Quote: Authority – it’s more than just following the crowd

But we live in a conformist age, where the Enlightenment practice of thinking about something from first principles, and even thinking for yourself, nullius in verba, has been replaced with: “Gee. What’s the correct opinion to hold, here?”

– “Why Oracle will win its Java copyright case — and why you’ll be glad when it does”(1), Andrew Orlowski, The Register, article dated June 2 2016 (site last visited July 17 2016)


At one of the companies I worked at, there was a talk of some sort of meeting among managers about what they did and didn’t like about the direction of the company, how to change it, etc.

In some comments shared more broadly after that managers’ meeting, one of the issues was “there needs to be a stronger link between responsibility and authority”.

I thought a lot about it at the time. Now that I myself am often in positions that carry both responsibility and authority, I still think about it.

I usually think of it in terms of personal responsibility, and try to not to write or talk about it too much because if I wrote or talked about it half as much as I ponder it, nobody (including me!!!) would want to be around me.

As I was writing this post, I almost titled it “responsibility”. And then I realized that while it is personal responsibility that should make a person want to establish their own principles and priorities and to consider their words and actions and to try to act and speak in accordance with those principles and priorities, it is doing so that gives the person authority in the eyes of others. 

A couple months ago I was at dinner with four new friends and one old friend I hadn’t seen in a number of years. I can’t remember the topic, but somewhere along the way I told the rest of the table “I know that no matter where I am there is someone who is looking to me as an example”. Usually it is not the person I want to do so, and oftentimes not even someone I would ever have expected to do so. But is has happened enough times in my life where I thought I was not particularly important, or was not even anyone important to anybody in that group at all, and someone out of the blue said “I wish you would stop in more often, it makes my day so much better when you do”, or “I’ll miss you, whenever you walked around at 4 PM and had a smile on your face I always felt like everything would be okay”, or “I used to be friends with so-and-so but I saw how they treated you and that’s why I stopped talking to them”, that I know it is true.

In many ways, it is a pain in the neck. But at the same time, I only resent it a little and only rarely as it pushes me to be a better person than I might otherwise have been. And how can I expect others to try to be a better person than they might have been and to try to set a good example for the people in their life, if I am not willing to do the same?

But enough about me.

When people want authority but don’t recognize or don’t want the responsibility that comes with it, it creates an unstable situation. Eventually those looking to the authority figure will realize “this person isn’t consistent and doesn’t know what they are talking about” and then they will start instinctively looking for someone whose judgment then can trust.

The clearer danger is the next person chosen as the authority on that topic (this is usually not a conscious process, it’s more usually conferred on the nearest or loudest person who speaks the most often with the most confidence in their own opinion) will also be inconsistent or willfully ignorant. Too many times of that, and the people looking for someone to trust will become cynical and trust no one, or decide that particular topic is incomprehensible or insoluble and give up on it.

The hidden danger is the envy and jealousy felt by those persons who want to be seen as an authority — but don’t recognize or don’t want to pursue the responsibility for self-education, consistency, self-knowledge and humility that come with being an authority — against those persons who have been designated an authority by popular acclaim.


(1) The subtitle of the article is “Open source needs strong copright; weak copyright only helps bullies”. If you have a chance and are at all interested in jurisprudence, abuse of the courts, examples of confusing an issue by bringing lots of tangential arguments, or why the rule of law and property rights are what enable a lot of things we like (but don’t think about too much), please go read the article.

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