Moral authority

As a consequence of my previous post on Phan Thi Kim Phuc, I have been thinking about moral authority. Lots of people claim to have it; arguably, some do and some don’t. So what is moral authority, and where does it come from?

Moral authority (or suasion) is like the old advertisement:  “When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen.” It is the power to influence public opinion without the use of force. The phrase thus contains an implicit contrast with political or legal authority, which are coercive.

Phan Thi Kim Phuc does not hold public office; she cannot enact legislation or arrest anyone. Nonetheless, people heed her when she speaks. She has moral authority.

But poor Tom Cruise — he is a mere pretender to moral authority. On the Today Show, Cruise asserted that psychiatry is a pseudo-science and he insisted that the correct treatment for postpartum depression is vitamins and exercise.

How many sufferers cancelled their Paxil prescriptions? Not many, I hope!

But let’s move on to a trickier example:  Cindy Sheehan. Her son, Casey, was an American soldier until he was killed in Iraq. Sheehan is now campaigning against the war in Iraq and against the Bush administration:

Am I emotional? Yes, my first born was murdered. Am I angry? Yes, he was killed for lies and for a PNAC [Project for the New American Century] Neo-Con agenda to benefit Israel. My son joined the army to protect America, not Israel. Am I stupid? No, I know full well that my son, my family, this nation and this world were betrayed by George Bush who was influenced by the neo-con PNAC agendas after 9/11. We were told that we were attacked on 9/11 because the terrorists hate our freedoms and democracy … not for the real reason, because the Arab Muslims who attacked us hate our middle-eastern foreign policy.

(source:  Christopher Hitchens, Slate)

People who oppose the war in Iraq are pleased with Sheehan’s intervention; arguably, she lends moral authority to their cause. Maureen Dowd of the New York Times said as much:  “The moral authority of parents who bury children killed in Iraq is absolute.”

I must say, it’s a strange statement. There are other parents of children killed in Iraq who continue to support the war. What happens when two absolute authorities come into direct conflict? Something has to give, either the immovable object or the irresistable force.

Mr. Hitchens, on the other hand, denies that Cindy Sheehan has any more moral authority than anyone else:  “Suppose I had lost a child in this war. Would any of my critics say that this gave me any extra authority? I certainly would not ask or expect them to do so.”

But I reject Hitchens’ position, too. Here’s my analysis. Cindy Sheehan is spouting nonsense when she blames the Iraq war on Israel. Her son’s death does not make her opinion on that subject any more credible. On the other hand, she is convinced that her son died in an ignoble cause — that he died for a mistake — which has exacerbated the pain of losing him. Surely she is entitled to tell us whether or not, in her opinion, her son’s death was warranted.

Genuine suffering can impart a degree of moral authority. Cindy Sheehan, like Phan Thi Kim Phuc, has suffered. That suffering gives a certain moral authority to her words that Tom Cruise, for example, lacks. (Regrettably, Sheehan is not using her moral authority very responsibly when it comes to her statements about Israel.)

Let me introduce one more example to complicate matters still further:  John Lennon. Like Tom Cruise and other Hollywood stars, John Lennon exploited his celebrity to speak to political issues. His conduct is still controversial. Some people dismiss him as derisively as they dismiss Cruise.

I disagree. I think Lennon, with Yoko Ono, found a way to legitimately influence popular opinion. Their campaigns were clever and fun. For example:

  • turning their honeymoon into a bed-in for peace;
  • sending acorns to world leaders and asking them to plant a tree for peace;
  • placing “War is Over if you want it” billboards in many nations.
I think this was a legitimate campaign:  not because Lennon’s opinion is innately authoritative, but because it was genuinely artistic in expression. Artists have always functioned as prophets. They are subversives; they use their art to challenge conventional thinking and question the policies of those in power.

So now we have four examples to consider. Let’s list them in order. #1 possesses the most moral authority; #4, the least:

  1. Phan Thi Kim Phuc
  2. Cindy Sheehan
  3. John Lennon
  4. Tom Cruise
You’re just waiting to tear into my list, I hope! Of the above individuals, who has more moral authority, and who has less?

And why? Where does moral authority come from, in your view?


14 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. The Misanthrope
    Sep 14, 2005 @ 11:39:00

    Here is my two cents: None of them have any more gravitas to their opinion than you or I and that includes world leaders. Obviously world leaders may have some insider information (that means correct insider information, not picking and choosing info to make a case), and the big difference is they have the power to command military forces. Regarding Tom Cruise; he really is no one to talk about pseudo-sciences when he practices a pseudo religion, but let me be clear, his religion is a legitimate as any of the others, it’s just not as old.


  2. Mrs.Aginoth
    Sep 14, 2005 @ 15:03:00

    Suffering does not give you moral authority. Empathy & understanding of others does.

    My brother died at 25. He was by far the most succesful of my mothers children (financially, socially & emotionally), and my mother understandably took his death badly.

    However, since then she has become completely intolerant of pretty much everyone else, presumably on the basis that “no-one else can have suffered as she has”, and therefore she can be as obnoxious as she likes.

    She has completely lost her moral authority, both with family and friends. It’s been three years. I hope she’ll get better again, but I’m not holding my breath.


  3. Carolyn
    Sep 14, 2005 @ 15:41:00

    I think moral authority has a lot to do with the audience it reaches. Though I oppose the war, I cannot relate to Cindy Sheehan’s feelings. I’m moved by other issues, whereas other people who can feel where she’s at are possibly more moved by her.

    As for John Lennon…I was 5 years-old when he died…although I do appreciate his creative approach to dispensing his political views…and I have no doubt that he would have an affect on how I view the world.

    And for anyone who’s EVER read my blog, you know…I think Tom Cruise is a whackjob and I can’t even begin to explain why he’s not a moral authority!

    So, without reaching individuals that have a common view or feeling toward an issue, a moral authority may lose their power.


  4. snaars
    Sep 14, 2005 @ 16:20:00

    Where does moral authority come from?

    A fascinating post, and a philosophic question if ever there was one!

    The first definition of moral authority, that it is the power of suasion, seems insufficient and unsatisfying. Because someone has the skill of rhetoric and can speak convincingly for a particular moral view, he has “moral authority”? What if this gifted speaker habitually appeals to fallacies and capitalizes on the false prejudices of the audience?

    On the other hand, suppose there is a “moral genius”. This person is highly empathetic, perceptive, educated, well-meaning, with an exceptional understanding of sound moral principles and the human condition – but can’t speak intelligibly before an audience.

    Which one is the legitimate moral authority?

    Personally, I would want the second guy – let’s call him “Moses”. All he needs is his Aaron.

    But any authority should be held to scrutiny periodically, to make sure they a) still know what they’re talking about, and b) aren’t abusing their authority.

    The more I learn from you about Lennon and Oko, the more I like them. Very creative peace-mongers!

    P.S. Does the “word verification” system for adding comments really generate letters at randon? It’s asked me to type in a word that look suspiciously like “stupidhead”.


  5. Mary P.
    Sep 14, 2005 @ 17:57:00

    Snaars: Q was reading over my shoulder as we perused the comments. Yours made him laugh out loud – twice! Once at “let’s call him Moses”, and secondly at your p.s. It’s always nice to be given a laught, and he particularly needed one today – thanks!


  6. Jack's Shack
    Sep 14, 2005 @ 19:35:00

    Very interesting topic. I haven’t come up with anything profound to add, but wanted to express my appreciation of it.


  7. Q
    Sep 14, 2005 @ 21:21:00

    Thanks for all the feedback, folks. It has been a while since we had a multiple-party dialogue like this, and I, for one, have missed it.

    And what a cynical lot you are! I seem to be the most starstruck among you, prepared to grant “moral authority” status where others would not.

    I’m not clear whether any of you would recognize even Phan Thi Kim Phuc as having moral authority. It seems certain that the Misanthrope and Mrs. Aginoth would not.

    Misanthrope, it’s true that, in a democracy, one person’s opinion is equal to another’s. But you offer no explanation for people like Socrates, for example, who wielded no political power yet has swayed minds and hearts down through the millenia.

    Mrs. Aginoth, I appreciate you sharing your personal experience with us. Your description of your mom sounds similar to my impression of Cindy Sheehan. Their primary response to suffering is to become very angry.

    I think there’s a great deal of wisdom in Kubler-Ross’s stages of death and dying (and coming to terms with a significant loss of any kind). Some people get stuck in the “anger” stage. It is essentially a dysfunctional place to be, since they never work through to the point of accepting the loss. (Of course, it’s early days for Ms. Sheehan … she may get there in due course.)

    I am the youngest of six children. Two of my siblings have died, and my brother’s son, while my parents are both still alive. They have managed not to get stuck in anger or depression so I know it is possible to continue to live a full life even after a series of tragic losses.

    I still think suffering can convey moral authority. But, in light of your comment, I add that anyone who gets stuck in the anger stage thereby forfeits some (or all) of the moral authority they might have gained from their suffering.

    Which is a good place to pick up Snaars’ comment. Snaars, you have added an essential piece of the puzzle that I failed to mention: moral authority must be grounded in a person’s character.

    When I read your comment, Hitler sprang to mind. He was a very effective orator, but I would never say that he possessed moral authority!

    Mrs. Aginoth mentions empathy and understanding of others, and I agree. Those characteristics may indeed become a source of moral authority.

    Carolyn, you also add an interesting element to the definition. Moral authority can’t amount to much unless it reaches individuals that have a common view or feeling toward an issue.

    I think history is replete with examples which illustrate your point: the right person articulates a message just when society is ready to hear it. If that person spoke at another time, they would be rejected and maybe persecuted.

    In fact, it is a source of controversy among historians. Are we right to focus on great individuals as the key to understanding history? Take Ghandi, for example. (A true moral authority, in my opinion.) If he had not articulated his message, and embodied it in his person as he did, would India have continued to be a British colony? Or would someone else have risen to the historical occasion and achieved comparable results for the people of India?

    Personally, I’ve always favoured the approach the holds up the “great” man or woman as indispensable to the flow of history. But it is true, no individual leader changes history unless s/he can inspire many, many others to follow. And to a very large extent it comes down to presenting the very message people are longing to hear.

    p.s. to Snaars:
    In the word verification lottery, Mary P. once got “sxexlg”, which is a bit garbled but otherwise an apt description, in my judgement. As for “stupidhead” — maybe you’d better ask Mrs. Snaars for an informed opinion.


  8. aaron
    Sep 14, 2005 @ 23:25:00

    Interesting subject q, as so many of yours are. Taking your last comment and building on it, I would posit that moral authority doesn’t rest in the messenger, but the message. Gandhi was at the right place and right time, but also his message struck a chord as being “right.” I don’t know that Phan Thi Kim Phuc has any moral authority just because she was a victim in Vietnam — to the extent she has moral authority, it exists because her subsequent actions have been moral. I guess I would say that a sufferer has a platform with which to exert moral authority, but unless the message that the sufferer imparts is significant/moral, there is no moral authority.

    Incidentally, I can’t help but notice that you have generally omitted religious leaders from your discussion. Do they have moral authority? They have authority within the sphere of their faith, and of course religion is often equated with morality. My take on this question I pose is the same as what I stated in my previous paragraph. Pat Robertson has little moral authority given all the bizarre things he’s said, including the assassinate Chavez thing last month. Pope John Paul II was a spiritual leader who was a light to millions, but who also apparently sought to cover up &/or prevent prosecution of pedophilia. Thus, to some he spoke with moral authority, and to others he did not.


  9. Q
    Sep 15, 2005 @ 07:25:00

    Hi, Aaron:
    I’m going to pass over the first part of your comment (although I think it is very helpful, as your comments usually are) and wait for others to speak.

    But I will respond to your point, you have generally omitted religious leaders from your discussion.

    I have done so because I didn’t want to cloud the issue by introducing another layer of potential controversy. Speaking personally, Jesus is the moral authority who has had the greatest impact on my life. I also greatly admire Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr., but they were building on principles enunciated by Jesus in the sermon on the mount. (Although Ghandi deserves much of the credit for turning it into a practical political program.)

    Jesus is a good illustration of moral authority: (a) he did not hold office, either political or religious; (b) much of his authority comes from his suffering — more exactly, from his commitment to truth (as he saw it) which did not waver even when it was clearly going to result in his crucifixion; and (c) though he was essentially a nobody and his handful of followers were also nobodies, he has profoundly changed the course of history.

    My fear in raising this example is that it immediately puts us into partisan territory, where someone else may raise objections about Jesus — for example, because of the subsequent history of patriarchy, antisemitism, and other notable moral failures of the Church.

    Religion provides a powerful motive to act. Regrettably, it always seems to produce a messy mixture of good acts and bad acts, each carried to an extreme.

    But, with that proviso, I regard Jesus as a towering example of moral authority. I am in that camp that wouldn’t hold him responsible for the moral failings of his followers. And I think there are good historical grounds for taking that position.


  10. aaron
    Sep 15, 2005 @ 09:48:00

    Q, Jesus is a fine example of someone who possesses moral authority, but I don’t know that bringing him up adds to the discussion. In Christianity, he is held to be the Messiah/Son of God, not to mention perfect, so it is difficult (and downright unfair) to compare his with the moral authority mere flesh and blood possesses. The examples I raised are consistent with the examples you cited to start this post, namely modern, human, individuals.


  11. Jack's Shack
    Sep 15, 2005 @ 11:30:00

    Something else to throw out into the mix. Can moral authority be possessed by someone who is unable to communicate in traditional ways, such as speech/writing.


  12. Mrs.Aginoth
    Sep 15, 2005 @ 15:23:00

    Helen Keller was apparently a great inspiration to both disabled and able-bodied people, and certainly carried some moral authority, despite being deaf & blind, and therfore arguably not communicating in “traditional” ways.


  13. Q
    Sep 15, 2005 @ 21:02:00

    I’m shamelessly liberal in my theology, so I regard Jesus as a human, presumably imperfect individual. The fact that he isn’t modern doesn’t seem relevant to me.

    You’re right, the example probably doesn’t add anything to the discussion that wasn’t in the post. But I was just responding to your question. You asked whether religious leaders possess moral authority.

    If you want a modern example, how about Mother Teresa?

    Jack, you raise an interesting point: does a moral authority have to bring a message?

    I think moral authority may be entirely a matter of examplary behaviour. I can’t tell you a single thing Mother Teresa ever said, apart from her commitment to serve “the poorest of the poor”. But, as I’ve said above, I think she possessed moral authority.

    Mrs. Aginoth’s example is a good one, though I don’t know much about Helen Keller.


  14. Mrs.Aginoth
    Sep 16, 2005 @ 05:28:00

    if you’re interested there is a lengthy article here , or a more simple one here

    I learnt about her at school, and she always struck me as someone with great moral authority.


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