What exactly does the phrase "moral authority" mean? I googled it, but each website kind of has it own definition. Since there are many definitions, what is the phrase most commonly used for?

closed as off-topic by tchrist, Lawrence, ab2, curiousdannii, jimm101 Mar 19 '16 at 17:44

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  • It doesn't exactly mean anything. Roughly speaking, it means having enough respect in the community of interest to be able to speak about the morality of a thing without being ridiculed for one's own lack of morality. – Hot Licks Mar 19 '16 at 2:06
  • Adding summaries of the definitions you came across would help improve the question as it's not clear what conflict you found among the definitions. – Lawrence Mar 19 '16 at 13:50

If the pot calls the kettle black it's lacks moral authority, it's a hypocrit, since the pot is black as well.

To have moral authority you must be moral. You must take the high road. Being told you're a cheater by a cheater doesn't really have the same sting.


  1. (of a person, institution, or written work) The quality or characteristic of being respected for having good character or knowledge, especially as a source of guidance or an exemplar of proper conduct.  

  2. One possessing this characteristic.  

    • 2009, Robert Jefferson Norrell, Up from History: The Life of Booker T. Washington, p. 431:

      At first Martin Luther King Jr. invoked Booker as a moral authority for King's ethic of love and his posture of passive resistance to white hatred.

    • 2010, Dan P. McAdams, George W. Bush and the Redemptive Dream, p. 207:

      No less a moral authority than Elie Wiesel, the celebrated holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate, urged President Bush to invade Iraq to defend freedom and liberate the Iraqi people.

    • 2011, Scott C. Lowe, Christmas - Philosophy for Everyone: Better Than a Lump of Coal, p. 100:

      Santa is not only a moral authority, like a strict father, but he is also like a nurturing parent, traditionally, a mother.

  3. The right or power to act (or direct others to act), based on the belief that the actor is moral, rather than on the actor having or needing some formal power to do so.  

    • 2002, Samuel Edward Finer, The Man on Horseback: The Role of the Military in Politics, p. 20:

      Thus, when the military breaches the existing political order, it will be forced to claim a moral authority for its actions.

    • 2008, Philip B. Heymann, Living the Policy Process, p. 121:

      Victims of palpable injustice enjoy a moral authority that is likely to provide access to even busy players.

    • 2011, Daniel Walker, God in a Brothel: An Undercover Journey into Sex Trafficking and Rescue, p. 124:

      In that knowledge I realized that while I lacked any legal authority, I already possessed all the necessary moral authority to confront and interview Watson for his crimes.


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