Sunday, August 18, 2019

Handling the Pretense to Authority

I have a speech about the pretense to authority.  In the speech, I refer to the following resources which I list here for those who would like to explore the issues I raised more deeply.
  1. Johann Hari's "Chasing the Scream"
  2. Michael Huemer's "The Problem of Political Authority"
  3. Stanley Milgram's Experiment on Obedience
  4. Larken Rose's "The Most Dangerous Superstition"
  5. Philip Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Experiment
A video of my speech may be available, but in case it isn't, I provide what follows.  Please note that I don't speak the way I write. It would be more accurate to say that I try to write the way I speak, but my speaking skills are far less polished than the prose you're reading.  Watching me speak will help you get to know me.  Reading this will help you understand me.

First we need an idea of what genuine authority is.  There are two basic meanings for the word, one being about expertise and the ability to, for example, "author" a book. The other meaning is the right to coerce someone into doing or cease doing something.  My view is that this second meaning has unfortunately grown while the first meaning has given way to it.

Michael Huemer calls that second kind "Political Authority" and refers to it (as I do) as a problem.  In fact, the view of authority as the right to coerce seems to be a perversion.  If someone is an expert, then it's sensible to do things the way they say to do them so you can benefit from their expertise.  If you choose to try some other way, does it make any sense for the expert to punish you?  The modern meaning of "authority" says, "yes, of course you should be punished for defying the authority."  This is a prescription for halting all progress.  It's a mistake, and it is the pretense to authority.

Harry Anslinger is an example of someone who abused our conception of authority.  In 1930, he became the commissioner of the U.S. federal department of narcotics. According to Johann Hari, Anslinger worried that his sub-department of the Treasury would not have enough power or longevity.  His department was responsible for preventing and punishing crimes related mostly to cocaine and heroin, and that just wasn't enough, so he decided to add cannabis.  Hari, the author, (actually the journalist who wrote the article about his book) said that Anslinger was already on record using the word "absurd" to describe the idea that cannabis was dangerous.

Anslinger contacted thirty scientists to ask if cannabis was dangerous and twenty-nine said it wasn't. He publicized what the 30th scientist had said, and so we got laws against cannabis and waged the "war on drugs."  I think that blowing up the words of one out of thirty scientists when they are the opposite of the other 29 is a pretense to authority.  What did we do about it?  Anslinger was commissioner for 32 years, and then the U.S. narcotics representative to the UN.  We did nothing about it.  Instead, we rewarded him

Pharaoh says "I am God." The king claims a divine right to rule his subjects.  Nowadays, elected officials claim that they have a mandate from the people to rule their subjects. I say, "I rule me, and you rule you."  If your conscience doesn't stop you, then it's my responsibility to exercise some self-defense.  Who is the authority?  If you tell someone that the law says X but your conscience says no, what will they say?  "Well, you gotta do the right thing, right?"  We all know what the right thing is.  The authority is the self.

Larken Rose drives the point home with his book, pointing out how dangerous the belief in authority is.  He mentions the Stanford Prison Experiment, Milgram's experiment on obedience to authority, Pol Pot, Mao Zedong's "Great Leap Forward", and the Nazis. Authority is necessarily a pretense if it uses coercion.  Auto, or Auth, refers to the self.  The "author" of a book is the one who created the words in it.  "He wrote the book." It makes sense to seek the advice of an expert, but it also makes sense to respect those who try stuff other than what the expert prescribes.

Dr. Martin Luther King ran with the words of Henry David Thoreau in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail.  He wrote that there are just laws and unjust laws and "one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws."  How we tell the difference is with our consciences. Take responsibility for developing your conscience, and I'll trust you to obey it, but don't forget that I encourage everyone to learn self defense too.  Don't fall for the pretense to authority.

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