Monday, August 13, 2012

Questioning “Question Authority”

Engineers work in an authority structure that coordinates their individual efforts with the larger purposes of a corporation, a government, or an entire industry.  Authority is one of those taken-for-granted concepts that we don’t often give much thought to.  There are those who view all authority with suspicion, and for some reason they seem especially widespread in New England, where “Question Authority” bumper stickers are almost as common as license plates; at least they were when I lived there in the 1990s.  The question I’d like to ask today is, can you be a good engineer and question authority too?   That is, is it consistent to be simultaneously an ethical engineer, and to maintain a fundamentally skeptical and judgmental attitude toward all authorities?

For help, I will turn to Victor Lee Austin, whose book Up With Authority is the best explication of the many ramifications of the idea of authority that I have ever seen.  Although Austin is himself a theologian, he draws support from philosophers such as Yves R. Simon and Michael Polanyi, and the point he makes that bears on our question is one that believers and non-believers alike can understand.

Austin says early in his book that authority has a dual aspect.  Normally we think of a person in authority as having power to decide important matters.  This is the facet of authority that first comes to mind when I think about authority with respect to engineering.  In an architectural firm, for example, only certain licensed architects and engineers are authorized to sign off on blueprints (or whatever the electronic equivalent is these days).  But using the word “authorized” in that way brings up a second aspect of authority.

Authorities don’t just get up one day and declare themselves authorities.  They have to be authorized.  In the case of licensed engineers, the state board in charge of licensing engineers authorizes the engineer to sign off on designs.  So authorities must receive their authority from, well, other authorities.  And authorities, as Austin points out, are ultimately other persons.   Even when we cite a licensing board or a book as an authority, we really refer to the person or people behind these intermediate entities.  So you can’t have authority without speaking of authorities, that is, persons who have authority.

That raises the structural question of where authority ultimately comes from.  I mean, if A is authorized by B and B is authorized by C through F, can we ever trace the lines of authority to their final source?  Where does the buck stop, in other words?

Austin, being a theologian, spills these particular beans early in the book.  The ultimate authority, he says, is God.  But God, being a “clean different kind of a thing” from anything or anyone else, is not simply another link in the chain of authority.  The clearest way God exerts authority is through his people, that is, believers, although he has many other ways of doing so.  But if you don’t believe in God, where does that leave you with respect to authority?

If you believe that human beings are the highest form of sentient life, then human beings must also be the ultimate source of authority.  And this hypothesis, if you want to call it that, appears to cover a lot of ground, at least if you don’t look too deeply.  For the nonbeliever as well as the believer, authority forms a complex web of interrelated authorizations and mutual consents.  Take an engineering licensing board as an example.  The people on the board are (or should be) licensed engineers themselves, whose licensing authority comes from a state government, but government itself acknowledges their authority by recognizing them as technically qualified to authorize other engineers.  And most of what Austin says about the various kinds of authority—social, epistemic (having to do with knowledge), and political—is supported by philosophical arguments that nonbelievers can at least understand, if not necessarily agree to.

So if authority is a necessary thing that engineering cannot function without, what about questioning authority?  Austin covers this in a discussion of disputed authority.  Human authorities make mistakes, and that means unquestioning obedience to all authority is an overly simplistic way to live.  But he points out that attitude is everything in a situation where you believe an authority above you is in error.

On the one hand, you can allow yourself to rebel against the authority and all its works.  You may let yourself have thoughts like,  “Well, if that’s what he’s going to do, I hope the whole project goes to smash.”  With an attitude like this, you are one with the “Question Authority” bumper stickers and in fundamental revolt against the entire organization.  If this is your attitude, quitting your job would be more honorable than staying and undermining the enterprise from within.

The attitude Austin encourages in situations where authority must be questioned is one that philosopher Michael Polanyi exemplified before he left science to pursue philosophy.  Polanyi made a fundamental but unexpected discovery about an aspect of surface chemistry, but it took him upwards of twenty years of persistent research and accepting the repeated rejection of his papers before he managed to convince the scientific community of the truth of what he had found.  Even as the peer-review process turned against him, he respected the basic authority structure it represented and worked within its constraints to make the truth known.

This attitude toward authority, of respectful disagreement while preserving the basic structure, goes a long way toward summarizing a lot of engineering-ethics thought.  A whole book could be written about engineering ethics and authority, and while I’m not going to write it, it would be a good book to read.

So what’s the answer to our question?  Normal engineering requires one both to be an authority and to be under authority.  Anyone who arrogates authority to himself or herself without respecting superior authorities will not last long in engineering (or most other fields, either).  But now and then, you may find that your authorities, whoever they are, have made an error, ranging from a mistake in a textbook to an order to falsify test records for an engineering project.  It will then be your role to deal respectfully but truthfully with the error in a way that preserves the overall authority structure, but moves the organization toward the freedom for human flourishing that Austin recognizes as the ultimate purpose of all authority. 

Sources: Victor Lee Austin’s book Up With Authority:  Why We Need Authority to Flourish as Human Beings (New York:  T&T Clark International, 2010) was brought to my attention by an interview with the author on the Mars Hill Audio Journal (

1 comment:

  1. Great post!

    I once saw a bumper sticker that read, "Who are you to tell me to question authority?"

    I would only add that your last paragraph suggests that one feature of a healthy authority structure is a clear and well-accepted process by which important information, and especially information that could contradict persons in charge, moves *up* the hierarchy so that it can be assimilated into the decision-making process.

    It puts me in mind of CRM (cockpit resource management).