When Truth Serves Power

I see two reasons for being suspicious of truth claims made by authorities, be the authorities religious, political, or otherwise: first, a particular claim may not be true, and second, even if a claim is true and known to be true, it may nonetheless, in being made, buttress the power of the authority making the claim, intentionally or unwittingly on the part of that authority.  The whole truth and nothing but the truth has no immunity to being put to ill, self-serving use.

Hence, suspicion of a self-described authority shouldn’t cease just because one knows or believes the authority’s claims to be true, especially if any of those claims pertain to his or her authority to express the truth.  We can and should distinguish between the content of a truth claim, the motive behind it, and the consequences of it.  When a self-described authority claims to be a mouthpiece for true religion or true philosophy or true politics or true science, they’re likely to receive a quizzical eyebrow from me. Or they would, if I had the facial dexterity to raise just one eyebrow.

I’m not wholly against arguments from authority or arguments that presuppose a truth claim premised on the say-so of some authority; they can be very useful in discussions with interlocutors who accept that authority.  However, I’m just cynical enough to think they merit a healthy suspicion, even when I assent to the content of the claim.  Power corrupts, and when truth serves power, truth can take on a corrupting influence.  This is true in politics, but perhaps even more so in religion, where power-plays invoke infallible divine authority, and turf-wars are fought over holy ground.

(Image: Lord Acton)

Kyle Cupp

Kyle Cupp is a freelance writer who blogs about culture, philosophy, politics, postmodernism, and religion. He is a contributor to the group Catholic blog Vox Nova. Kyle lives with his wife, son, and daughter in North Texas. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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15 Responses

  1. Tony says:

    What’s the difference between the self-serving use of authority, on the one hand, and institutional preservation or the generational transmission of truth, on the other? The self-consciously suspicious tend to underestimate the burden of that transmission and to forget that they belong to a well-educated class for whom constant suspicion is not socially disruptive. (Doesn’t the Church have it’s own versions of Murray’s Belmont and Fishtown?) The Church must accommodate the suspicious and the gullible, the genius and the idiot, the mystic and the catechist. This doesn’t mean that an effective pope amounts to Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, but it also doesn’t mean that the suspicious aesthete can save souls with nothing more than a kiss. We have to learn to appreciate the terrible, tragic beauty of the imprimatur. (Ha!)

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      What’s the difference between the self-serving use of authority, on the one hand, and institutional preservation or the generational transmission of truth, on the other?

      In theory, they’re two different acts, with two distinct intentions. In practice, they sometimes overlap. Authorities are needed in the fields of religion, politics, science, and so forth–there can be no transmission of truth without them–but for the two reasons I gave above, it’s prudent, in my view, to approach them and their claims with a healthy suspicion.

      • Rodak says:

        I don’t know that it’s a given that “authorities” are needed in any field. There is a distinction that can be made between an “authority” and an “expert.” I will grant that experts are needed to guide the work of researchers in any field of knowledge. But the word “authority” has a connotation of compulsion to it. One takes guidance from an expert; but one obeys an authority. One does not need to follow an expert, if the expert seems to be leading one into error. The same is not necessarily understood to be true of an authority.

        • Kyle Cupp says:

          Decisions have to be made, and those who make them are to an extent authorities. Take science. Authorities decide who and what gets funding, gets published, and gets applied to other areas.

        • Tony says:

          If the “field” is human nature and its relation to transcendence, what then? Smart people are welcome to confront mortality through “experts” like Voegelin and Ricoeur, or to look over the latest brain science to account for strange experiences and beliefs, but what do ordinary people do and how do they order their lives accordingly? The connotation that “authority” carries is of order first, only secondarily of compulsion.

  2. We can and should distinguish between the content of a truth claim, the motive behind it, and the consequences of it.

    In a sense, however, you’re urging us not to do that. If we really distinguish the content of the truth claim from the motive behind it and its consequences, then we are not heeding your admonition to be suspicious of truth claims made by authorities.

    Perhaps my gripe here is with a distinction that I see as implicit in what you write but that you don’t seem to acknowledge if I understand you correctly. It seems to me there is a distinction to be drawn between “truth claims made by authorities”–which I read as “the content of truth claims”–and the actual act of making the truth claim. Whatever the truth of the actual claim, I’m willing to concede that the established authority doesn’t make that claim outside of existing power relations.

    Ick…I’m confused by my own wording. I fear I have merely repeated what you wrote in your original post.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      No worries, Pierre. My posts are generally written as a way to work out my own confusions. Anyhow, yes, we can distinguish between the truth-claim itself and the act of expressing it, both of which call for suspicion, and both of which may arise within the context of power plays. The latter obviously, but I think even the former can be the product of power, especially of the claim itself is a construct meant to function as an exercise of power autonomously from the original act of expression.

  3. Rodak says:

    It is possible to establish order without following it up by making it compulsory. Compulsory order is at its best in the laws of physics. In the realm of human behavior compulsory order is at its best where established as the set of rules governing a game. The only route(s) to true spirituality are creative ones. Enforced morality holds no virtue.

  4. Tom Van Dyke says:

    “The Magisterium of Nuns.” If it ain’t one, it’s t’other.

  5. Brandon says:

    I’m a little puzzled as to what your argument has to do with authorities at all — both reasons are just reasons to be suspicious of anyone who says anything, first, because what they say may not be true, and, second, it may serve to buttress or contribute to the power of the person making the claim, intentionally or unwittingly. Power is not something that only exists in authorities, as many authorities found out too late, and the power that corrupts is not even necessarily the power that you have: even trying to get it can corrupt. What you’re really presenting here is just an argument for being suspicious of any kind of testimony; it could be re-written as an argument for being suspicious of people generally, without any major change at all.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      I agree that the first reason for suspicion would pertain to anyone who says anything, but the second has a more limited pertinence; it pertains to those who have, or as you note, seek power in the act of making a truth-claim. Authorities would be included among those related to power, and so both reasons pertain to them, albeit not only to them. I agree. I’ve lately been writing skeptically of authorities and wanted to clarify that my suspicion doesn’t preclude my assenting to what is claimed.

      • Brandon says:

        That makes sense — in effect, you’re simply arguing that one should be realistic about the effect power structures have on what truths people present, and how they present them.

  6. Rodak says:

    Some types of “authority” exercise power that is acknowledged as contingent upon specific situations and relative to prevailing conditions. Other types of authority claim to wield power by filtering the Absolute through their personal interpretations of Truth and their pronouncements thereupon. The latter type, to the extent they are granted the power to which they lay claim, are by far the more dangerous.

  7. GordonHide says:

    Yes, but in science the authorities one defers to are the scientists, not those who control what they research, whether it gets published or whether the knowledge is applied to practical applications. – That is one defers to the actual experts. (One hopes).

    • Tom Van Dyke says:

      Our brother Aquinas waits for you. He has so much to share. I love him and thank our Creator for him every day. Really, I do.