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Everybody wants to speak with authority, but how?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Feb 17, 2014

In a delightful article in the February issue of First Things, entitled “Bloodless Moralism”, Helen Rittelmeyer enjoys skewering our contemporary desire to buttress every moral argument with data from the social sciences. It’s a bad habit to reduce morality to statistics, she argues, and she notes that it was a bad habit that the great essayist Thomas Babington Macaulay identified fairly early on, when he explained why utilitarianism was such a bad influence on public discourse in the mid-19th century:

If the only fruit of the ‘magnificent principle’ [utilitarianism] is to be that the oppressors and pilferers of the next generation are to talk of seeking the greatest happiness of the greatest number, just as the same class of men have talked in our time of seeking to uphold the Protestant constitution—just as they talked under Anne of seeking the good of the Church, and under Cromwell of seeking the Lord—where is the gain?

Rittelmeyer’s essay is delightful partly because she has so many pithy quotations to fire at her target, but the point she raises is an important one, at least if you agree (as I certainly do) that the contemporary tendency to buttress every policy recommendation with a claim drawn from social science is not so much driven by the worth of social science as by the fact that such citations are taken to confer authority. The truest assertion without them is, with no analysis whatsoever, considered weak; the most false or base assertion with them is, again without analysis, considered strong.

In other words, what is accomplished through (often meaningless) sociological or economic figures is exactly what used to be accomplished by citing Scripture. The technique confers authority. And just as many people in earlier ages have manipulated Scripture to justify many a public sin (be it war or slavery or political power or financial policy), so too do many people now reach into the limitless grab bag of the social sciences to justify whatever they want to do next.

Even the good fall into this trap, though the best are conscious of its limitations. Thus when our age rejected God, we confined our arguments to natural law; and when our age rejected nature, we confined our arguments to socioeconomic consequentialism; and as our age increasingly refuses to consider anything that cannot be statistically measured, we are (as honest men) left with no argument at all. Yet our opponents will gladly resort to force as long as they can justify it by some socioeconomic claim, however patently ridiculous.

Rittelmeyer has some fun pointing out the pervasiveness of this effort to invest the most idiotic claims with authority by citing data. She has apparently collected absurd headlines just for this purpose, though the headlines were probably found absurd by too few people when they were published. Among these she lists:

  • Racial Inequality Costs GDP $1.9 Trillion
  • Feminists Have Better Sex Lives
  • Holy Water May Be Harmful to Your Health, Study Finds

By now the reader is getting the point: We routinely use—and accept—this method of conferring a certain authoritative status on even the most obviously foolish ideas, or ideas for which no one could possibly have calculated the socioeconomic outcomes, even if they thought it significant to try. Obamacare, for example, was sold to the nation in exactly this way. What was morally authoritative was the argument that the percentage of coverage would go up while the cost would go down (two propositions which were always dubious, and which are rapidly being falsified by experience). And what was not presented with this sort of statistical argument was not considered a moral issue at all.

Gaining Authority

Rittelmeyer’s point is that we need to work harder at finding other ways to invest well-taken positions with authority. She notes some methods which have been used in the past, like Scripture, and references to the enduring truths about the human condition embodied in Western literature, and even sheer rhetorical brilliance. And although Rittelmeyer does not offer a solution, I believe the greatest service of this particular essay is her observation that social science approaches every problem by breaking it down into the component parts which appear, at least at first glance, to be measurable:

The process is simple. The first thing a social scientist will do when addressing a problem is to break it down into distinct elements, to make it easier to analyze and to tweak. In the case of poverty, that means separating out its component difficulties. In the case of marginalized groups, it means isolating all the obstacles imposed by their race, sex, gender, disability, or whatever other characteristic. Applying this analytic solvent is helpful to the social scientist’s mission because it separates a permanent problem (like poverty or sex differences) into fragments that in themselves seem fixable (finding jobs for welfare recipients or eliminating some statistical disparity between men and women).

The problem, of course, is that this process both trivializes and dehumanizes everything and everyone. Ultimately, real people do not respond to statistical correlations which are used to justify an ever-increasingly abstract regulation of a social order that remains intractably personal and concrete. People respond to being loved, and to being lovingly assisted to attain an understanding of their proper ends and of the means which can better lead them to fulfill those ends.

And while Rittelmeyer does not make this point, what really emerges here is the credibility of love. It is precisely love that confers credibility, and so it is love (demonstrated as love can only be demonstrated, through personal sacrifice in the service of another) that encompasses the shortest distance between mere assertion and true authority. Christians need to remember this both when they frame their public messages, and when they put not just their money but their whole persons where their mouths are, in the service of those who so obviously need something more than social science can provide.

Nobody else has anything like the authority of the person who has “done it”, and who has been willing to “live it”. This may be the authority of the hero, if the cause is popular, or of the martyr, if the cause is not. Either way, the fundamental lesson of authority is the lesson of Jesus Christ: Love really does confer authority in the minds of its recipients, because love is what those with true authority always do.

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Show 2 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: koinonia - Feb. 18, 2014 11:09 AM ET USA

    This discussion redirects minds and hearts back to the basics which have always been understood, preserved, and in a very real sense enjoyed by the Mystical Body. We search in vain today for new ways, innovative strategies, penetrating vision. Our pastor advised at Mass that God created us entirely for our benefit. Each of us enjoys all the goodness God has given us. God gives entirely for our sake not for his own. All creation increases his glory not one iota. In other words God loves us.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Feb. 17, 2014 10:42 PM ET USA

    "And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us..."

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