Moral authority is a curious thing. On the one hand, we think it is noble for people to rebel against authority and to stand up for what’s right. This is one of the standard stories that we tell: the lone hero standing up against an oppressive worldview or regime, appealing to what’s right instead of force or expediency, stirring other people’s sense of compassion or justice. Many of our favorite heroes from history or fiction are molded upon this trope (Gandhi, Mandela, MLK, Jeanne D’Arc, Jesus, Moses, and so on down the line).
On the other hand, we don’t always extend this admiration to moral independence in our daily lives. As I discussed in this entry, anywhere from 10 to 50 percent of people state they believe that morality is not a matter of personal conscience. And that’s only when we talk about it in the abstract: when push comes to shove, the vast majority of people believe that the law is more important than personal conscience.
Consider the domain of religion, which may twist a lot of these study results. Christians especially think of themselves as moral rebels and heroes, such as when they fight against abortion, homosexuality, that sort of thing. So they might say that they are rebelling against secular authority. But at the same time, they are obeying a “higher” authority, the authority of God’s Word (as they read it). Many Christians will desperately try to deny this (as you can see on the comments of this entry) and will argue with a straight face that Christians are not subject to any authority. This is pure nonsense. The whole concept of salvation is grounded in God as the ultimate moral authority. The entire Bible proclaims God’s ownership of humans.
My point, however, is not about religion but about childism, although the two are obviously related: it is an old idea that God is basically a father figure. I heard a father say this to his daughter while leaving a store, after she complained about some command he gave her: “I don’t have to give a reason, I just tell you.”
Most people would not even think about such a statement, but I personally find it very interesting. If you think about it, you’ll realize that, well, he’s right: he doesn’t have to give a reason to his daughter at all. Nothing and no one can compel him to do so, except perhaps his wife. But if you think about the parents as a couple, then you can say that nothing and no one compels parents to justify their commands.
I think that’s an interesting fact because a moral principle is pretty much defined by its justification. An order alone (such as “you shall not kill”) does not qualify as morality, because there’s no reason given for us to accept it (unless we accept the authority of the person giving the order as infallible). Likewise, no statement about reality can be scientific unless it’s backed by empirical evidence. Without the evidence we have accumulated to back that view, the statement “the Earth is approximately 4.5 billion years old” is no more scientific than the statement “the Earth is approximately 6000 years old.” It is the justification (i.e. the traces of ancient civilizations, the fossil record, the age of the oldest organisms we know, what we know about the formation of the solar system, and so on) that makes it scientific. Without justification (such as our moral intuitions, our observations about cause and effect in other people, our own experiences, our empathy, and so on), there is no particular reason to adopt any moral principle over any other.
And I think the fact that parents can basically give any command they want to a child without it being justified is something that is very rare. Actually, I can only think of three others: the relation between God and humans, the relation between cult leader and follower, which is basically a substitute for the first, and the relation between slavemaster and slave, which is a more general case of the first two.
None of these comparisons are particularly flattering. But they bring me to the point that the metaphor of God as a father figure is particularly appropriate in the moral sense. We happened to have defined atheism as a lack of belief in gods, but a far more salient fact about atheists as a group is their almost completely uniform rejection of divine morality as presented in Christianity. And if there is anything that qualifies one to be anti-childist, it must be the recognition and rejection of parental morality, of the idea that parents have a “divine right” to impose their values on children. Likewise for democracy and the “divine right” of kings, protestantism and the “divine right” of popes, and what have you.
There is something fundamental about moral justification. Any ideology which demands that you, or anyone else, accept a command without justification, is wrong in a profound way. It is anti-morality, it is anti-rationality, it is anti-freedom of thought.
Some may argue that the relation between boss and employee is another one of the relations I listed. In most cases this is not going to be true because the boss in question still reports to a higher boss, or to their shareholders (although this may not be true for every single action, obviously). In other cases this could be entirely true. In most relations in a hierarchical system, justification is not necessarily given to the victims but rather to some higher authority. While this is a vast improvement from the complete lack of accountability discussed above, it is still not an ethical system. But no hierarchy can be an ethical system. At best it can only provide some greater good that could not be provided otherwise, but the hierarchy itself is never desirable.