A parable for our times
As if for the benefit of those concerned about ‘breakdown of authority’ and related social problems, the twenty-first century has created a parable about authority which is being told by the oil market and its speculators. The oil market trader and even speculator expresses something common in the present age, something I propose to call negative moral authority. The oil market trader is never suspected of trying to impose a puritan ‘killjoy’ moralism or of elitist disdain for the aspirations of us ordinary folks when he, she or they sends up prices of petrol, diesel and other such goods. The oil price may jump to apparently silly levels, leading to accusations of market manipulation, speculating too far, or just plain old fashioned greed, but no one charges traders or hedge funds with a ‘green fascist’ agenda or with being prophets of doom denying us our place in the sun. If the oil market says we must pay more, we may try to get offsets on fuel taxes, such as may been recommended to encourage us to curb pollution (not by people with negative moral authority), or take measures to smooth out the vagaries of a volatile market, but we will then take resource limits, alternative transport methods, and renewable energy sources seriously. No matter which our political or ethical allegiance, we trust that the oil market trader is seeking merely to turn a profit for his clients and therefore is more likely to sincerely believe that there is a problem with energy supply and maintenance of our current practices. (Because of profiteering or holding of stocks the position with oil companies may be rather less clear.) Indeed, we understand that the oil market trader has a professional interest in investigating the future prospects for oil supply in so far as it is possible to find any worthwhile information on that topic at all. Again when there is an economic downturn and the price subsides in its turn, that is a further reminder that the oil market harbours no ulterior mission for encouraging us into a more relaxed and optimistic view of life! Still less are traders accused of disregarding or abandoning moral claims. Of course, a price fall leaves the temptation to forget any message about future supply. But we understand – and fear – that the speculators may return at any time regardless of any anxieties (or hopes) there might be about a new moral discipline. In the case of the anxieties, if they make us reluctant to reduce our oil consumption, they make the speculators more likely to return.
The parable of the oil market has much to tell us about our culture of modernity, at least in the Western context1, together with the position of authority therein and therefore why we rely so heavily upon markets even when we are unhappy with their social effects and limitations. Markets in general tend to have negative moral authority in that whatever they say is (roughly speaking) ascribed to people pursuing their own interests and not to them being subject to propaganda from moral or political campaigns.
For understanding this deep feature of modern Western (once known as ‘Occidental’) culture we may begin by looking at the efforts of such theorists as Friedrich (1972), Raphael (1990), or Benn and Peters (1959) to distinguish between the concepts of authority and power. It is recognised that power and authority are connected, but authority can supply elements of legitimacy and respect which power on its own cannot. This appears in cases like morality and law which are understood to require authority to function effectively, even when raw power has a place in their action as well. (a) Friedrich (1972: 121-2) points to the reason for that when he says: ‘…corroded authority cannot be re-established by force. A return to what had been authority before the challenge is almost always futile. The restorations of European history show it.’ The central issue here, whether for political theory and sociology or for moral philosophy and culture, is about the sources of authority. Authority differs from power just in that it invokes values and beliefs; that is, acceptance that certain things are valuable and/or true, and not simply producing force. If confidence in the value and truth of the ideas and practices involved is lost, as in the case of dynastic kingship after the eighteenth century, then authority is lost with it. (In reality loss of authority can be expected in such cases to impact on power relations also after a certain period of time.) Typically, in such cases authority will eventually be transferred from one source to another. For instance, Dabashi (1989: Ch 2-4) explained that traditional authority held by custom in Arab society before the prophetic movement of Mohammad appeared was then partially lost, and replaced by the charismatic (using the Weberian sociological notion – ‘charisma’ not being itself a Muslim concept) authority of the Prophet. (b) Benn and Peters (1959: 19-21, 297) make a distinction between de facto authority and de jure authority, a distinction which hardly obtains in the case of power. The concept of de facto authority resembles Friedrich’s notion of authority as depending upon ability to communicate and regulate others through communication; the person with authority is accepted as having tacit knowledge leading to competence to take charge of a given situation. Once again, in Benn and Peters’ example of the man who takes charge in a cinema fire it is understood both that the person with authority really does have this tacit knowledge and that the knowledge itself is correct in relation to the situation, i.e., true. In the case of de jure authority, the knowledge and competence are not merely tacit, but are vouched for in terms of such things as professional qualifications and experience, and are linked to a specific position which has authority vested in it. Such applies to the authority – which as Raphael (1990: 165) points out, we often refer to as ‘power’ or ‘powers’ – of specific institutions carrying the name ‘authority’ in their description or title, like local authorities or the Tennessee Regulatory Authority. It is important to recognise that such bodies are typically not the principal foci of power in a political system, but have regulatory and legislative functions delegated to them to be exercised within their particular geographical areas or fields of competence, which are allocated to them under whatever legislation that gives them the authority which they have. In short, they hold de jure authority, but it is previously defined and circumscribed authority. In the case of a full political authority, such as might be responsible for setting up such institutions with their specific and delegated authority, the position of de jure authority can depend upon such diverse sources as historical legitimacy, constitutional provision, or popular support. But whatever the de jure authority, there is again a requirement which may be explicit in terms of training or proved ability in the position, that the presumed knowledge and competence really are there, otherwise authority leaches away. Failure (beyond some acceptable minimum) is guaranteed to lead to loss of authority in every sense.
The impact of the problem of truth itself for authority in general, whatever its source, will be discussed shortly, but the truth problem is linked to very mundane questions of competence and integrity. Generally speaking, the tendency in recent times has been to seek two kinds of sources for authority rather than the Weberian triad of rational-legal, traditional, and charismatic sources (perhaps owing to fear of raw and unpredictable charismatic leadership); (i) traditional sources; which may include religion, inherited ideas and practices, or (ii) arguments from principles or practical requirements in favour of accepting authority of one kind or another. In reality this is no clear distinction, since traditions are themselves arguments for authority and frequently incorporate abstract principles as well as being adjusted over time, whilst if a new argument for authority, like Kant’s moral philosophy, becomes widely accepted it then establishes a new tradition. As Friedrich (Ibid: 19) points out, even revolutions do not eliminate tradition; they replace one tradition with another. But confused as it is, the distinction is useful once we recognise that many traditions have either lost respect in recent times, or have become confined to limited – and sometimes warring – groups which still hold to them, whilst many modern attempts to establish a new authority, like socialism, have also been found wanting. Such is the position in the twenty-first century despite the long standing assumption, in traditionalist theory as well as elsewhere, that authority depends upon tradition. So it often does – especially in its de jure forms – but traditions must be capable of being kept ‘alive’ for that authority to be sustained. At present the nearest to authorities with a grasp stretching wide beyond territorial, professional, and other relatively narrow boundaries appear to be science and (logical) reasoning on the one hand, and religious or personal experience on the other. We can observe already the common theme between these two, which is claim to and witness to truth. That theme in turn connects profoundly with the way people are more willing to trust these authorities, since trust is essential to any authority. Behind Friedrich’s point about authority being lost if it cannot supply reasons for its position when challenged lies the further point that if trust is lost, then authority is lost too. This is especially obvious with anyde facto authority, but in fact no de jure authority which has lost trust and confidence in its competence and decision-making could continue to act effectively. These situations can lead to the contemporary phenomenon of negative authority where trust is regained, if at all, by actually disclaiming any values on which authority is normally assumed to depend, just so that followers (or ‘fans’) are not disappointed by the absence of those values. Ironically, the disclaimers may strengthen a claim to truth.
A more controversial aspect of distinction between authority and power is the psychological and sociological. An ongoing argument about the nature of power is the plea of Lukes (1974) for recognition of a ‘third face’ of power in the shape of manipulation of bias. Whatever the merits of Lukes’ case with respect to power, we may note that with respect to authority, save perhaps for specifically declared projects like targeting of resources to disadvantaged groups, any perception of bias must be expected to compromise the authority. The possible exception stated above is illuminating, since in cases like ‘affirmative action’ on behalf of ethnic, gender, and other groups seen as disadvantaged, the expressly stated bias may be challenged as conflicting with natural justice on behalf of those claiming to be denied jobs and opportunities because of the bias. In the event of, for instance, a legal challenge to the affirmative action, the judicial authority called upon to adjudicate on the legitimacy of the bias may itself be compromised if it is thought to harbour (perhaps implicit) bias of its own. The flaw in Friedrich’s (1972: 49) comparison between the United States Supreme Court and the Roman Senate is that since members of the former are appointed by the President (subject to confirmation by Congress) an element of more direct political bias is introduced alongside whatever other biases may already exist amongst long-standing members of the judiciary. The factor of bias in relation to authority is itself one link in the chain binding authority to truth, since an expressly declared bias in pursuit of a specific project is in less danger of sacrificing authority (and trust) than undeclared bias then perceived by others.
The link between authority and claims to truth, together with ability to witness such claims, is probably authority’s most profound distinguishing mark from power.2 That link in all its multifarious forms is far too strong for any ‘noble lie’ case from Plato to Leo Strauss to be other than futile pleading. There has been a current running through modern thought from Burke and Durkheim through to Strauss which holds that (traditional rather than charismatic) religion is essential to social order/authority whether or not the tenets of any given faith are true, and that we suffer chaos and anomie if that religious authority is diluted or lost. However powerful this argument may be in empirical terms as an observation on social psychology, it ignores two essential facets of religion and its authority: (a) Historically, the above sociological argument developed in the experience of Europe and the West after the eighteenth century, during which radical religious movements from the Methodists to liberal Judaism were indeed present but usually allied to other radical elements in secular society rather than being independently provocative on a large scale. For the most part it was the case that radical or revolutionary action linked with secular ideologies and pursued social and political agendas like nationalism or socialism which were basically secular in nature, whilst religion seemed confined to a more quietist and traditional role. It is by no means clear that this will continue to be the case even in Western societies in the twenty-first century, let alone in Asian and African cultures where religions play an extremely active part in politics – be they radical or conservative, in so far as those terms can make sense in cases like the Hindu BJP, the Islamic Brotherhood, or even the religious current in the African National Congress. It is entirely possible that religion will be found playing a combative and disturbing role more analogous to the one it often played in sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe than that assumed by conservative sociological theory. (b) Irrespective of the specific social position of any given religion at any given time and place, it has always been the case that the principal ideas propounded by the religion, such as its cosmology and interpretation of spiritual life in relation to everyday activities, have been held by its followers to be true and that truth has been felt by them to be essential to the religion’s authority. That is the case not merely for the mass of uneducated believers but for whatever kind of teachers, priests, or other leaders each religion may have. The atheist Bertrand Russell (1945: 818) reminded his readers that the Pope had condemned the pragmatic defence of religion. A Pontiff could hardly do otherwise given the conception of truth which Catholicism, and other religions also, implicitly holds. (Not the least of the reasons for the Papacy becoming discredited at the end of the fifteenth century had been a perception that its incumbents were no longer sincere in believing what they were supposed to believe.) When more educated and influential elements in a society have tended to lose faith in its traditional religion; which means, amongst other things, ceasing to believe in the truth of central stories and ideas contained within the religion and proclaimed in its practice, then the religion’s authority declines even when there are still many other ‘simple’ believers. In such instances as the fading of paganism in Rome after the first century or Christianity in Europe after the nineteenth, an explosion of new philosophies and ideologies or religions reflected decline in traditional belief, not least amongst people of greater social influence. That is to say, support for a claim to truth reveals itself to be a social force in its own right. If the claim no longer appears credible to a wide audience then it loses that force. The continuing controversy surrounding the effort of the German theologian Rudolph Bultmann to ‘de-mythologise’ the New Testament is illustrative – the more so because no one involved in that controversy denies that a belief that Christianity is essentially true is essential to faith. The argument goes around whether Bultmann was right in believing that the truth of Christ’s message emerges more clearly if mythological elements in the New Testament stories can be transmuted into philosophy or whether the myths can reveal truth as they stand. It may be noticed here that whatever the value or otherwise of Bultmann’s own treatment of the New Testament and of the Resurrection in particular, a process which might be called ‘demythologising’ is regularly applied to myths and legends in all cultures by anthropological and historical study, and, indeed, literary criticism works in a similar way when various social and moral assumptions (or changes therein) are extracted from particular texts. The very intellectual character of debates on these topics demonstrates that the issue of truth (and then authority) in religion implies in social terms just the opposite of what is supposed in a Straussian (or Burkean) argument for support of religious authority. For the religion’s authority to be sustained it is people of education and influence in society who most of all will need to be indoctrinated into the faith. Moreover, any notion that an uneducated mass could not cope with truths which the intellectually trained have to face, like evolution by natural selection for example, so that the mass must be left in the comfort of religion, leads to the absurd claim that religious leaders and teachers (many of them with intellectual training in philosophy, history, canon law, or even quite other disciplines) can all be allocated to the ranks of an ignorant populace who need to continue believing in a comforting story, irrespective of whether it is true or not. At this point the question of the nature of truth itself comes into play. There has never been anything unusual in the conception that spiritual experience, or revelation, contains truths that cannot be accessed simply by empirical observation and perhaps not even by reasoning, but the scope and depth of claims to religious truth is such that it is felt that they must always be able to connect with fundamental realities, not only of our own experience but of the cosmos in the widest possible sense. In the case of the Bible the idea of a witness to (revealed) truth is expressed in the very name of the Gospels, so that we are there urged to seek, and to find, that confidence and trust in what the witnesses have to tell that so often leads us to seek empirical and rational confirmations of truth when we do not feel able to rely on the storyteller. But Bultmann may not have been happy about the witness to the Resurrection as a physical event, as distinct from God’s involvement in the world symbolised in the Bible stories. Whatever the narrative presented in a body of religious thought, there is a set of fundamental ideas included which is understood to be true.
Long before Aristotle had opened philosophy’s account on theorising about truth, truth was related by human beings to directly experienced realities, even being felt as an emotional yearning. A good illustration is family background and parentage, where raw truth can be felt as a deep personal need, however painful that truth may prove to be. From the earliest times of abstract thought humans have sought ideas about themselves and the universe in which they exist which they could find to be true; so these ideas must in some sense reflect how people, and the universe in which they live, really are. It may be said that the ‘common’ or ‘popular’ conception of truth has always been a simple sort of correspondence idea, buttressed by some notion of reality to which any ‘true’ beliefs or statements are expected to conform. However, one of the subtle factors eating into simple sources of authority – such as religion – since the eighteenth century has been growing recognition of the difficulties surrounding any idea of reality. Intellectual developments challenging any idea of straightforward perceptions of reality, like psychoanalysis, surrealism, or more complex cosmology, have been well documented. But these are powerfully reinforced by more practical experience; like difficulties in accurate statistical representation of social patterns such as crime levels and the whole issue of distortion of information. The latter issue finds its way into philosophy via the question of how reality may be mediated or distorted in language. In late twentieth century philosophical and literary argument exemplified by ‘post-modernism’ such problems have been turned to criticism of truth, especially in science. But one of the many points which such debates can obfuscate is that truth itself remains a critical standard by which doubt about authorities, including scientific ones, may be expressed. For example, the American Psychological Association reject the claim of the Elliot Institute that women who have had abortions are more liable to mental health problems, but both rely upon the truth of what they say for their authority in the minds of women considering abortion, and indeed anyone else. Here lies a profound practical wisdom within the efforts of philosophy from the time of Aristotle to identify the conditions under which truth may be reliably asserted and safely conserved with a move from one belief or proposition to another. It is often at a quite primitive level of deep feeling, presumably evolved from countless struggles to cope with real experience, that many people hold truth to be important and its denial or evasion to be in some sense an outrage. At least enough people for any treatment of authority, including social authorities of any sort, which fails to come to terms with that feature of the human condition to be highly suspect. The implicit notion that powerful emotional charges on truth can be safely ignored is the grave weakness in the old prescription for anomie offered by conservative sociology.
It might be argued that there cannot be any sense to a notion of ‘negative’ authority since, in all cases, some connection with a claim to truth remains. There must be a measure of validity in that point. But the position of truth in relation to authority is complex. For instance, the import of the oil market parable depends upon the point that statements about energy supplies and future availability of oil supplies are coming from people with direct commercial involvement. As at the same time they have no moral or other involvements, their statements will be believed more likely to be (approximately) true than similar statements from other sources. Yet there is also an element of negative authority. That is to say, they are trusted and carry authority in respect of what they are not, as well as what they are. The fact that the ‘statements’ concerned will typically take the form of dealings in oil rather than speeches or documents emphasises the point. After all, the traders have committed money behind what they implicitly say, and that seems like a deeper commitment than argument or rhetoric (there is more to be lost if the commitment fails). That alone can be sufficient to secure a response from people and politicians on matters of energy efficiency if a price rise is sustained – or rapidly restored on an increase in demand.
What is illustrated here is that even if the word ‘authority’ conveys a similar meaning in every case, authority appears in innumerable ways and sometimes these can conflict with one another. One of the ways in which this can work is through the character of truth itself as an arbiter of morality rather a moral category in its own right. That is to say, truth is not definable in terms of ethical or moral values but some of the latter, such as honesty and integrity, can be definable in terms of truth or, more precisely, the pursuit of truth. (The one instance of a theory of truth according to which this case might be disputed is, ironically, the ‘pragmatic’ theory advocated by William James which does hold truth to be definable in terms of other values like utility, and therefore it might be held possible for it to be defined in terms of moral or ethical values.) As a result it is perfectly natural to have situations arising like the conditions of the oil market where (implied) assertion of a claim to truth can confer a certain technical authority, but at the same time any kind of moral authority is simply absent. That is, there need be no suggestion that we might respond to a rise (or fall) in the price of oil on any moral grounds, such as putative moral benefits to curtailing consumption. Hence the statement at the beginning of this essay that the oil market carries negative moral authority – it does not carry negative authority in its entirety.
Denial of claims to authority need not relate only to moral values of any kind. Just as authority can appear over any activity where someone’s special knowledge or ability is recognised by others, or for purposes of the more formal de jure varieties of authority where someone holds a position or qualification which is recognised by others, so negative authority, or denial of any special claim to trust and respect, can appear in any case, although it has been especially familiar in certain contexts like entertainment and culture or radical politics. In these cases a connection with markets is apparent. But at least some of the pretensions being denied – leading to a form of negative authority – are not moral in character. Yet even in cases where that is so, such as politicians, entertainers, or even academics who might see themselves as being in touch with the gritty reality of ordinary people’s lives rather than enclosed in an ‘ivory tower’ of specialised knowledge, there will still be a claim (perhaps hidden) to some kind of knowledge and truth. Indeed, authority of a sort is still being claimed in such cases, but we may call it ‘negative’ authority in the sense that any more established, formal, conventional, or indeed traditional, forms of authority are being rejected. (These need not be de jure forms of formally instated authority; for instance where culture is concerned, rejection of the methods of writers and artists looked upon with respect customarily or in previous epochs can create a negative authority.) It is the factor of claims to truth and some kind of knowledge, not moral claims, which is ubiquitous in connection with authority and which even negative denials do not eliminate.
At the same time, the fraught position of morality in relation to truth means that moral ideas and values can never be held out of account altogether. The basic reason for that is that, however we understand the concept of truth, seeking or respecting truth commonly carries an emotional force characteristic of a (moral) value. That becomes very clear in the case of scientific truth where the concepts of ‘true’ and ‘truth’ are accorded no moral content as regards their own meaning (both extension and intension) but the adherence to objective reality means that proper practice of science is seen as pursuing truth even when it is uncomfortable and disturbing, that being an essential commitment for the scientist. From a very different point of view Rt. Revd Selby (1988: 219) has identified the Christian church’s role as being to tell the truth when it is uncomfortable, just because truth always links with interest. This idea of commitment to truth even (or especially) when painful and difficult leads, in practical if not ontological sense, to a link with moral values, not least virtues like honesty, integrity, and courage. When the matter is viewed in that way it becomes very understandable that truth has been inextricably linked with moral ideas since time immemorial and in many ways; through ideas of religious truth, scientific truth, aesthetic truth, process of law, and so on. That applies despite truth being apart from moral categories in itself, acting rather as a source or arbiter of moral value. Naturally, every time effort is made to counter or uncover deception and neglect that connection is reinforced, having an obvious role in the practice of law as well as morality and ethics. Therefore, it is at least practically impossible, if not inconceivable in principle, for cases of both authority and negative authority not to be linked with either claims to, or denial of, moral values.
When moral values are denied, there is an implicit claim to truth, and through that to honesty and authenticity but that is kept in the background in a way contrary to the normally explicit claims of authority. So, certain ‘role models’ or ‘icons’ (the latter ironic usage itself illustrates the point; an icon in the old sense of an object for religious devotion had authority, whilst the so-called icons of today may have negative authority – that is, people will follow them because of what they are not) may owe their position to being unencumbered by expectations of moral standards which appear oppressive or else associated with particular religious, political, or social class groups. The connection with truth claims can slip in – perhaps little noticed – through suspicions of hypocrisy on the part of those who purport to uphold the moral standards and are found wanting, or allegations that association with particular groups reveals sectional interests not justified by the universal standards claimed, or fear that most people are not in any event capable of acting in accord with the standards, so they are unrealistic. In any of these instances, and others, there can be the implication that critics of the role models or ‘icons’ are in some sense ignoring and concealing the truth, so that their own moral integrity is in question.
Since role models and icons are regularly linked with product promotion, commercial sponsorship, and business (notably entertainment such as sport and music) they provide an illustration of the broader phenomenon of negative authority expressed through markets. In an era where local markets with strong social connections play a relatively small part in economic life we tend not to expect markets to represent or express moral standards (and therefore the authority which the standards may either generate or be expected to support) except in the limited sense of commercial and professional ethics. But those often stand in a very uneasy relationship to other fields of ethics, like human rights. Yet the very failure of other systems of political economy like socialism in terms of economic efficiency and meeting popular wants and aspirations led to acceptance that markets do express, better than anything else, the truth about economic wants and needs, even if that truth may be disturbing. Critics of contemporary capitalism like Marcuse (1964) have pointed to the way wants and demands are manufactured, but as in so many cases of critiques of modernity and its various socio-economic practices from sources as diverse as Marxists or followers of the Counter-Enlightenment, the critics prove more effective at pointing up weaknesses than in working out a practicable alternative. (Probably the radical ecology movement has come nearest to success in that latter stage of argument).3 Even in cases like ‘designer’ labels and status symbols the commercial market is appealing to psychological needs which may prove more intractable than any ordinary ‘material’ wants. Moreover, in cases where markets may not reflect real wants and choices, such as the needs of those too poor to generate an effective demand, the political market of democracy may be found to fill the gap to some degree.4 Yet in the absence of claims to respect, the truths which the markets appear to reveal seem easier to accept so that trust is easier to maintain. The negative authority is subject to less exacting demands where trust is concerned.
Despite a widespread belief that markets, and a market system, are associated with political democracy, the latter does not evince the same link with negative authority. Paradoxically, this may be just because democracy throws into sharper relief refusal of any authority based upon unchanging and eternal values. Markets had, of course, already existed within communities like medieval Europe where eternal values were at least publicly maintained. On the contrary, democracy frequently acts as a facilitator for arguments between different sets of values, including moral values. Argument between political ideologies and their respective moral claims in partisan programmes or over moral issues in plebiscites being only the obvious ways in which it does so. It does therefore carry an authority of its own. That is not only through the ideal of equal rights and treatment of citizens which may be hoped also to lead to fulfilment of other economic and even spiritual aspirations, but also because democracy promises to allow the expression of diverse values and claims. But beyond the supposed representation of a whole adult population the authority is essentially a limited one relating to the process of democracy, which instead of imposing its own value system opens up scope for the values of others. For instance, upholding democracy can mean insisting that everyone can vote or join associations campaigning for office or exerting influence on those in office, without specifying the aims and values expressed thereby, subject to two important caveats. First, certain procedural standards of honesty and accountability, such as duty to keep accurate accounts or elect officers, are held applicable to the diverse associations and, second, there remains the difficult and unresolved issue of how far democracy is entitled, or even obliged, to control or prohibit associations and political parties with aims and methods deemed contrary to democracy itself. There is, indeed, a persistent tension between security requirements and the authority – including procedural or process authority – of democracy, illustrated by the arguments over Guantanamo Bay or detention without trial in the UK. None of this implies that the authority of democracy, and its link with truth claims, depends in any way on a consensus theory of truth in the manner of C. S. Peirce or Jürgen Habermas. The fact that democracy’s authority is limited to process and procedure rather than extending to values in general is reflected in the way it claims only to open access to different truth claims, and not to determine truth as such. In turn, that follows from the way legal and political rights of citizenship extend to the right to challenge an existing consensus within a democracy or to reopen issues previously decided by legislation or government action. At the same time, the very limited nature of authority attaching to democracy itself, as distinct from certain groups or individuals acting within a democracy, means that it neither needs nor acquires negative authority.
Accordingly, it was entirely natural from its point of view that prior to the Second World War the Roman Catholic Church tried to resist democracy; a resistance linked to the Catholic critique of the idea of freedom, including as applied in a democratic system, as lacking any normative framework such as could relate either political or economic freedom to justice and order. Now, some democratic constitutions including the German and American contain statements of norms and rights within them. However, quite apart from the vexed question of how seriously these statements are taken by the states concerned (for example, in human rights matters), there remains the sheer fact that even a constitution with an entrenched position is still only law, albeit with a specially privileged status, and it can be changed. It is readily accepted, by constitutional lawyers and political scientists alike, that constitutions reflect the norms of their society and are liable to alteration as and when those norms change over time. That is to say, a democratic constitution does not claim to express the kind of eternal values, and truth claims, which the Catholic church sees itself in the position of upholding. In any case, only some constitutions include any formal normative statements. Others do not, and there is nothing in the usual understanding of democracy to suggest that it depends on a normative framework except in so far as requirements of equal political rights and citizenship (at least in terms of right to vote and therefore take part in selecting a representative government) may bear on values elsewhere. That is to say, democracy remains modest in its value claims, acting as facilitator and regulator rather than as guardian or priest. To some degree, this applies to any ‘rational-legal’ authority in the classic Weberian sense; the truth claims are there confined to knowledge of and ability to carry through a correct process as previously agreed – and which can be altered in the future as practicalities may require. But with actual democracies the position is more radical since they are regularly called upon to choose not merely on questions of process but between norms or values, and sets of them, in contests between established political ideologies as well as any special cases like referendums or legal challenges on ‘moral’ issues like divorce or capital punishment. It is in the very nature of a system which permits its decisions to be contested again at some future date; be it simply the date of the next election or any time when opposition to a decision gathers to the point of forcing a new vote (or judgement by a court), that it is thoroughly temporal and nothing on which it decides or expresses values is to be taken as timeless, i.e., eternal as the Catholic church holds its prescriptions and truths to be.
Since 1940 and Vatican II, and more especially with the Pontificate of John Paul II, the Catholic Church has moved into support for democracy and democratic movements around the world. However, the traditional commitment to the idea of an objective moral order and natural law was not changed, and John Paul’s 1991 encyclical, Centesimus Annus (No. 46), noted the tension with the statement that: ‘Nowadays there is a tendency to claim that agnosticism and sceptical relativism are the philosophy and the basic attitude which correspond to democratic forms of political life’. The brutal encounter with fascism early in the twentieth century demonstrated that Catholicism, and Christianity as a whole, could not escape its problems simply by rejecting democracy and tying its fortunes to political movements which might also reject democracy but in their practice (or, especially in the case of Nazism, their values also) show scant respect for what were understood to be Christian principles. Yet the difficulty of relating to a political system, and likewise with markets an economic system, that by its nature does not claim or represent eternal values remains for any religion or other body of thought which holds that such values exist.
Yet it is that very temporality, and refusal to hold any principles (or actions and institutions supposedly based upon the principles) to be unalterable, which allows democracy to sustain a measure of authority, limited as it may be, in face of arguments and conflicts which include, along with conflicting interests, different ideas about authority and truth claims. The presence of cases of negative authority can be a sensitive indicator of these conflicts, and just because democracy does not pretend to a final closure on them its procedural authority is typically left unchallenged by negative authorities. Democracy leaves the following question of which, or what, authority can in fact provide the best witness to truth claims to the participants to decide for themselves as best they can, with any resulting decision being open to renegotiation at some future date if such arises.