Critical Thinking 7: Authority and Credibility

The Middle Way involves the avoidance of absolute authorities, but also the avoidance of the converse – dismissing all authority. In between we have the idea of justified authority that can be based on experience. Recognised fallacies in Critical Thinking, such as the irrelevant appeal to authority or the genetic fallacy, reinforce this need to avoid dogmatic extremes in thinking about authority. John_Caird_(theologian)Cognitive biases such as the authority bias also reflect psychological evidence of our tendency to uncritically obey authorities, especially reflected in the famous Milgram experiments.

The basic fallacy recognised in Critical Thinking in relation to authority is the irrelevant appeal to authority. This involves the assumption that an authority figure must be correct in whatever they claim, whether or not it is relevant to their particular expertise. Many adverts trade on this by using celebrities to endorse products that they have no particular expertise in. The following US commercial from the 1950’s is a classic example:

Nevertheless, because doctors are probably not a relevant authority to consult on which brand of cigarette to smoke, this does not imply that they do not have any authority. I am likely to rely on my doctor’s authority if he prescribes me a drug for a serious condition – not because I think him/her infallible, but because experience suggests that doctors are the best available source of information. The justification is largely second-hand, but no worse for that: the experience of most other people, that they have communicated to me, is that doctors are the best available guides to the complex field of medicine. To dismiss this authority on the basis of some mistakes made by doctors (even some serious ones) would be to make the reverse fallacy.

Another way of putting this more positively is that doctors have credibility. We are obliged to make judgements of credibility constantly, when deciding which books to read, which experts to consult, whose advice to heed etc, when (as often) we have no direct understanding of the issues. There are various criteria you can consciously apply to reflect on credibility: reputation, ability to gain information, vested interest, expertise, corroborating or conflicting information, and previously-known tendency towards bias. None of these are decisive by themselves, but they can be weighed together to try to reach a justified judgement.

It would be unjustified to give a huge weighting to one way of judging but ignore the others. For example, people often have some kind of vested interest in your acceptance of the information they offer (e.g. now, if you read this blog post, I have some vested interest in the shape of a vague hope that this will encourage you to buy one of my books in future). However, vested interest does not necessarily mean that the information should be treated with suspicion, or that the person’s motives are dominated by it, and if we dismissed everyone with a vested interest, we would never consult any experts about anything. Similarly, we often over-rate the effect of one well-known event on someone’s reputation: but if someone made a mistake or even committed a crime in the past, this might just as well be taken as a sign that they are likely to avoid that mistake in the future than that they will repeat it.

The authority bias, then, is like a single over-rated criterion of credibility. If, as in the Milgram experiments, you’re prepared to give painful electric shocks to others because a man in a white coat tells you to do so, you’re assuming that they have absolute authority because of their apparent expertise, and not considering the possibility of a problem with their moral judgement. Similarly, in a religious context, if you think that the fact that the book of Leviticus forbids homosexuality offers a relevant moral command for today, you are effectively taking the reputation of that religious text within a certain limited group and using this as your sole criterion for its credibility, whilst ignoring the lack of relevant expertise of the people who created the text, and the conflicts with other more recent sources of information.

Appeals to authority at their broadest are genetic fallacies – that is, the assumption that a claim is absolutely right because of where it comes from. This can apply to people, texts, governments, traditions, supposed intuitions and supposed observations. The basic problem is that wherever you think it has come from, you are still responsible for interpreting it and judging that it is justified and credible. If we take responsibility for our own judgements, the authority bias becomes much less likely.


Do the following appear to be justifiable uses of authority? Why/ why not?

1. A father tells his three-year old daughter to stop slapping her sister. When she asks “Why?” he replies “Because I said so.”

2. A traditional Thai Buddhist buys a caged bird and releases it to gain merit. When questioned about this by a Western visitor, he explains that this is supported by Buddhist tradition and obeys the precepts of the Buddha.

3. A Member of Parliament votes against her conscience. When questioned by a constituent she explains that she was pressured by her party whip, and risked being de-selected by her party if she refused to vote with the party.

4. An amendment to the law in Afghanistan restores the right of a husband to use violence against his wife. The amendment is justified with reference to the Qur’an.

5. A disruptive student is told to leave the classroom by a teacher. The student refuses to leave, on the grounds that the teacher “Can’t just boss me around – I’ve got rights”.

6. A doctor gives advice on diet to an obese patient, which the patient refuses to follow. The patient points out that the doctor is overweight himself.

7. A husband had an extra-marital affair which was discovered, apologised for and forgiven a year ago. Since then his relationship with his wife has been good and trust seems to have been restored. However, now she is again suspicious about his fidelity (though the evidence is ambiguous). When the husband protests his innocence, she refuses to believe him, on the grounds that she was deceived before.

About Robert M Ellis

Robert M Ellis is the founder and chair of the Middle Way Society, and author of a number of books on Middle Way Philosophy, including the introductory 'Migglism' and the more in-depth 'Middle Way Philosophy' series. He has a Christian background, and about 20 years' past experience of practising Buddhism, but it was his Ph.D. studies in Philosophy that set him on the track of developing a systematic account of the Middle Way beyond any specific tradition. He has earned his living mainly by teaching, and more recently by online tutoring.

3 thoughts on “Critical Thinking 7: Authority and Credibility

  1. My attempt for this week!
    The father can be seen as a justified authority with a vested interest in teaching the child to be non violent.
    Here is a genetic fallacy, an absolute authority, an irrelevant appeal to authority.
    Voting against ones conscience – the justifiction is second hand, the whips have an authority bias which sways th voter.
    The ruling is using an absolute authority – genetic fallacy.
    The student questions authority, an authority bias.
    The doctor has justification to advise a diet, the doctor has a credible augument. The paient uses a reverse fallacy by turning the question around.
    Experience of husband creates doubt but he has a vested interest to believe wife if he wants to stay with her. A second hand justification.

  2. 1. This use of authority may be effective in the short term especially if fear and coercion are in play. However, even at this early stage if one tries to explain to the child why you feel such behaviour is inappropriate I feel you would be increasing the chances of the child in the long term becoming a more autonomous moral agent than if their actions were dictated by fear or shame. So overall I would say this use of authority is not particularly helpful (but understandable!).
    2. This is an example of the genetic fallacy and is unjustified as it involves an unquestioned appeal to authority without taking into account many conditions that potentially run counter to such a position.
    3. This is somewhat dependent on how divergent the vote is to her values, how many times she had had to do this and whether her opinion was respected at all within her party. But on the whole, if her values in general were in alignment with those of her party, I would say this would be an appropriate response to authority, acknowledging being part of something bigger than herself. If people in an organisation never at times “swallowed” certain directives for the greater good, it would be like herding cats.
    4.Another example of the genetic fallacy for obvious reasons.
    5. This would depend to some extent on the degree of disruption and possibly how often the student had been disruptive but if it was significant I feel the student demonstrates an unjustified response to authority. There is insufficient recognition that it is part of a teacher’s job (and credibility) to maintain a degree of order in class in order to allow effective learning to take place.
    6. This is an example of the reverse fallacy. There maybe other reasons why the doctor is overweight and if if the doctor does make “the mistake” of not following the advice herself that doesn’t make the vice invalid.
    7.Although understandable, this ties in to your point about overrating the effect of a mistake someone has made and that the person might be just as likely to avoid making that mistake in the future as committing it. Given that trust had appeared to have been restored, I would say her position is unjustified.

  3. Here are my own judgements on these examples, but please don’t interpret them with an authority bias!
    1. I think the issue here is whether the three-year old would be capable of understanding any further justification for his instructions. If she could, then his crude appeal to his own authority is unnecessary, and the father may be encouraging a habit of authority bias in the child.
    2. This appears to be a crude genetic fallacy, especially as the beliefs about merit that underlie it are beyond experience, so the Buddhist cannot have tested them in experience.
    3. This one is highly debatable, so it doesn’t surprise me that Barry and Norma gave totally opposed answers. I think the key question here is whether the MP uses this appeal to the consequences to justify her decision, or whether she admits the existence of an unresolved conflict between authority and conscience. The appeal to the authority of the party does not make the decision necessarily right, especially when this conflicts with her moral experience. On the other hand, the consequences provide part of the conditions one needs to take into account when making the decision.
    4. Absolute religious revelation is clearly genetic fallacy, as both Barry and Norma recognised.
    5. I agree with Barry here. The appeal the student involves a negative authority bias, or an absolute appeal to ‘rights’ that don’t take into account the context.
    6. I agree with both again. This is an example of tu quoque – in this case a dismissal of justified authority due to hypocrisy.
    7. Again I agree with Barry here. The wife absolutises the past mistake and uses this as the sole criterion.

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