Speaker:     Marinus Ferreira
Affiliation: The University of Auckland
Title:       Conventional authority
Date:        Tuesday, 9 Oct 2012
Time:        4:00 pm
Location:    Room 5115, Owen Glenn Building

It is a truism that many instances of authority are conventional – that the standing of the authority is granted by some convention in society. There exists no standard account of how to understand this truism. I propose that we extend David Lewis’s game-theoretic analysis of conventions to give a comprehensive analysis of what the conventional basis of authority is. This paper doesn’t develop a new game-theoretic result, but offers an interpretation of Lewis’s original result to cover a new range of cases. He analysed conventions as ways for people to co-ordinate by furnishing each other with the necessary expectations of how people will act in specified circumstances in order to make their behaviour predictable. Making use of an extension of his analysis to the ethical domain – which I call ‘limited conventionalism’ – I intend to show how authority is conventional in the same way. I introduce the notion of a ‘benign arbiter’ – somebody whose commands everybody will follow and expect everybody else to follow, and who, when asked to adjudicate on a problem case, always selects one of the best candidate options. I argue that we can endorse the commands of an authority or not based on whether they are a benign arbiter – if they are, we should follow the commands, and if they aren’t, we needn’t. To illustrate my case, I give a limited conventionalist analysis of three instances of authority which many people don’t expect to be conventional: parental authority, divine authority, and trial by ordeal.

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