Authority and Passing the Moral Buck

May 8, 2016

Categories: Morality

There are several ways to make decisions about right vs. wrong. For example, some people consider whether a behavior caused harm to someone else. Others think about whether an action was fair. Still others consider how a behavior affects one’s group, or whether the action destroys something that is considered sacred.

One common strategy to make decisions about right vs. wrong is to defer to a higher authority. Sometimes this authority is a religious or political leader. Other times the authority is a text, such as the Bible or the Constitution. Sometimes the authority is God or some other higher power. Whatever the authority is, the decision about right vs. wrong is passed on to the authority, and the decision of the authority is followed.

I think there are 2 problems with passing on our moral decisions to a higher authority:

  1. The authority can be wrong. We aren’t perfect. And our leaders aren’t perfect, as much as we might wish they would be. History is full of examples of religious or political leaders making questionable moral decisions. Often their followers don’t question the decisions of the leader, and the followers make the exact same bad moral decisions. Just because someone is in a position of authority or leadership, it doesn’t mean they are morally infallible. Also, even if you consider a text such as the Bible, or a higher power such as God, to be morally infallible, your interpretation of the Bible or of God certainly isn’t infallible. We each read religious texts and experience God through a particular socio-cultural lens. When we say ‘the Bible is my authority,’ it would probably be more honest to say ‘my own interpretation of the Bible is my authority.’ And our interpretations can be wrong.
  2. Passing our moral decisions to a higher authority abdicates moral responsibility. When we pass on our moral decision-making to someone else, we give up our own moral responsibility. Working out what it means to live a good and moral life is challenging. By deferring to an authority, we give up our own responsibility and pass that challenge on to someone else. We might do horrible things to other people but not feel badly about it, because the authority told us to do so. This giving up of moral responsibility may help us feel better about ourselves, but I don’t think it helps our moral development.

Discussion: How do you make decisions about right vs. wrong? What role does deference to authority play in your moral decision making?


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