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The word authority (derived from the Latin word auctoritas) can be used to mean the right to exercise power given by the State (in the form of government, judges, police officers, etc.), or by academic knowledge of an area (someone can be an authority on a subject).
When the word Authority is used in the name of an organization, this name usually refers to the governing body upon which such authority is vested; for example, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority or the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. It is also the right to do something.
In various settings
In government, the term authority is often used interchangeably with power. However, their meanings differ: while power is defined as "the ability to influence somebody to do something that he/she would not have done", authority refers to a claim of legitimacy, the justification and right to exercise that power. For example, while a mob has the power to punish a criminal, for example by lynching, people who believe in the rule of law consider that only a court of law has the authority to punish a criminal legally as the law says.
In political philosophy, the jurisdiction of political authority, the location of sovereignty, the balancing of freedom and authority (cf. Cristi 2005), and the requirements of political obligations have been core questions from Plato and Aristotle to the present. Most democratic societies are engaged in an ongoing discussion regarding the legitimate extent of the exercise of governmental authority. In the United States, for instance, there is an apparent prevailing belief that the political system as instituted by the Founding Fathers should accord the populace as much freedom as reasonable, and that government should limit its authority accordingly.
In the discussion regarding the legitimacy of political authority, the two ends of the spectrum of views could be described as either a belief in the absolute freedom of the individual i.e. Political Anarchism, or the belief that there must be a central authority (in the form of a sovereign) that claims ownership and control over the masses i.e. Statism. The argument for political anarchy and anti-statism is made by Michael Huemer PhD, in his 2013 book, The Problem of Political Authority. In that book, he delves into the various justifications used by political theorists throughout history to justify the legitimacy of political authority via the State. On the other hand, one of the main arguments for the legitimacy of the state, the “Social Contract Theory”, is made by Thomas Hobbes in his 1668 book, Leviathan.
Since the emergence of social sciences, authority has become a subject of research in a variety of empirical settings: the family (parental authority), small groups (informal authority of leadership), intermediate organizations such as schools, churches, armies, industries and bureaucracies (organizational and bureaucratic authorities), and society-wide or inclusive organizations, ranging from the most primitive tribal society to the modern nation-state and intermediate organization (political authority).
The definition of authority in contemporary social science remains a matter of debate. According to Michaels in the Encyclopedia of Social Sciences, authority is the capacity, innate or acquired for exercising ascendancy over a group. Other scientists argue that authority is not a capacity but a relationship. It is power that is sanctioned and institutionalized.
Max Weber, in his sociological and philosophical work, identified and distinguished three types of legitimate domination (Herrschaft in German, which generally means 'domination' or 'rule'), that have sometimes been rendered in English translation as types of authority, because domination isn't seen as a political concept in the first place. Weber defined domination (authority) as the chance of commands being obeyed by a specifiable group of people. Legitimate authority is that which is recognized as legitimate and justified by both the ruler and the ruled.
Weber divided legitimate authority into three types:
- The first type discussed by Weber is Rational-legal authority. It is that form of authority which depends for its legitimacy on formal rules and established laws of the state, which are usually written down and are often very complex. The power of the rational legal authority is mentioned in the constitution. Modern societies depend on legal-rational authority. Government officials are the best example of this form of authority, which is prevalent all over the world.
- The second type of authority is Traditional authority, which derives from long-established customs, habits and social structures. When power passes from one generation to another, then it is known as traditional authority. The right of hereditary monarchs to rule furnishes an obvious example. The Tudor dynasty in England and the ruling families of Mewar, in Rajasthan (India) are some examples of traditional authority.
- The third form of authority is Charismatic authority. Here, the charisma of the individual or the leader plays an important role. Charismatic authority is that authority which is derived from "the gift of grace" or when the leader claims that his authority is derived from a "higher power" (e.g. God or natural law or rights) or "inspiration", that is superior to both the validity of traditional and rational-legal authority and followers accept this and are willing to follow this higher or inspired authority, in the place of the authority that they have hitherto been following. Examples in this regard can be NT Rama Rao, a matinee idol, who went on to become one of the most powerful Chief Ministers of Andhra Pradesh.
History has witnessed several social movements or revolutions, against a system of traditional or legal-rational authority, which are usually started by Charismatic authorities. Weber states that what distinguishes authority from coercion, force and power on the one hand, and leadership, persuasion and influence on the other hand, is legitimacy. Superiors, he states, feel that they have a right to issue commands; subordinates perceive an obligation to obey. Social scientists[who?] agree that authority is but one of several resources available to incumbents in formal positions. For example, a Head of State is dependent upon a similar nesting of authority. His legitimacy must be acknowledged, not just by citizens, but by those who control other valued resources: his immediate staff, his cabinet, military leaders and in the long run, the administration and political apparatus of the entire society.
Authority can be created either expressly or by implication; (2) public entities act publicly, using the same means to communicate the grant of authority to their agents that they use to communicate this to third parties; (3) apparent authority describes the situation when a principal has placed restrictions on an agent that are not known to a third party; (4) restrictions on government agents are accomplished in the open, through laws and regulations; (5) everyone, including contractors, are supposed to know the laws and regulations of our government; and thus (6) the concept of "apparent authority" is often inapt when dealing with the government, insofar as the only cognizable restrictions on the agent's authority are deemed known to third parties, shattering any appearance of authority. (14)
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- Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception (2005)
- Józef Maria Bocheński, Was ist Autorität? (1974)
- Renato Cristi, Hegel on Freedom and Authority (2005)
- Stuart Lachs, Means of Authorization: Establishing Hierarchy in Ch'an/Zen Buddhism in America (1999)
- Rafael Domingo Osle, Auctoritas (1999)
- Karl Popper, On the Sources of Knowledge and of Ignorance (1960)
- Max Weber, Economy and Society (1922)
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- Qualitionary - Legal Definitions - Authority
- Appeal to Authority Breakdown
- "Political Obligation" entry in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- Four essays published in the ''International Journal of Philosophical Studies'' from the Robert Papazian Essay Prize Competition on Authority