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What is Moral Authority?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 16, 2024
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Moral authority means the underpinning philosophy that creates or interprets laws, or it can have other definitions. Many individuals, especially elected officials, are deemed to have the greatest authority. Alternately, the law itself may be viewed as having authority to create morals, and respected as the source upon which people base their behavior. The matter gets much more complex, especially in societies where individuals have diverse views on what constitutes morality.

In a theocracy, moral authority comes from the dominant religion. This means laws of the religion and civil and criminal law are extremely close because religious leaders control the government. This doesn’t mean all laws are agreed upon because interpretations of religions vary, even within fundamental sects. Still, religious leaders are viewed as having moral authority to create and interpret law, and this authority derives from adherence to specific religious teachings.

Sectarian governments decide from where moral authority is derived to make and interpret law. Places like the US began with laws loosely inspired by Judeo-Christian concepts. The founding fathers sought to give people freedom of religion, but a general sense pervaded that laws based on Christian philosophy had the greatest moral authority. The framers and each state went farther by constructing ways people could be involved in determining law. By giving people right to vote, states and the federal government gave the voting public an opportunity and authority to determine what was moral.

As the US matured, it extended this authority to more people by expanding voting rights. Such authority isn’t always direct. A person can elect a government official but not make him or her vote in a certain way. Judges are sometimes appointed instead of being elected and they interpret standing laws or make new laws through setting precedents. Essentially, moral authority is spread around in the US, and isn’t always evenly distributed.

What makes moral authority extremely complex in diverse populations is that everyone doesn’t agree upon the same underpinnings of basic law. People may not even agree on what ought to be the authority — some say religion, others say the market, and yet others suggest majority opinion. When certain controversial laws are on the books, those greatly opposed may feel it necessary to practice civil disobedience where permissible, and they can do things like peacefully protest. They may not have options on disobeying a law in other ways. If a tax collected funds an abortion clinic and a person doesn’t support abortion, he usually can’t refuse to pay taxes without facing consequences.

Diversity of opinion, theological background, and interpretation leads to questions about who has authority to make moral decisions. These questions play out in courtrooms, where judges must interpret laws from a moral sense. Elected representatives to government also argue over moral authority, and the voting public argues over which people most appear capable of wielding this type of authority. This leads to regular re-evaluation of laws and changes in voter opinion as to who best represents a moral view.

MyLawQuestions is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a MyLawQuestions contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By Logicfest — On Jun 16, 2014

@Markerrag -- but hasn't agreeing on what the proper source of underlying morality always been a problem in the United States? That's one of the things that makes this nation great -- we are free to discuss such complex topics openly and no one is penalized (in theory) for coming up with the "wrong" answer.

Still, one major shift we have seen is that the Judeo-Christian concepts that the majority once took for granted are not as widely accepted as they once were. That has caused some major shifts in both society and the laws that have stood for centuries.

By Markerrag — On Jun 15, 2014

Wow. What a complex subject. In the United States, we can't even agree on whether laws were made to legislate morality or whether laws merely reflect the moral values of the nation. If we can't even agree on that, then agreeing on a common set of morals is downright impossible.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a MyLawQuestions contributor, Tricia...
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