A Voice of Reason: Sane Views for a Crazy World

March 8, 2007

Moral Authority and Legal Authority

In a recent post (shameless self plug) the issue of smoking in the car with minor children was discussed.  Recently, several states have legislated that adults may not smoke in the car if a child under seven or 70 lbs. was present in the car.  This is a followup post, and delves into the grey reasoning that the legislatures that have passed, and are considering passage of this amendment. 

When one speaks of authority, several images may come to mind.  One can easily think of a policeman walking a beat, keeping things orderly in the neighborhood.  To a vast number of people this represents authority.  To most a presumption would grant that this image typifies legal authority, but to others, it would also speak of moral authority.  Of course to some members of our society, and not all of them criminals, this figure while representing legal authority may more closely symbolize repression and fear.  Neither representation is correct, as the representation must come from a context.

However, with the given image of the policeman walking down the street, try to picture it in your mind right now, a relevent question would be does this image symbolize to you “moral authority”.  If from your perspective you see this as a symbol of something inherently effecting the moral climate in a positive way, you put a great deal of stock into the notion of the expectation that government provide moral authority to its citizens. 

This expectation is in no way new or unique to the American psyche of the 21st century.  Much of its source comes of course to Western tradition by the Judeo-Christian ethic, however, the ethic of the Scriptures seems to rest in the legal authority of the state, which is perfectly understandable, particularly of the New Testament political climate.  In actuality the vast underpinnings of the state’s legal authority having moral equivalence is based more in the Han Dynasty of Ancient China, and its prominent philosopher, Confucius.

This post is not to be a primer entitled, “Confucianism for Dummies”, but some of the basic pretext of his philosophy was reciprocity, or simply put, “Don’t do to others what you wouldn’t want done to you”.  He also proposed a rather unique view towards the role of the leader.  Up until his time, the basic rule of the Emperors and warlords of Ancient China were pretty much akin to that of those of the vast majority of the Ancient World, I’m the king, do as I say.  However, Confucius saw leadership as a dynamic process, and that the leaders truest source of power lay not in his legal authority – such as had been exercised by the Qin Dynasty by enslaving most of China – but through the exercise of transactional authority.  A ruler who rules by moral authority does not have to resort to violence and repression, such as stated in the Analects XII:19, “Your job is to govern, not to kill”.  This lead Confucius to the belief that the ruler who had to resort to force and legal authority as already having failed as a leader.

The way we view the world dictates which authority we would often resort to in our everyday life.  This is ture whether it is in a domestic dispute with a child, a workplace dispute with a colleague, boss, or employee, or within a school setting between a teacher and a student.  If the view of the person is that people are inherently out of control, debased, and need to be watched, legal authority will be the method that is most often applied.  This view is plainly on display in any public building.  Look at the rules that every organization has for its daily operations.  It seems that inherent in authority is the suspicion that someone wants to rock or even worse, scuttle the boat.  In business management this would be called Theory X.  People who tend to operate within Theory X are very much concerned with precedent, procedure,  hierarchy, chains of command, and organizational structure.

An alternate view of the world is Theory Y.  Theory Y perhaps is best stated – other than Confucius – by such people as W. E. Deming, the founder of Total Quality Management, Abraham Maslow, and William Glaser.  Within Theory Y the presupposition is that the vast majority of people inherently want to perform to their optimum potential (Deming) and will do so if their needs are being met (Maslow) by the exercise of proper choices (Glaser).  This is the model within moral authority works.  Indeed, in order to believe that moral authority has possibility one must accept as a basis that people are capable of acting outside of self-interest. 

The true test of whether the object of authority is acting on the basis of moral or legal authority is what transpires in the absence of legalism.  If consequences are not attached, what actions occur.  Within the educational field this can be seen by the classic example of the rowdy classroom. You’ve all been in a situation where the teacher raises their voice and immediately the class comes to order.  Many would say that this teacher has the class under control, but that is the furthest thing from the truth.  The true test is what transpires the moment the students are not under the watchful eye of the teacher.  If all hell breaks loose, that teacher only has legal authority, however a teacher with moral authority can do any number of tasks with other learners, and the rest of the class stays on task due to the moral authority which has been modeled by the teacher towards the learners.

So, what principles are in operation in the smoking in the car legislation?  The person who is operating within a realm of the moral authority of deeds, does not need the law.  He or she knows that it is not an act that is beneficial to puff away while an infant is in the car seat.  This is not in any way an indictment of smoking as an immoral act; I myself partake in it, but I don’t need a law to tell me to do so.  Nor is there a magic button when a child tips the scales at 71 lbs. 

However, the real question that I would pose at this law, or any other law that places legal restrictions into actions which are permissable by the law is how much legal authority are we as citizens willing to give to the state?  While I may understand that it is not a good idea to watch Pulp Fiction, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, or even something as relatively benign as a PG movie in front of a four year old, do I wish to give the state the authority to enter into private property and tell me what type of behavior I can conduct in.  The same arguement can reasonably be extended to such activities as drug use.  If heroin were legal, would you use it?  If the answer is no, the reason is you tag the use of that substance to a moral equivalent.   The same can be said for any of the above mentioned examples. 

I, for one, am leary of yielding individual liberties occurring within private property to the legal authority of the state.  Although I have great respect for governmental authority – and much of this is based on my moral equivalence with the function of governance – I tend to believe that citizens can exercise their own moral authority in this domain, and am not overly thrilled with the state imposing its version of moral behavior upon me in the privacy of my own home or automobile.

Maybe I’ll call up my niece and ask if I can take her kids on a ride while I puff a few Newports (I keeed)and listen to Eminem – the uncut tracks.  No, I don’t have Eminem tracks; that would be unreasonable.



  1. “how much legal authority are we as citizens willing to give to the state? ”

    Not in this area. It’s a waste of time for this to even be debated. I’d be quite angry if I lived in any of these states where my tax dollars were being wasted on this.

    Comment by Just Passing By — March 8, 2007 @ 11:51 pm | Reply

  2. I agree with your view opposed to government removing individual liberties within private property, but that itself encompasses a gray area. What if another driver feels endangered by a driver smoking in his car even if there is no scientific proof that smoking causes accidents? Put more generally, what if various peoples’ views on what private property “is” do not coincide?

    Great distinction between legal and moral authority, well explained. And I def have to agree with the Eminem point. Heh.

    Comment by entersandman — March 9, 2007 @ 5:01 am | Reply

  3. Well, the law has been introduced to protect children from second hand smoke. It’s a good idea, but that old why is a law needed for that?

    Comment by avoiceofreason — March 9, 2007 @ 5:36 am | Reply

  4. Hi Voice,

    Using your definitions, legal authority chafes those choosing the moral authority model of living, myself included. Being a teacher, I’m certain you can scan the classroom and easily single out those kids who would be annoyed when corrected because they already adhere to rules and regulations, already discipline themselves to conform and already focus on what’s right and good.

    Seat belt laws and helmets for motorcycle riders seem redundant considering the dangers involved. Smoking in a closed vehicle is just stupid for lot’s of reasons, stench not the least, but adding a child makes it worse. Does having a cop ticket me for being careless and stupid overstep the normal duties of the police? Probably not, since most vehicle mishaps would be avoided if people put down the snacks, burgers, cell phones, smokes, eye liner and especially the beer,while driving.

    I’ve known people that would be crushed if treated harshly or rudely while being critiqued for any reason, simply because majority time and effort were spent doing the correct, proper and constructive.

    I like these kinds of people.


    Comment by icanplainlysee — March 9, 2007 @ 2:19 pm | Reply

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