Authority derives from the Latin word auctoritas and is a concept used to indicate the right to exercise power, which can be formalized by a state and exercised by way of judges, police officers or other appointed executives of government, or the ecclesiastical or priestly appointed representatives of a higher spiritual power (God or other deities). The term authority can also be used to indicate an academic knowledge of an area (as in an authority on a subject), or to refer to an original or natural obligation (as in the authority of a father).
When the word authority is used in the name of an organization, this name usually refers to the governing body upon which such authority is vested; for example, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority or the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. The word authority can also mean the right to complete an action or execute an order.
In government, the term authority is often used interchangeably with power. However, their meanings differ: while power is defined as "the ability to influence somebody to do something that he/she would not have done", authority refers to a claim of legitimacy, the justification and right to exercise that power. For example, while a mob may have the power to punish a criminal by beating or lynching, the rule of law indicates that only a court of law has the authority to determine and refer a criminal for punishment.
There have been several contributions to the debate of political authority. Among others, Hannah Arendt, Carl Joachim Friedrich, Alexandre Kojève and Giorgio Agamben have provided some of the most remarkable texts.
In political philosophy, the jurisdiction of political authority, the location of sovereignty, the balancing of freedom and authority (cf. Cristi 2005), and the requirements of political obligations have been core questions from the time of Plato and Aristotle to the present. Most democratic societies are engaged in an ongoing discussion regarding the legitimate extent of the exercise of governmental authority. In the United States, for instance, there is a prevailing belief that the political system as instituted by the Founding Fathers should accord the populace as much freedom as reasonable, and that government should limit its authority accordingly (limited government).
In the discussion regarding the legitimacy of political authority, there are two beliefs at the respective ends of the spectrum. The first is the belief in the absolute freedom of the individual, otherwise known as political anarchism. The second is the belief that there must be a central authority in the form of a sovereign that claims ownership and control over the masses. This belief is known as statism. Sovereignty, in modern terms, can refer either to the adherence to a form of sovereign rule or the individual sovereignty, or autonomy, of a nation-state. The argument for political anarchy and anti-statism is made by Michael Huemer in his book The Problem of Political Authority. On the other side, one of the main arguments for the legitimacy of the state is some form of the "social contract theory" developed by Thomas Hobbes in his 1668 book, Leviathan, or by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his political writings on the social contract.
Since the emergence of the social sciences, authority has become a subject of research in a variety of empirical settings: the family (parental authority), small groups (informal authority of leadership), intermediate organizations such as schools, churches, armies, industries and bureaucracies (organizational and bureaucratic authorities), and society-wide or inclusive organizations, ranging from the most primitive tribal society to the modern nation-state and intermediate organization (political authority).
The definition of authority in contemporary social science remains a matter of debate. Max Weber in his essay "Politics as a Vocation" (1919) divided legitimate authority into three types. Others, like Howard Bloom, suggest a parallel between authority and respect/reverence for ancestors.
To validate an argument, we refer back to our ancestors - or to someone who, while still alive, has already garnered the sort of authority only ancestors normally have.