Site Map The Secular Morality Project - Towards a Shared Morality

The Role of Authority

An individual faced with a decision will appeal to the 3 I's, instinct, intuition and intellect. In some cases it does not go beyond instinct and intuition and there is a reflex reaction. Otherwise the individual is faced with a conscious choice of which guidance to follow. At this point the choice will frequently be influenced by the degree to which the guidance has the backing of an authority, with varying powers of coercion. Examples could be:

  • Laws made by the state about road use, with penalties for not following them.
  • Laws, commandments etc. declared by a religious authority, with a promise of heaven for those who obey and hell for those that do not.
  • Procedures, standards etc. issued by organisations to ensure health and safety, where conformance keeps you and others safe and ignoring the guidance could lead to losing your job.

The language accompanying guidance backed up by authority is where we find emotive words such as must/should, right/wrong, good/bad. All of these words may be used in situations which no one would suggest were in the moral sphere but one of them is often considered to be a marker for guidance that is moral. That word is "should" perhaps because when a piece of guidance, such as the Golden Rule, is not backed up by an authority but is widely accepted, we will often say that we "should" follow it.

This project sets out to test available moral guidance irrespective of any claimed authority behind it. This applies also to guidance like the Golden Rule despite it having been so long and widely accepted.