John Mayer and The Authority Principle

Based on the type of fans he has, I used to think that John Mayer was your average popstar cliché, but after I saw a few videos of The John Mayer Trio, a blues group that Mayer toured with after making it big as a popstar, I realized that he was an artist’s artist.  As a guitar player, his songs and live performances were some of my mentors in how to be a technical, creative, and compelling blues performer.  Although I don’t think I agree with much of Mayer’s theology, we both play a Stratocaster, and he has a song called “Who Says” on his Battle Studies album in which he explores the logical extreme of suppressing The Authority Principle.

The Authority Principle (TAP) is the principle that people need an external authority in order to make sense of anything.  Generally, both un-believing and believing philosophers accept the authority principle where “authority” may be defined variously.

For some people, the authority is one or more governing principles; axioms.  For example, one might include the principle:  All knowledge possible to man is given through experience.  A Scripturalist would at least have the axiom:  The Bible is the Word of God.

For others, the authority is another person.  For example, a person might judge all things according to what their father might think about them.  The phrase “What Would Jesus Do?” is a functional example of such a principle.

Some people make the authority an unintelligible event.  For example, they might judge all things according to some “experience” that has been imposed on them from the outside.

Others take a mishmash of these and/or submit to a different kind of authority.  The common element, however, is that they use something outside themselves to make sense of things.  One characteristic of those who affirm TAP is that they use adjectives like “true,” “false,” “right,” “wrong,” “ought,” “oughtn’t,” “valuable,” “worthless,” and other words that express relation to some reference point.  When someone says something is true, one should be able to gather that they believe in a “truth”.  When they speak of “right” and “wrong,” one should be able to gather that they believe in some authority on what is good.   And the case is similar with “value,” “justice,” “politics,” etc.

John Mayer3Those who suppress TAP come in two varieties.  The first suppress TAP verbally, while affirming it by their actions.  They talk about what is true without thinking twice about whether or not there is a truth.  They speak of right and wrong while not thinking about what they mean.  To me, these people seem to simply be unaware that they accept TAP.  The second variety locate the authority principle within themselves so that the authority resides within themselves.  To these, John Mayer speaks.

Who says I can’t get stoned?
Turn off the lights and the telephone
Me in my house alone
Who says I can’t get stoned?

The answer for second group of a-TAPers is “nobody says.”  Many atheists complain that theists wrongly accuse them of licentious behavior because they have no standard of right and wrong.  The atheists laugh at this and point to the atrocious actions performed by theists in history.  Then, they point to examples of morally good atheists.  I think both parties are confused.  A better accusation applies both to the theist and to the atheist alike.  “Who says?”  Who says I can’t get stoned?  Or, we might rephrase it more generally as “What says?”  When the Christian decides not to get stoned, he does so based on his authority.  Maybe he does so because “Dad says,” or “Pastor says.”  Perhaps “God says.”  The morally good atheist also has to wonder about his authority principle.  Who/what says he shouldn’t get stoned?

 

Who says I can’t be free?
From all of the things that I used to be
Re-write my history
Who says I can’t be free?

It’s been a long night in New York City
It’s been a long night in Baton Rouge
I don’t remember you looking any better
But then again I don’t remember you

Today, many people are rewriting history.  Much of what is considered historical scholarship today is simply people’s new ways of spinning history to support their personal views.  Who says they shouldn’t?  Who says there is any other way of doing history?

It’s been a long night in New York City.  Why shouldn’t I rent a girl’s body and have some fun with her, while her conscience explodes?  Granted, of course, not every atheist behaves this way.  But that isn’t the question.  The question is:  Who says they shouldn’t get stoned?

Who says I can’t get stoned?
Call up a girl that I used to know
Fake love for an hour or so
Who says I can’t get stoned?

Who says I can’t take time?
Meet all the girls on the county line
Wait on fate to send a sign
Who says I can’t take time?

Who says I can’t get stoned?
Plan a trip to Japan alone
Doesn’t matter if I even go
Who says I can’t get stoned?
Mmhmm

It’s been a long night in New York City
It’s been a long time since 22
I don’t remember you looking any better
But then again I don’t remember, don’t remember you

Perhaps John Mayer is communicating his own view.  Maybe, by not providing an answer, he is saying that there is no answer to this question.  Likely, an educated atheist might respond with an ethical theory.  There are many secular theories to pick from.  But we may simply back the truck up and respond by adding a verse to John Mayer’s song.  This verse might say:

 

Who says your ethical theory is right?

What if I just want to do what I like,

Why not another theory that I write

Who says your ethical theory is right?

(Copyright 2016, Luke Miner)

…don’t try to sing it.  The meter is off.  But kudos to Mayer for his catchy illustration of the issues with rejecting TAP.

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