you are denying someone’s autonomy because they attempted to deny your own or that of a third party. Understanding the reasons behind forbidding homicide makes this possible.

In the authoritative model, the rules are the foundation. These rules are absolute, to be followed precisely. When someone finds a situation where they need to break a rule, it damages that foundation. Imagine a Jenga tower, where you pull from the bottom everytime a rule is broken. At best, the tower is unstable and your morality has strange holes in it. At worst, it will collapse, taking your entire moral framework with it.

A more qualified moral approach makes the reasons behind the rules the foundation. The rules become mere branches off the greater tree of rational reasoning. Cutting one branch does not destroy the rest of the tree. In fact, good trimming of a certain moral branch might actually improve the health of the rest of the tree. Cutting out “Go to bed at 10:00” might enable the growth of a better rule that says simply “Get eight hours of sleep every night.”

The challenge is how to build the trunk so that it fosters good moral growth. What values do we want to instill to form the backbone of our rules? What would make a good foundation? The key here is to build general principles, rather than specific commandments. One such general principle is the universality of personal autonomy. You have a right to personal autonomy in body and in actions to the extent that it does not interfere with the autonomy of others. You can see how this principle is used to support both the general rule against homicide and the exception for self-defense.

Authoritative morality models are absolute and inflexible. They are not conductive to productive society or individual happiness and are prone to collapse. It also has other problems, such as how it relates to personal responsibility. But that will have to wait to a later post.

-That is all.


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