Coercion and the Nature of Authority

In his incredible chapter on “Authority” in Resurrection and Moral Order, O’Donovan offers this incisive summary of the relationship of coercion and moral authority as constituents of political authority, capturing much of what I sought to get at in my series on coercion a year and a half ago.  

“…political authority certainly owes something to two elements of natural authority, might and tradition (which are forms of strength and age respectively).  When law cannot be enforced, losing the authority conferred by might, it becomes a dead letter which people do not obey.  When law is changed too often and too drastically, losing the authority conferred by tradition, it forfeits public respect, so that people obey it cynically and without conviction.  From this some thinkers have thought it plausible to conclude that the authority of law derives exclusively from ‘power’, i.e. from an established structure of forceful domination.  But this is to overlook an important feature of the relation between authority and might.  Although it is true that the possession of might is an indispensable condition of political authority, so that one who cannot enforce cannot command, it is also the cause that an excessive dependence on might will destroy authority.  One who will only enforce, cannot command either.  Violent regimes lose authority, however much additional support they may claim from tradition.  For true political authority to flourish, there must be a stronger motive of obedience than is furnished by fear of sanction and habitual conformity.  People obey political authority because they think they ought.  It exercises a moral authority which can command a critically reflective obedience.” (127-28)

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