Does authority encourage virtue or does authority inhibit virtue? Perhaps authority opposes virtue. Jorge asked about my view of authority over lunch last Sunday. He told me the question came up during a trucking run to Salt Lake City when he encountered several Utah highway patrol officers apprehending a long line of cars and trucks for exceeding the speed limit. Jorge had been cruising at the speed limit so the cops didn’t bother him. Because he is Hispanic, Jorge has to take extra steps not to arouse the ire of the police.
He says that he considers himself to be a law-abiding citizen who should not have to worry about patrolmen and the police. However, the recent problem of police violence against minorities during traffic checks for minor violations has set him on edge. Jorge worries that he might be pulled over for a burned out clearance light on a trailer, or that he might be accused of speeding. So he takes extra care to check over the lighting and takes extra precautions to avoid suspicion by the police.
I wondered if taking extra steps for safe driving isn’t a good thing.
Jorge said, taking extra precautions for safety is a good thing. His employer has a stringent check list that all the drivers follow to the letter. Jorge said that he feels he must take even more precautions to avoid encounters with law enforcement officers. My friend reminded me that he had had a scary night-time encounter with the Wyoming highway patrol a couple of years ago.
Three clearance lights on the top of the trailer were not lit because they had burned out somewhere in western Nebraska or near the state border in Wyoming. The blue lights from a patrol cruiser flashed behind him, so Jorge pulled his rig over to the shoulder of the road, just outside of Cheyenne.
The patrolman asked for Jorge’s driving permit and the truck documents. As he handed over the papers, the officer suddenly aimed his gun at Jorge and ordered him to get out of the truck. Soon, two more patrol vehicles arrived, blue lights flashing, then they flanked the truck. The patrolmen also approached Jorge with their pistols drawn. Jorge was not arrested but was accused of being an illegal alien. The cops ordered Jorge to open the doors of his trailer. The patrolmen became more agitated when they saw that the trailer contained legitimate freight and nothing else. About an hour later, the first patrolman allowed Jorge to lock the trailer doors and resume driving.
Instead of inspiring respect and admiration for the authority of the police, the incident fueled fear and hatred from Jorge. The overt, excessive display of authority did not cause virtuous action, only submission and primitive obedience of authority.
Jorge says he is mindful of his negative attitude towards police officers. He understands that most of them are not mean-spirited and abusive. He says he has been working on his emotional reactions about police encounters, but having loaded firearms aimed at your face is a very traumatic experience. Jorge says he feels lucky to be alive.
I told Jorge that I always felt that he is a man of integrity, honesty, and virtue. There should be no need for anybody to coerce him into “behaving” or complying out of fear of authority. I added that I have sometimes worried about my friend because of the current string of racist attacks by policemen on males of color, in many areas of the United States. Because he spends so much time on the roads, his chances of being pulled over are greater than those of the average motorist.
Jorge said that he has been analyzing the aspect of authority ever since he watched the Utah patrol pulling over the string of vehicles recently.
My friend says that he has never been arrested and charged with any crime, not even a traffic infraction. This is not due to any sort of fear of the law. He understands that mindful, careful driving makes life easier and more pleasant. He hasn’t had to worry about making excuses for his driving nor endanger other drivers on the road. His happy and satisfying experience is now clouded by fear of encounters with patrolmen. The actions of racist cops harm the reputation and credibility of police as a whole in the minds of many people. Because of this, the authority of the police is diminished and public respect for authority is lowered.
I agreed that public respect for authority is important in a free country but obedience of authority out of fear is something that is unwholesome in a democracy. Authority can be a good thing in some cases, but if a person is truly virtuous, authority is unnecessary. In fact, authority can contradict virtue and honest morality. Authority not only cultivates fear, but it leads to shallow, mechanical imitation. Authority then becomes antithetical to virtue.
Jorge mentioned that enforced public “morality”, whether by government or any other institution, is not virtue. Socially enforced “morality” is not virtuous because it admits competition, greed, and ambition. In so doing, social morality encourages immorality because people tend to rebel against efforts to enforce morality. When a person deeply wishes to understand virtue and live a virtuous life, social morality and authority is destructive to that.
I understood exactly what Jorge said. I mentioned that some people might say that chaos and anarchy might result if people were not inhibited by authority and that there is a fine line between a truly free society and an anarchial, anything goes type of country. This is not true, if people are virtuous. In fact the line is not fine, but quite wide. Social morality is a system of restrictions. Virtue is thinking and acting out of consideration and love for others. When a person considers the wishes and well-being of another person, we can say that virtue is present.
Jorge affirmed my observation but added that while thoughtful people may agree with such a view, most will say such thinking comes from the ivory towers of idealism. Since virtue is inhibited by authority, any attempt to institute virtue instantly devolves into moralism. Moralistic people have tried to institute their versions of behavior control for centuries. Such actions ultimately fail because people resent dogmatic control, the oppression of theocracy or authoritarian regimes.
Just as there will be people who are virtuous in mind and deed, there will always be those who wish to do only as they please, regardless of whether or not their actions harm or oppress others. I asked how does society balance between virtue and authority?
Jorge admitted there will probably always need to be some sort of authority for those who fail to cultivate virtue. Finding limits to authority that allow basic social cohesion yet does not overstep and legislate social morality is an ages old question. The problem is subjective. That is, each person will have a different solution to the conundrum.
To me, beauty, love, and virtue are not cold, mechanical things that must be cultivated and enforced. Just as fear of authority hinders freedom, social morality hinders clear thinking. Without virtue, there is no clarity in life.
Moralists wish to engrave rules in stone. Virtuous people wish to live wholesome, loving lives freely. I don’t know if a satisfactory balance can be found or prescribed. If that balance should somehow be discovered, won’t it immediately become dogmatic and moralistic?
Jorge said he has no cookie cutter solution to this problem, either. We need to examine our own lives and find out why we wish to impose authority or submit to authority. We have a desire for permanence and security. To acquire a secure state of mind, we believe that we must be competitive and acquisitive at the expense of others. We feel we need to control others and ourselves. This leads to the dullness of social morality. To understand and transcend moralism and mechanical certainty, we need to allow ourselves the freedom of clarity.
We both agree that moving towards virtue is an individual act that can be personally risky. Whenever people question the accepted moralism of their culture, their personal safety and security can sometimes be taken away. Authority wishes to retain and increase its influence. Authority feels threatened by virtue. Authority claims power through moralism. Virtue is antithetical to morality. Virtue brings strength through empathy and love. Virtue cannot be enforced. Finding virtue is like finding love.
Jorge offered to help wash the dishes after our meal. We cleared the table and began discussing more mundane matters.