Authority and deference

He’s a titan of 20th century philosophy. A force for reason and intellectual integrity. At the beginning of The Open Society, his takedown of Karl Marx’s and Plato’s political philosophies, he says this (emphasis mine):

“If in this book harsh words are spoken about some of the greatest among the intellectual leaders of mankind, my motive is not, I hope, the wish to belittle them. It springs rather from my conviction that, if our civilization is to survive, we must break with the habit of deference to great men. Great men may make great mistakes; and as the book tries to show, some of the greatest leaders of the past supported the perennial attack on freedom and reason. Their influence, too rarely challenged, continues to mislead those on whose defence civilization depends, and to divide them. The responsibility of this tragic and possibly fatal division becomes ours if we hesitate to be outspoken in our criticism of what admittedly is a part of our intellectual heritage. By reluctance to criticize some of it, we may help to destroy it all.”

It’s an astute idea. But I would change one word of it. I’d change “great” to “all.” Before I explain why, let me provide two passages that relate to the idea of deference and authority. First, form Schopenhauer’s Essays and Aphorisms.

“The characteristic mark of minds of the first rank is the immediacy of all their judgements … He who truly thinks for himself is like a monarch, in that he recognises no one over him. His judgements, like the decisions of a monarch, arise directly from his own absolute power. He no more accepts authorities than a monarchy does orders, and he acknowledges the validity of nothing he has not himself confirmed.”

​Second, from Montaigne’s Essays.

“Everything should bow and submit to our kings – except our intelligence. My reason was not made for bending and bowing, my knees were.”

​In most cases someone’s intellectual authority is assumed. A doctor has completed years and years of training, so we listen to his advice. A general has fought his way (literally and figuratively) to his position in the forces. But what about when the authority is less traditional? A subject matter expert who authors a book? Is their authority earned? In most cases, yes. Do we just assume that, or do we actually try to discover the foundations of their authority?

Last week, I was reading Eric Ries’ The Lean Startup. It’s a good book and Eric is a clearly a smart guy who has done a lot for entrepreneurs and the field of high technology as a whole. But there was one point where he asserted that the success of some companies was down to two or three factors. In the margins, I wrote, “really?”

Too often, I swallow an author’s argument without consideration. I’ve read the bio they’ve provided, I accept the premises of their argument without examination. But then, further down the line, I discover that what they said is either inaccurate or doesn’t work. If I was willing to question authority from the outset, couldn’t I save myself some time and effort? Of course. But the thing is, questioning authority is hard work. First, it requires confidence to initiate the challenge. Especially if you have little experience in the area. Second, it requires the ability to untangle an argument, examine it’s premises, construction and conclusion, and recognise it’s weaknesses and strengths. Third, it requires energy. Doing the above is hard. It’s not glamorous. It has to be done with rigor and unceasing discipline.

Which is why I, and many others, never do it. Instead, we accept as gospel what an authority says. After all, they’ve got the right experience. They look the part. They talk the talk. We think they’ve walked the walk. But how do we know unless we question and challenge the supposed wisdom they press upon us? We can’t.

It is not just great men whose authority we should question and challenge. It is every individual who has some influence over the movement of our mind and character. We should stop assuming and make every idea and every person earn the ability to alter our minds.