Sometimes mistaken for the right to judge others, moral authority is the relative credibility and weight of a source’s moral judgments, beliefs, principles, rules, intuitions, and value-commitments. For millennia, moral authority was thought to belong to religious texts and leaders. In theocratic nations, and in some social circles elsewhere, this is still assumed. From such a perspective, for example, a judgment has moral authority only if found in the Bible as interpreted by the Vatican. In mystical traditions, moral authority may be given to those who claim to possess supernatural insight into the universe or who, as with prophets, are believed to commune directly with gods.
In the Western world, belief in the special moral authority of religious leaders faded away due to two powerful social and intellectual movements. First, the leaders of the Protestant Reformation (1517–1648) asserted that all people were qualified to read and interpret the Bible for themselves, which meant that...
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