When I use the phrase “practice of moral authority” there are three important words involved, and all of them require some explaining. First, practices. Practices have two important meanings I want to describe. First, in a larger sense, practices refer to a particular category of actions, maintained within particular physical spaces and through time within a tradition. In this sense, medicine is a practice, and so are science, gender, and race, among other things. Social scientists and philosophers have already done a lot of important work to show how these categories are not only practiced in real life, but they are also broader practices, in the expansive sense I am here using the term. Boundaries are an important part of this expansive sense of practices: practitioners within a particular category generally look for ways to indicate how their practice are different from similar categories. Astronomers and astrologists both study stars, and astronomers want to show how the two groups are different, primarily by showing how the practices themselves are different: in doing so, their “boundary-work” is both about a broad and abstract category rooted in explicit action (what I’m calling a practice) and about the explicit identity of a community (astronomers) and individuals (specific astronomers making these distinctions).
Practices can also have a smaller and much more specific meaning. By this term, I refer not to the expansive sense of the word practice I used earlier but to the much more specific instantiations of those broad categories. If medicine is a practice in the first sense, then a physical exam is a practice in the sense I mean it here. While there are important elements of these smaller practices that are conscious (e.g. how the doctor thinks about the patient’s specific symptoms), much of the routine is subconscious and habituated (e.g. how the doctor holds the stethoscope). Also, while practices in the first sense are broad, conceptual, and rooted in time, practices in the second sense are specific, habituated, and rooted in space (specifically, the human body). I will alternate between both of these meanings in this book.
By moral, I do not necessarily mean the explicit study of what is right and wrong, and neither do I mean my own description of the best action an any given moment. Instead, I refer to a much broader and more diffuse sensibility, a vague and hard to articulate feeling that someone is living life the way it ought to be lived. This sense of morality is rooted not in explicit rules and careful deliberations but in subconscious habits and the maintenance of everyday emotional expectations. To be clear, the sense of how one ought to live, at least as I refer to it, is socially constructed: I am not interested in how people come to know God’s law or the moral truth that exists outside of human consciousness (though I am quite interested in the people who claim they are doing exactly that). My project is descriptive, not normative. Moral, for my purposes, is not so much instantiating God’s law or the moral truth as it is living out the taken-for-granted rules that a community has established within its tradition. Morality is therefore less important as a series of discrete questions about particular actions and more relevant as a way to frame what a good life resembles.
A good life is ultimately a series of moments of course, but morality rarely takes its shape in those moments through careful deliberations about whether particular actions are right or wrong. It is instead either a set of resonant experiences through which unconscious moral expectations align with everyday interactions with people, objects, and events or an experience of dissonance in which someone feels an emotional struggle, generally through a sense of disgust, fear, annoyance, or regret. People might not be able to articulate precisely why they feel these emotions, or their explanations might be inconsistent with some of their other commitments or claims. This inarticulacy and inconsistency is the result of a few factors. First, morality as I’m describing it here is a repertoire of various visions of what a good life might resemble, with various, often incommensurable virtues idealized at once (for example, a courageous person, in enacting their courage, might be insufficiently generous). Second, and perhaps most important, morality is as socially necessary and constitutive as language and culture. Like languages, moralities are localized to a particular community and only make sense socially and historically; they are largely subconscious, with rules that are not necessarily explicable by their users; they are finite and limited, even as they are also expansive with multiple, often-conflicting ways to either communicate a good idea or live a good life.
Finally, the word authority. By authority I mean a kind of power that is socially accepted. If power is simply the ability to do something or to make someone do something, then authority, at its most simple, is the general social acceptance of that power. For example, a parent has authority over a child when that child accepts a parent’s power. Authority can be a rationally determined decision, and it can also be an unconscious commitment rooted in tradition. For example, Americans grow up respecting the authority of science, rarely even consciously choosing to permit that power (in contrast, someone might grudgingly acknowledge the authority of a meeting’s chairperson). For my purposes, authority is important as a source of social power, that is, a power over others and a power in how one relates to others in everyday interactions. Even when authority is only the power over one’s own life, it is necessarily social in that it implies the permission of others in a community to do so.
To say someone has a certain authority means that they have implicit permission from the rest of their community to do what they do. Yet it also means more than this, because authority is generally rooted not only in permission but also in expertise. To say a doctor has authority does not only mean that doctor has permission to act; it also is to say that there is a good reason that doctor has permission to act. It is to say that a tradition has established certain implicit and explicit metrics through which permission is granted and people deem other people capable of and free to perform particular actions. This authority is often subconscious and implicitly provided, but it can also be denied or challenged. When I call something a “moral authority” I mean a combination of the two last terms listed above: a generally implicit permission and consent from other members of a community that someone has acquired sufficient standing or experience to perform particular actions related to making of a good life. After all, all actions and all authorities are not necessarily moral: one might have developed an authority to prepare coffee, but in most communities, this would not relate to one’s capacity to live a good life.
We are now ready for my definition of “practices of moral authority,” by which I refer to practices, in either the broad or the specific sense, with which individuals and communities both practice and confirm their capacity to live life as it ought to be lived. These moral practices gain their authority via the observation, permission, and encouragement of fellow members of their community (even if, as is often the case, the observation, permission, and encouragement are all performed without conscious deliberation). Because both morality and the first sense of practices are expansive terms, these practices of moral authority can be leveraged as tools through which to reconcile a community’s commitments and ongoing tradition with the goals, expectations, and challenges posed by those outside of the community. However, because these are practices of moral authority, the accomplishment of this reconciliation must be earned via experience or gaining a position of trust, and the reconciliation can not be any one individual’s idiosyncratic decision: it must be done with the permission-whether explicit and conscious or implicit and not, of the community and its tradition. The practices of moral authority I describe here—gender, scripture, prayer, and science—are all simply entry points to more specific bodily performances of the category. For example, the big practice is gender, and the smaller practice is wearing the hijab. Both are moral, and both are rooted in authority.
The split between two understandings of the word practice is important. In the smaller sense of practices, practices of moral authority are specific actions people perform that root their lives in an ongoing tradition, helping them habituate certain implicit understandings of what a good life entails. In the bigger sense of the word practice, practices of moral authority are less specific instantiations of a broader concept than they are concepts with their own particular authority over how one ought to live. In this broader sense, gender, scripture, science, and prayer all function as categories with an authority that has been accorded them either from within their tradition (for prayer and scripture) or from within and without (for science and gender). I am distinguishing between these by calling them internal and external practices. But the most important point for these larger practices of moral authority is that while they can be leveraged to accomplish moral tasks, they are also authorities in their own right: in each of the schools I studied, science, gender, scripture, and prayer were understood to have accomplished things and to have a moral weight that had to be respected and accommodated.