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Study Notes

Authority (Conservatism)

Level:
A-Level
Board:
AQA, Edexcel

Last updated 24 Jun 2020

Authority means the ability / power / right to give orders, make decisions and enforce compliance with those decisions and laws. It is usually associated with the existence of a person or organisation, such as a government, that has political or administrative control and power.

According to conservatives, without a sense of hierarchy and respect for authority, society would descend into a state of anarchy. Such a world would be strongly disliked by conservatives who – by temperament and instinct – prize social order and harmony above all else. Conservatives also believe that authority enables us to lead a more fulfilling and purposeful life. The public have often been prepared to surrender a little freedom in order to enjoy security, which may also explain the existence of the social contract (i.e. the agreement – formal or informal – of members of society to cooperate for the benefit of wider society, usually by sacrificing some personal or individual freedoms in return for state protection).

Our understanding of authority owes much to the work of the German sociologist Max Weber. He argued that authority can be based upon charisma, tradition or rational-legal factors. Of these, the conservative state of mind is naturally inclined towards that of traditional authority. Unlike charismatic authority (authority stemming from people’s devotion to a popular figure) and rational-legal authority (authority stemming from law), traditional authority reflects the customs of that particular society. Those institutions that have built upon their authority within society from one generation to the next – such as the army and the monarchy – are strongly defended by conservatives. This viewpoint is encapsulated in G.K. Chesterton’s quote that “tradition means giving votes to … our ancestors.”

There are a number of prominent theorists associated with the conservative stance on authority. In his seminal work ‘The Prince’ (1532) Niccolo Machiavelli argued that the people need authority in order to prevent social collapse. To achieve this, Machiavelli offered advice to the statesman. In one of his most well-known passages, he argued that it is better for a statesman to be feared than loved. A statesman (or prince) must however avoid acting with cruelty as this may lead to hatred. This would place himself in a vulnerable position and thereby lose his position. According to Machiavelli, the Prince must always seek to secure his own glory and position. As such, he cannot be bound by ordinary notions of morality. The inevitable conclusion here is that ‘the end justifies the means.’

Another influential conservative theorist is the seventeenth century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes. He argued that without order we would revert to a state of nature in which life would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” It would also be characterised by “a war of all against all.” In order to prevent this, Hobbes argued in favour of a “Leviathan” whose authority would develop from the people themselves. Crucially, Hobbes claimed that a Leviathan would be prevented from becoming a tyrant because he – like everyone else – wished to preserve a state of affairs most favourable to himself.

During the Enlightenment, the Scottish philosopher David Hume argued that the most satisfactory form of government would be based upon uniform and general laws. He believed that such a government was most likely to please those living under its command. Hume also claimed that any subdivision of power is legitimate provided it is established by custom and authority. Hume, Hobbes and Machiavelli can be viewed as having a conservative mindset towards authority – although some have argued that Hobbes adopts a degree of liberalism within his construction of a social contract.

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