Justifying “ersatz authority”

Suppose there is something that, for all our sakes, desperately needs to get done by all of us, collectively, together (say if all of us, or any of us, are to remain alive for long).  Suppose you know this. And suppose you also know some other things. First, decisive action is required – there is no room here for taking lots of time to come up with a plan and execute it and no room for dispute or any committee-type process in the planning or execution.  Second, you know that your buddy Clem knows at least as much or more than anyone else about how to come up with and execute the right plan and, importantly, has a big “leadership presence” and is ready to take charge. Third, you know that, unless any given step in the planning or execution is terribly, terribly wrong, what is more important than getting any given step right is that each step is good enough – and gets done decisively.

It seems pretty obvious that, in such a situation, even if you are temperamentally anti-authority and even if, at some or several steps in Clem formulating and implementing his plan and that involve him ordering you to do things, you reasonably think you know better, what you have most reason to do is obey Clem’s order.  And, similarly, you should approve of (and help enforce) similarly somewhat-suspect orders that Clem gives to others.

Now this is perhaps not quite authority.  For it is not clear that, in this sort of situation, Clem’s even-somewhat-suspect orders make you obligated to obey (with his issuing the order being an essential part of the grounds) as opposed to simply giving you sufficient reason to obey (with his issuing the order being an essential part of the grounds).  I’ll call this “ersatz authority.” But I think we are, here, at least part of the way toward a pretty-hard-nosed justification of authority. And one that relies only on familiar, prosaic sorts of valuable ends and ordinary standards of instrumental reasoning about them. We might regard this as a rather non-controversial way of bringing “the logic of collective action” under the auspices of individual reasoning for the case of authority (or ersatz authority at least).

Though I think there are actual situations that close-enough match this scenario, this need not be the case for my point here (about possible ways of justifying authority or something close to it).

From here, I want to do two things – though I will, for now, refrain from doing them and only name/describe them.  First, I want to say some things about how (partially subjective) justification – as opposed to (entirely objective) reliability – in instrumental reasoning might work in such cases.  If there is a wide range of somewhat-similar cases in which people typically do not have the relevant background beliefs or knowledge about the need for the right sort of de facto authority relationships (so that the above sort of justification is not available), might relevant benefits of collective action be achieved by equipping our psychologies with additional ends?  Might this be possible and might those additional ends be, or have to be, in competition with the relevant primary ends (and thus often be taken, upon reflection, as irrational even if beneficial; e.g., ‘obeying just feels right’ as with ‘trusting the testimony just feels right’). Second, and perhaps relatedly, I want to explore how, in such a situation, one could be (morally) obligated to obey – not merely have sufficient (moral) reason – to obey.  

But first things first: does this sort of case establish that it is possible to rationally justify the indicated sort of “ersatz authority”? Any chance I could get the usual PoT suspects to come to some “overlapping consensus” here?

9 thoughts on “Justifying “ersatz authority”

  1. I just thought of an obvious objection to my main claim as it stands: since any particular act of disobedience need not have any or much effect on the overall efficiency of the leadership/subject command/obey structure, you might not have much reason to obey Clem’s not-so-great (but not terribly off-base) orders. I could restrict the claim to public disobedience (and add some conditions that assure that this has quite a bit of impact on the efficiency of the process) – thus allowing for the (apparently good) rationalization of any secretive disobedience that does not plunge things over some tipping point of inefficiency. Perhaps this is the best strategy. I don’t want to have to solve a different, more general problem regarding integrating super-beneficial aims of collective action into individual motivation and reasoning in order to solve this one. Unless I have to. Since it is not obvious that I have to, I’ll try just setting this more-general issue aside for now (by adding public-disobedience and typical-effects-of-public-disobedience conditions to the claim and scenario).


  2. I believe some examples would help. So I offer a couple.

    Assume there is a community of people rather isolated. The road from it to get anywhere else is in terrible shape, so bad it causes terrible wear and tear on cars and trucks driven on it. Community leader Clem proposes a new and modern road, which would be expensive to build. Clem proposes assessing all members of the community to share in the cost, whether up-front, repaying a loan, or usage tolls. Some poorer members of the community object to the cost. They even agree there is a need, but they would be happier with a much cheaper road or a smaller share of the cost.

    Assume a business in which an executive — but minority owner — named Clem proposes some plan P, which will significantly affect the business. Other employees, with less executive power, believe something needs to be done. They believe strategy P is acceptable, but not the best one possible. They even voice their opinion to Clem, but he is resolute. They would also be required to help implement plan P or any imaginable substitute.

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  3. Thanks, Merlin. I like your examples. I take it that, in both, according to you or perhaps just according to my kind of model, folks have sufficient reason to obey Clem’s orders, go along with his plan, etc. (even, at least in some cases, when his plan is not the best or if some individual step is not-so-good and the subject or non-leader knows better). In both of your examples, it is plausible to assume that any disobedience would be public and would go some ways toward messing up the possibility of any effective plan for achieving some end that is quite important to all (thus addressing my initial objection to my own post).


  4. a) Can you say more about how you see the distinction between “obligation” and “sufficient reason”?

    b) Speaking for myself, while I agree there’d be good reason to obey in those circumstances, there’d have to be ongoing balance of that reason against the further considerations that such authority is both morally problematic in itself and likely to produce bad consequences in the long run. Hence while obedience might be justified, I’m inclined to think it could be so only as a temporary emergency measure, and thus not something that could be used to justify political authority.

    c) Also, I don’t think having good reason to obey is going to translate automatically into having good reason to “enforce” the person’s commands. Until it is shown that people have no RIGHT to disobey (and neither “sufficient reason” nor “obligation,” as I understand them, is enough to entail that), then even if people ought to obey command X, it would be immoral to obey a further command Y with the content “help me FORCE people to obey command X.” Here too, then, we’re stopping well short of any desired (or undesired, as the case may be) upshot of justifying political authority.

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    • Thanks for the feedback, Roderick. Good opportunity to explain a little more about the direction in thought that I’m exploring here.

      (a) I take the moral obligation to PHI (as against having sufficient moral reason to PHI) to involve (without necessarily being identical to): (i) a non-instrumental valence centered on a relevant action-type (either PHI-ing or PSI-ing where PHI-ing realizes or best realizes PSI-ing in the context) that is (ii) distinctive in kind and that generally takes priority in decision-making over other sorts of (generally standardly instrumental) moral and non-moral reasons. I also take moral obligations to be (iii) necessarily associated with corresponding permissions (permission-rights) – both on the part of those harmed/injured and on the part of bystanders – to demand compliance and object to (and punish) non-compliance – as well as with a pro tanto moral appropriateness of injured parties or bystanders demanding compliance, lodging objections to non-compliance, etc.

      (Because I take moral obligation to concern how it is best (morally, but also otherwise or all-in) to hold each other to account in a context (by objecting, demanding, punishing, etc., both from the reasons-standpoint of obligatee and from the somewhat distinct reasons-standpoint of bystander) – in other words, because I take moral obligation to concern how to do a specific sort of social construction – it is unclear to me whether (or the sense in which) having the obligation to PHI entails having strong holding-each-other-to-account reason to PHI. The latter might depend on the right sort of buy-in or reasoning on the part of the agent X who might PHI, but I am not sure. Hence, the caveat ‘without necessarily being identical to’.)

      (b) I wholeheartedly agree that there are weighty countervailing considerations. Authority, especially the “natural” arrangements we are prone to prior to reflection, is ripe for abusive moral practice, even atrocities. I’m don’t think it is right that there is only authority (or perhaps just ersatz authority) in emergency situations, but I’m curious to know just what conditions would justify this view. We could, perhaps, take the best and avoid the worst of authority (of our “holding each other accountable” in the authority-type way) by (i) maintaining our natural tendency of non-instrumental attachment to obeying orders from relevant folks in relevant sorts of conditions but (ii) being explicit and restrictive about what those situations are (i.e., urgent enough collective end required, no plausible egalitarian solution available, being explicit and liberal about authority-nullifying conditions of incompetence, abuse, appropriate means of enforcement, etc.). That is certainly skipping ahead (from ersatz authority to what I think might be part of the real thing). I think this sort of view comes to non-skepticism about authority. But it is consistent with the idea that we generally “do” authority quite badly and need to find better ways to “do” it (however hard this is, collectively, culturally and institutionally, for us).

      (c) Yes, enforcement (including coercive enforcement, including coercive state enforcement via an effective monopoly on force) is a separate issue. As is punishment. Though related, it needs something of a separate treatment. After all, the issue of violating the rights of others is not much in play if one is simply marching around issuing orders (even if they are necessary and good ones). On the other hand, a system of holding each other to account probably, in almost all contexts, cannot work without some sort of enforcement (that goes beyond merely making demands) and punishment (that goes beyond merely lodging objections). So the justification, if available, should have something of a similar logic or reasons to it.


      • On (b): I think the plausibility of a justification of ersatz authority varies with the desperateness of the situation that gives rise to the need for it, where “desperateness” has distributive implications: for any n people involved or affected by the situation, the situation is not just desperate full stop, but is as desperate for all or as many of n as possible, and the envisioned collective action solution resolves the desperate situation as efficaciously (i.e., to the same degree) for all or as many of n as possible. Ersatz authority can only be justified when a situation is very desperate, similarly so for all/many n, and the solution to the desperate problem resolves the problem cleanly for all/many n. The further you get from that, the less plausible the justification becomes.

        Here is a paradigm case where ersatz authority will not get you any normative mileage, so to speak:

        You could not legitimately invoke ersatz authority to say, “Clem thinks that the commuters desperately need to get to work on time, so let’s do what it takes, keeping the bridge closed during rush hour, and ignoring the needs of the mariners, who are too few and far between to be worth worrying about. Yeah, maybe that’s sub-optimal, and maybe even unfair, but the relevant consideration is that Clem said we should do it, so let’s do it.” (Ignoring the needs of the mariners is just one of many problems here.)

        It seems to me that if the garden variety case for the application of non-ersatz authority is more like the Portal Bridge case than it is like a temporary emergency, an invocation of ersatz authority will not even come close to justifying full blown political authority, or any kind of plain old non-ersatz authority. And I’m inclined to think it is. I think it’s going to be harder to generalize from cases of ersatz authority to cases of non-ersatz authority than you’re allowing.

        PS. Ironically, I’m just about to get on a train to New York at rush hour, traveling over the Portal Bridge.

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        • I more or less agree with what you say. However, if what is at stake is something along the lines of having literal anarchy or not, your “distributive desperation” condition for ersatz authority would appear to be met in a very general and important context (and I think we only have to “distribute” over group members here – outsiders to the collective project typically won’t have reason to obey the folks leading it). Add that the topic is public disobediance that would have a severe detrimental effect on adequate compliance and social utility and you have the (modified version of) ersatz authority. This is, I agree, very ersatz (if you can modify ‘ersatz’ with ‘very’ – in any case, you get the idea).

          Part of my thinking here is that, functionally and motivationally, the bridge (speaking of bridges!) to reliably achieving what can be achieved via de facto authority relationships (and via requirement/permission systems of social regulation in general) can be bridged via our having the right sorts of non-instrumental desires. And it would make sense that we have some such desires (at least if evolutionary group selection is happened in this respect in our coming to be what we are)! As I’ve suggested to David, one set of relevant desires might include non-instrumental motivation to shame rule-breakers and non-instrumental motivation to avoid being shamed for breaking rules. Another might be non-instrumental motivation to have a definite, positive sense of one’s own identity (perhaps most easily provided by valuing strict compliance with pretty simple rules).

          The further broadly Humean idea is that, relative to such ends, we have, or would rationally come to have, conclusive reason to comply with good-enough social rules in a pretty strict way (appropriate compliance not being determined primarily relative to accessing impacts on the social good against one’s other ends). This general sort of story – which for sure needs a lot more telling and which might for all I know have something fatally wrong with it or be missing vital details – could provide the normative bridge (speaking of bridges!) from ersatz authority (roughly, valuing the social utility of obedience in the context of obedience being super-important) to genuine authority (having priority-taking reason to strictly comply with good-enough social rules or requirements that one obey some relevant, competent authority).


          • I don’t think a bare reference to anarchy is going to get you the desperate conditions that motivate an appeal to ersatz authority. “Anarchy” is just a catch-all term for the denial or absence of political authority, and it isn’t an a priori truth that conceived that way, anarchy entails relevantly desperate conditions. I’m not sanguine about the prospects of life under anarchy (no matter how conceived), but my point is, I don’t think the inference from “we’re in anarchy” to “we’d better obey Clem to get out of this insanity” works. Arguably, I’ve spent whole summers under conditions of anarchy while teaching and living in the West Bank. (Yes, “teaching” and “living” are exclusive activities.) Would I prefer to have lived under an ordered, law-guided, consent-based, non-sectarian limited state? Yes. Would I have obeyed a Clem figure by appeal to ersatz authority because I was living under anarchy? No. People do live under anarchy, conceived of as Lockean States of Nature. I don’t think it’s a particularly good way to live, but it’s not bad enough to yield a quick inference to either ersatz or non-ersatz authority.

            And I’d add a variant on one of Roderick’s provisos: even if you generated a desperate situation in which we ought to obey Clem, our obedience to Clem under those circumstances has to be tempered by the possibility that blind obedience to anyone is a potentially crazy idea anywhere. So there have to be opt-out clauses even in desperate situations (or perhaps especially in them). Our obedience to Clem only makes sense if all of the following hold: the situation is desperate, it’s equally desperate for all of us, Clem has a certain moral legtimacy that elicits respect from all of us, Clem can plausibly deliver the goods, and the resolution Clem has on offer really resolves the problem to the same degree for all of us. Fall below a certain threshold on all or many of those dimensions, and Clem’s ersatz authority becomes pseudo-authority that we should (rationally) be able to opt out of.

            I have a worry that you’re doing two problematic things here.

            First thing: You’re using desperate circumstances as an intuition pump, but sort of fast-forwarding past the desperate circumstances with the original intuitions in hand, then applying them to circumstances not covered by the situation envisioned by the intuition pump.

            Second thing: I think you’re also potentially conflating authority with monopoly. The situation in your thought-experiment makes Clem an authority over a cohort of people, not an authority over whatever happens in the territory he controls or surveys, conceived in square or cubic feet. At any rate, cohort-based and territorially-based sorts of authority are not the same, and can easily come apart. If Dad is The Authority, is he authority over his family (wherever they go), or over his house (whoever’s in it)? I think it’s worth distinguishing the two more explicitly than you do.


  5. I agree that the situation does not have to be desperate. What is necessary is something of value effectively promoted through a de facto authority relationship (that meets certain conditions, e.g., competence but also effective leadership skills whatever this comes to) and public disobedience having a significant-enough detrimental impact on the likelihood of the collective achievement of that value. This yields reasons not to publicly disobey grounded, in part, in what Clem orders you to do. The moving parts here yield something akin to authority and show us one way in which the work that de facto authority relationships can do can yield reasons to obey. Though I suspect that there are such reasons for action in ordinary life (and the desperation situations would perhaps get some intuitions to this effect), this is not my essential point. But perhaps I did at some junctures conflate the “our having ersatz-authority-type reasons” point with the “how we could get ersatz-authority-type reasons” point. I do think it is important that absent genuine authority, we might be left utterly unable to achieve things that are super-important to all members of a group via the collective action of that group – my looking ahead in this way is probably another reason why I used the desperation-type scenarios to make the mere-possibility or toy-model point.


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