On murmuring, bad authority, and the abdication of responsibility

Murmuring and the Articulation of a Grievance

Over the past week, I have been discussing the nature of good authority, the education of those expressing disquietude, and the challenges posed by individuals dissatisfied with the habitual exercise of institutional power. I suggested that, far from being byzantine or draconian, St. Benedict’s conception of murmuring was in reality a good, perhaps the best, approximation of the starting point of the governed’s discontent. Murmuring, recall, is the guttural reply to power when that power is deemed–rightly or wrongly–unjustified, excessive, harsh, or inapplicable. Murmuring implies that the person murmuring has been harmed and that she can no longer offer up her obedience freely and wholeheartedly. In short, murmuring is the nub, the first stirring, of disobedience.

In “On Murmuring as a Clue to the Problem of Authority,” I laid out 3 possible cases and then said that I would pick up the thread in future posts. In the first case, which I examined on Wednesday, the murmurer’s “claims” were without warrant. I argued that the murmurer needed to be re-educated. In the second case, I wrote,

Suppose the murmuring is justified and that it is “directed at” or “addressed to” a figure of authority. This “claim” reveals that the addressee lacks legitimate authority. Hence, the murmuring should lead to admonition, reform of conduct, or an inquiry into the possibility of finding a suitable replacement.

Notice the quote marks setting off “directed at” or “addressed to.” A murmur is not yet an articulation. As a result, the murmurer will have to learn how to transform the inarticulate murmur (or eye roll, snort, brow wrinkle, chest tightening, etc.) into an articulation of a grievance. “I have been wronged by X in such and such a way and on such and such a grounds.” The wronged is now pointing at the figure in question at the same time that he is making an appeal to some norm or standard.

The Source of Bad Authority

For the moment, let’s be agnostic about what is to be done with respect to a figure of bad authority. Reprimand her? Admonish him? Demote them? Throw the damned bums out? Let’s instead focus our attention on the source of bad authority. What makes a bad authority bad? In virtue of what can we say that this authority has not been exercising her authority prudently and wisely?

On this question, the writers of The Rule of Life of the Community of Jesus state,

For grave reason and for the welfare of the Community, it may be the judgment of the Council and the Board of Directors that the Superior be removed from office. Valid reasons include:

–repeated serious violations or disregard of the Rule of Life;

–mental or physical incapacity to perform his/her required duties;

–habitual neglect or dereliction of duty;

–malfeasance or grave scandal due to culpable behavior. (43)

The first is a procedural problem. The second is a health concern. The third is a question of moral obligations. The fourth is a question of character. The first problem is not philosophically interesting because it refers the matter to a code within a manual. If the manual has gained the consent of the governed, then the conflict should, in principle, be easily resolvable. The second problem is straightforward and, in most cases but not all, pre- or a-philosophical. The final problem is very severe–let’s say we’re reviewing a sex scandal–and yet not usually philosophically unclear.

This leaves us to examine the “habitual neglect or dereliction of duty.” The source of bad authority, on this conception, is the failure of the authority figure to fulfill duties and responsibilities for the good of the one into whose hands she has been entrusted. Which?

What Responsibilities Have not Been Fulfilled?

Earlier in The Rule of Life, we read that the Superior must fulfill 3 basic responsibilities. First, she must be a “shepherd” who “cares for the souls entrusted to his/her charge”–specifically, a protector of the “personal needs of others.” Second, she must be a “teacher” who helps the pupil to undergo “transformation” through spiritual exercise. And, third, she must be an “administrator” who ensures that the practical affairs of the organization are in order. In essence, she must be a good nurturer, philosopher, and businesswoman at once. What is especially beautiful about this ethical vision is that it presupposes that protecting the other is a necessary precondition for self-transformation to get under way. If the other is to test herself on the “first floor” and if she is to aspire to become a better, wiser, more humane person, then he must feel that the authority, as a “shepherd,” will also and always provide some “ground floor” shelter. Moreover, only if the organization is financially stable can protecting and educating continue on into the future.

Now, once it has been articulated as a grievance, the murmurer voices one of three charges.

  1. The Superior is not a shepherd. She has failed to help carry the pupil across the divide. She is not a protector. Hence, the pupil feels fear.
  2. The Superior is not a teacher. The pupil may feel safe with the Superior but does not feel as if she is making moral or spiritual progress in her inquiry into self and world. The pupil feels cheated because the Superior is not wise.
  3. The Superior is not an administrator. The pupil may feel safe and may be able to see that she is making moral or spiritual progress. The trouble is that the Superior seems incapable of meeting the requisite funding requirements such that the school cannot be put on solid ground. Without sufficient financial backing, moral or spiritual progress will doubtless be halted. The pupil’s charge is that the Superior lacks prudence.

I have now considered the case in which unwarranted murmuring requires better moral education (Case 1) and the case in which justified murmuring tells against the figure who embodies authority (Case 2). In the final case (Case 3), I wish to examine the philosophical problems that poison the lifeblood of an organization.


Day 1“Why We Need Good Authority.” I describe the structure and quality of good authority and good obedience. As the title suggests, I also make the case that we can’t do without good authority if we want our lives to go well.

Day 2: On Murmuring as a Clue to the Problem of Authority.” I cue into murmuring as a primal urge of dissafection and alienation. I then lay out 3 possible explanations for someone’s murmuring.

Day 3: “On Murmuring, Education, and Love.” I examine the first case. A person’s murmuring stems from her improper education. What does good education look like?

Day 4: “On Murmuring, Bad Authority, and the Abdication of Responsibility.” I explore the second case. A person’s murmuring is a sign that the authority figure is not exercising legitimate authority.

Day 5: “On Murmuring, Alienation, and Institutional Failures.” I discuss the third case. A person’s murmuring implies that an institution isn’t working.