Discussing the global attention now fixed on the person of Nelson Mandela as he lies in hospital - 'a man whose name alone carries a unique moral weight in any language' - Jonathan Freedland poses the following question:
[M]oral authority is a strange, elusive quality. We feel we know it when we see it, but what exactly does it amount to?
His answer centres on suffering. This is, Jonathan says, the 'usual prerequisite'. Most of those who are seen as possessing moral authority have 'experienced an ordeal that commands our sympathy and therefore our respect'. Suffering isn't sufficient on its own, he goes on to say. Usually, those with moral authority have also 'channeled their experience into a struggle, whether for justice, peace or an end to violence'.
That Jonathan has focused here on a common background circumstance of moral authority is not in doubt, and it is also true that, where it does apply, the earlier suffering of an individual thought to have moral authority is central to the way we think about why they have it. Roughly: this man or woman went through much - made great sacrifices and/or had to endure harsh deprivations - for the (good) cause they championed; they deserve to be listened to.
At one point in his column, however, Jonathan comes close to saying that the various constituents of moral authority he is discussing are not merely its 'usual prerequisites' but preconditions of it without qualification; he says:
If these are the essential ingredients [my italics] of moral authority it's not hard to see why Mandela is the uber-example. His suffering, his response to it and his wider campaign for justice are all of a scale and import without parallel.
But, important as it may be when it is relevant, suffering is not only not a sufficient condition of moral authority, it is not a necessary condition of it either. Suffering is not a sufficient condition because out of suffering some people fashion dreams of violent revenge, not even always aimed against the perpetrators of the original suffering, and such dreams mostly do not encourage in others moral respect for those who nurture them.
And suffering is not a necessary condition of moral authority because a person can also come to be seen as having moral authority on the model, roughly speaking, of the sage - someone who is wise not through personal suffering but through some combination of humility, thoughtfulness, long study, having a proven record of giving good advice over an extended period, enjoying intellectual authority in an area thought to be pertinent to the advice they give, and so on. Think about Primo Levi. He, of course, did suffer, having been a prisoner at Auschwitz, and the moral authority he was widely seen as possessing was importantly due to that. But his voice enjoyed a special authority even among Holocaust survivors and that has to be due to the wisdom so many found in what he wrote.
In principle, the two things are separable, the suffering and the wisdom. And it is possible to think of figures seen as commanding moral authority but not because their own lives have been lives of suffering. It's harder to cite uncontroversial examples, since - to put it crudely - your sage and mine may not be the same ones. For many people today Noam Chomsky is a man of moral authority. Not for me. I think of Michael Walzer in the way they do of Chomsky. The abstract figure is clear, in any case. Not someone who is always right, since no one is that; but someone whose view you want to know, because they think deeply about moral questions and have an admirable record of careful deliberation on difficult questions.