If there’s a more misunderstood sociopolitical concept than authority, I’m not aware of it. Most people can’t even answer the key questions: “Are there varieties of authority? If so, what are they? How do they differ?”
For today, let’s omit the uses of the word authority to denote high expertise in some subject. Let’s concentrate on the kinds of authority that pertain to the power to give binding orders. Even in that circumscribed realm, there are varieties and gradations of importance. Rather than treat this in my customary waltz-around-the-barn style, I’ll defy all precedent and tackle it around the waist.
Authority comes in these flavors:
Positional authority is the sort that exists in hierarchies for a particular purpose. A bottom-tier worker in a typical company must acknowledge and respond to the authority of his superiors in the company’s managerial hierarchy; their positions in that hierarchy are specifically for that purpose, among others. However, note that outside the company and its legitimate operations, they have no authority over that worker. So their authority is not only positional but situational.
Practical authority belongs to the guy who possesses the power to coerce you by virtue of his command of a preponderance of force. He may be a villain, but within the he / you context, he can visit unacceptable consequences upon you for not obeying him. That’s the authority of an armed robber…or a government agent. But it depends upon that preponderance-of-force relation; should that change, the authority would change in accordance with it.
Primary authority is the sort possessed by him to whom has been given the role of “he who makes the rules of the game.” If you choose to play the game, you must abide by the rules as the primary authority has decreed them. He who violates the rules will be penalized or expelled. Of course, that authority pertains only to the game and those who play it.
But what if “the game” is human life?
In that “game,” the “rules” can only be what constitutes acceptable conduct by human beings. But acceptable meaning what? What are the “rules” of this “game?” One cannot “quit” this “game” except by suicide. What does it mean to “win” at human life? What is the “payoff” for winning?
Theists and atheists part company on some of those questions. Yet they are the keys to the whole concept of evil. Whatever your base convictions, you must face them squarely.
Theists and atheists face different challenges in this matter of the rules of human life. For the theist, who is (usually) an adherent of some recognized religion, the key question is “How do we know what God really wants of us? Can we trust the proclamations of our clerics?” For the atheist, the key question is “How can we know the rules in the absence of a Supreme Rule-Maker? As confident as we might someday be in our deductions of them, how can we achieve consensus on them?”
The question “What is evil?” is like that. No man’s decrees, standing apart from the clearly expressed will of the primary authority, can have any authority of their own. But the primary authority – I speak as a theist, a Catholic Christian – speaks to us today through natural law, one’s personal conscience, and nothing else. The atheist, who cannot recur to a primary authority, must get by on arguments of a more abstract kind.
Humans can debate. Humans can coerce. Humans cannot decree, as if they were the Supreme Rule-Maker themselves, that “these are the rules.” For no man can enforce those rules after “the game” has been “played.” Either we will stand in judgment before a Primary Authority, or…what?
I’m not going to speculate about the “what.”
“Some men think the earth is round, others think it flat. It is a matter capable of question. But if it is flat, will the King’s command make it round? And if it is round, will the King’s command flatten it?” – Sir Thomas More to a trio of interrogators, in A Man For All Seasons
Finally, theists who adhere to a recognized religion face the role of the intermediary authority: i.e., the ordained cleric. This has been a source of contention for centuries. The contentions have several facets. The most important of them is this one: What if a cleric is wrong about what God wants of us?
This is a discussion that deserves its own essay. And so: