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à propos of nothing ...

By Diogenes ( articles ) | May 24, 2006

OK, this is a bizarrely contrived hypothetical situation. But suppose I owe obedience to a certain authority, and this authority has judged innocent a man whom I think guilty -- or conversely, the authority has judged guilty a man whom I think innocent. Clearly I have to act in obedience to authority (provided the commanded actions involve no sin), but am I obliged to concur inwardly in the authority's judgment? The late Cambridge philosopher (and truculently orthodox Catholic) Elizabeth Anscombe has some useful remarks on the subject. This from her essay, "On Authority in Morals":

There is a difference between saying: You did not do as I told you, and that is bad, because it was I, whom you ought to obey, who told you, and: You did not believe what I said, and that is bad, because it was I, whom you ought to believe, who told you.

The difference lies in this: that the one with authority over what you do, can decide, within limits, what you shall do; his decision is what makes it right for you to do what he says -- if the reproach against you, when you disobey him, is only one of disobedience. But someone with authority over what you think is not at liberty, within limits, to decide what you shall think among a range of possible thoughts on a given matter; what makes it right for you to think what you think, given that it is your business to form a judgement at all, is simply that it is true, and no decision can make something a true thing for you to think, as the decision of someone in authority can make something a good thing for you to do.

If I'm a novice monk, and the abbot commands me to water a dry stick, his decision to give me that command makes my watering a dry stick a good thing for me to do (regardless of whether or not it's the best use of my time). If the same man commands me to hold the opinion that he is a holier abbot than his predecessor, I owe him no obedience in the matter and his decision to command me is futile.

If I'm an infantryman, and my company commander orders me to charge enemy lines, his decision to give that order makes my charging enemy lines a good thing for me to do (regardless of whether or not it's a sound military tactic). If the same officer orders me to believe one of his brother officers is not the coward he appears to be, I have no duty whatsoever to obey his order.

Note that Anscombe is not denying legitimate authority over matters of belief; the bishops, e.g., have authority to speak in the name of the Church in articulation of what convictions constitute Catholic faith. What she is denying is that a decision can make something true.

Now suppose that my abbot or my company commander comes under suspicion of wrongdoing. Can my superiors rightfully order me to keep silent about the situation? Yes, if I antecedently undertook to obey them in such matters. Can they order me to believe him innocent or guilty? No. As Anscombe says, provided it's my business to form a judgment at all, the truth of the matter -- however difficult to find or painful to acknowledge -- is the only thing that counts.

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