Authority and respect

Of the five Moral Foundations proposed by Jonathan Haidt, “authority/respect” is one of the three which he says liberals tend not to take into account despite its importance in conservative and non-Western moral thought, so I want to spend some time thinking it out. This post is just a quick overview of the territory, which I hope to explore in more detail later.

Two types of authority

First, I think it’s important to distinguish between two very different types of authority: structural and doxastic. This is a simplified version of T. T. Paterson’s fourfold classification of authority, which is summarized on this page as follows:

  • Structural authority: the right to command
  • Sapiential authority: the right to be heard by reason of expertness
  • Moral authority: the enhancement of structural and sapiential authority by reason of proven rightness and goodness of action
  • Personal authority: the enhancement of structural and sapiential authority by reason of the charisma of the personality

My concept of structural authority is essentially the same as Paterson’s: the right to command the obedience of others, held by virtue of one’s social position and without regard to one’s personal merits. If someone has structural authority over you, then you have an obligation to obey him. Other moral considerations may sometimes take priority over obedience, but it is nevertheless a general obligation. Other things being equal, you should obey the boss because he is the boss, regardless of your personal opinion of him. Structural authority is claimed by governments; by the leaders of companies and churches and other organizations; and (depending on the culture) by parents (especially fathers), husbands, slave owners, etc. The authority of God is often conceived of in this way, too, by those who think he deserves our obedience simply by virtue of being our creator.

The other type of authority, the doxastic subsumes most aspects of Paterson’s “sapiential” and “moral” authority types. While structural authority is concerned with issues of obedience and legitimacy, doxastic authority is largely a matter of trust and trustworthiness. If someone has doxastic authority in a particular field, it means it is reasonable to defer to his knowledge and judgment, not because of any social position he may or may not hold, but because you believe that he is more likely to be right than you are — whether because of specialized knowedge or superior moral judgment. Doxastic authority is the authority attributed to teachers, scientists, doctors (in both the original and the modern sense of that word), gurus, and experts of all stripes. It is more morally ambiguous than structural authority; while disobedience to legitimate structural authority is rarely seen as being good in and of itself, questioning doxastic authority — “thinking for oneself” — is often seen as such. Trusting legitimate doxastic authorities is generally considered permissible and perhaps prudent, but rarely morally obligatory. There are cases, though, where those who dare to maintain opinions contrary to “the scientific consensus” — creationists, racialists, and adherents to the various schools of thought known to right-thinking people as “denial” — are condemned in moral terms, suggesting that submission to doxastic authority can in some cases be seen as a moral obligation.

Sometimes a person’s doxastic authority is inferred from his position in society, but this is still not the same thing as structural authority. They key distinction is whether or not the authority’s personal merit or expertise is relevant. “He’s a Harvard professor, so he probably knows what he’s talking about,” is an inference of doxastic authority. “I don’t personally agree, but, hey, he’s the boss,” is a recognition of structural authority. Often the same person holds both structural and doxastic authority. For example, when a student obeys the classroom rules established by the teacher, he is respecting the teacher’s structural authority; when the student believes what he is taught without fact-checking everything himself, the teacher’s doxastic authority is at work. Despite these complications, I think the distinction between the two types of authority is a clear and important one.

As for the last of Paterson’s authority types, charismatic or personal authority, it doesn’t really belong in the same typology as the others. Charisma is an important consideration in the sociology of authority — the question of which individuals are given authority and why — but not (or not directly) in the ethical theory of authority. Charisma is not a valid answer to the question of why people ought or ought not to defer to someone, though it may be useful in explaining why they do in fact so defer. Charisma can be instrumental in a person’s rise to a position of structural authority; and the wisdom and competence of a charismatic person is more likely to be recognized (and overestimated), leading people to grant him (possibly undeserved) doxastic authority — but in the end authority, however acquired, is still either structural or doxastic in nature (or both). Charisma is sometimes a source of authority, but it is not properly considered a separate type of authority.


Respect is a vague and difficult topic, but in at least one of its aspects it is closely tied to the concept of structural authority. The degree of respect you show to a person is a way of communicating what social status you attribute to him. To disrespect an authority figure is, at least implicitly, to challenge the legitimacy of his authority and to encourage others to do the same.  The mechanisms of respect and disrespect allow authority to be maintained, or to change hands, without resorting to actual violence.

There is also an aspect of respect which seems to have little to do with authority, since it is often said that we should respect everyone, not only authority figures. This sort of respect really belongs more to Haidt’s harm/care foundation, since the main purpose is to avoid hurting people’s feelings. It is more a form of kindness or courtesy than of respect in the sense of deference.


Haidt includes deference to tradition under the authority/respect heading. The authority of tradition is probably primarily doxastic in nature, since traditional ways are considered to be “tried and true” — that is, more likely than one’s own ideas to be correct or useful.

It’s not clear whether or not tradition can ever be considered to have structural authority. We do sometimes grant structural authority to the dead — as when we feel ourselves bound by the stipulations of a deceased person’s will — so it is perhaps possible to attribute structural authority to traditions which embody the collective will of our predecessors.

Often, though, the importance of tradition seems to be more of an ingroup/loyalty issue than one of authority or respect. By participating in the traditions of one’s community, one reaffirms one’s membership in and loyalty to that community.


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