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Reconciliation Of Autonomy And Legitimate Authority Philosophy Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Philosophy
Wordcount: 4534 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Political thought is deeply divided about the relationship between the individual and the community. The problem of the reconciliation of autonomy and legitimate authority is a moral one. Either I possess and am obliged to maintain my authority or I am not. Either I am totally part of my community and am obliged to serve it or I am not. Nobody ever doubted that in order to submit to some sort of authority it is necessary to sacrifice some of a person’s personal autonomy [2] . However, many theorists argue that autonomy and the duty to obey someone’s commands can never co-exist. The greatest supporter of this conflict between authority and autonomy among the years has been Robert Paul Wolff. In his work In Defense of Anarchism he has insisted that there can never be a resolution between the conflict of autonomy and authority and that the only justifiable political system in virtue of autonomy is anarchism. But what exactly do these notions mean and how far is it true that the two theories can never be compatible?

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The Issue of Autonomy

Autonomy is the right of a person to be free and the ability to choose his own actions without any constraints. For Wolff “the fundamental assumption of moral philosophy is that men are responsible for their actions [3] “. This responsibility means that a person should be responsible for taking the final decision for what she should do. Therefore, the autonomous person being autonomous does not accept commands from anyone and does not recognize any authority over him by anyone. His acts are based on his independent assessment of the situation and on nobody else’s orders; has a self-regulating capacity and has a duty to take control of one’s conduct. This responsibility of action means that people are metaphysically free and therefore the maintenance of autonomy is a duty. Non-interference is the most important element in political autonomy. In fact, Gaus specifies that “the fundamental liberal principle” is “that all interferences with action stand in need of justification” [4] . The idea of individual liberty for anarchists is inseparable fused with the theological doctrine that man has free will and can chose good or evil. Bakunin [5] defined freedom as following one’s own reason and understanding justice. Therefore, law is rejected by anarchists because it is based on a false conception of free will and it usurps individual reason and morality. How far this statement is correct will be discussed later.

The Issue of Political Obligation

The central concept of political science is that of the state [6] . State legitimacy (or authority) is viewed as the logical correlate of the obligation of citizens to obey the law (or the state). This obligation is usually referred to as political obligation. Several questions arise from the issue of political obligation such as whether there is actually a prima facie obligation to obey the rules or why should we obey the law in general. However, this analysis is not the purpose of this essay and therefore these issues will not be further analyzed.

An obligation is a requirement or duty to act in a particular way. The possession of a right usually places someone else under an obligation to uphold or respect that right [7] . The only theorists who are willing to reject completely the notion of political obligation are philosophical anarchists who insist on absolute respect for autonomy. Political obligation is a presumptive moral duty placed upon each and every individual in a given territory to obey all the laws enacted by the political institutions ruling the country. Political and legal institutions are authoritative institutions. Authority is the right to command, namely to order and therefore the right to be obeyed [8] ; it is the right to tell someone what to believe and how to act.

The Conflict

Theorists who support the conflict between autonomy and authority base their view on the fact that freedom is subordinated to an authority which creates regulations meant for protecting the bigger society. Therefore, people have to follow certain organizational ethics which may not be similar to their personal ethics. In order to have autonomy, individuals would just have to resort to choosing a company which holds values similar to their own. Taking responsibility means making the final decision about what to do, therefore there is no such thing as a command for the autonomous person. Political authority runs along with obligation to obey its rules, to follow it and disregard free will. But is this really true? There is a claim that political authority aims to impose its own judgement upon ours and that is illegitimate. When our judgment is incompatible with the law then, there is no obligation to obey the law and therefore, there can be no authority upon us. As long as a man fulfills his obligation to make himself the author of his decisions he will not accept any authority over him therefore, he will deny that he has a duty to obey the laws of the state simply because they are the laws.

It has been said that we have the capacity to choose how to act. Still, this is not enough for one to take responsibility for his actions. Obligation to take responsibility for one’s actions does not derive from the actor’s freedom of choice. Only because the actor has the capacity to reason about his choices can be said that he is held under a continuous obligation to take responsibility for them. For Kant moral autonomy is a combination of freedom and responsibility [9] . Hence a responsible person is bound by any moral constraints he only should be the judge of them. It is possible to listen to the advice of others but in the end he will make the decision on his own by making sure for himself that it is a good advice [10] . Therefore, there may be moral reasons for obeying the law but this does not imply a duty to obey the laws just because they are the laws. It rather shows a prima facie duty to obey the laws like that of keeping promises.

The Anarchists Argument

Following the neo-Kantian argument that people have a responsibility and a duty to act autonomously, political obligation is consistently illegitimate because it claims to replace any individual judgment. Kant supported that private judgment is more important than anything else and the welfare of single individuals should be above the need for some sort of authority. Based on this argument Robert Wolff in his work In Defense of Anarchism analyses the issue of how can moral autonomy ever be made compatible with political authority. He concludes that no comprehensive claim to political authority can be justified since it is incompatible with the requirement to act autonomously. Therefore according to Wolff, autonomy and political authority are “genuinely incompatible”. Yet, Kant himself does not imply in his use of the word autonomy any denial of the authoritativeness of the law. Wolff believes that the most appropriate model of society is where there are mutual agreements between individuals who are doing something because they want to do it and not by submitting to authority.

Anarchism opposes the belief that authority and hierarchy are necessary in social relationships and argues for a society where authority and hierarchy are not needed. The most basic distinction between anarchist theories is that between a priori anarchism, which maintains that all possible states are morally illegitimate and a posteriori anarchism, which maintains that while all existing state are illegitimate this is not because it is impossible for there to be a legitimate state [11] . There are two forms of anarchism. Political anarchism is divided into anarcho-collectivism, which focuses on the basic criteria of justice such as equality, fraternity and solidarity, and anarcho- individualism supports individual sovereignty and insists that no institution is entitled to restrict individual freedom. On the other hand philosophical anarchism does not only attack the state but follows the view that the very idea of legitimate political authority is inexistent. Therefore, no human being can rightfully exercise any authority over another individual and everyone should act based on their assessment of the situation. Wolff’s philosophical anarchism supports that no authority possessed by a de facto authority is legitimate and therefore there is no way to establish any political obligation [12] .

Anarchists attack the idea of legitimate authority in order to satisfy the statement of no compatibility. Wolff’s version of philosophical anarchism is a good example of a priori anarchism. Wolff maintains that the authority which states must exercise is inconsistent with the autonomy of individuals that any legitimate state would have to respect [13] . They would have to comply with the law because it is the law but when someone complies with the law because it is the law then he forfeits his moral freedom; the liberty that each of us has to make his own mind about what he ought to do. “Hence, the concept of a de jure legitimate state would appear to be vacuous [14] “. Anarchist judgments of state illegitimacy are typically taken to entail that subjects of those illegitimate states have no political obligations. Accordingly, all subjects of all states are at moral liberty to treat laws as non-binding and governments as non-authoritative [15] . Anarchists reach the conclusion that no government can be legitimate. Either we must be anarchists, or we must surrender our autonomy to whatever authority seems best at the moment. On Wolff’s view contractual democracies are legitimate states but they gain their legitimacy through their citizen’s sacrifice of their autonomy. Henry Thoreau insisted that no individual should sacrifice his or her conscience to the judgment of politicians, elected or otherwise. This position denies that government can ever exercise rightful authority over the individual. In fact for Wolff no government is inherently or a priori better than another one, therefore, there is no reason why people should prefer a democracy to a dictatorship. In either case they lose their autonomy [16] . However, this view is not supported by everyone.

As mentioned above doing something because it is the law (like arguing for a prima facie obligation to obey the law) is not sufficient reason of obedience. Then how about democracy? In a democratic society the citizen is both law giver and law maker, therefore autonomy is preserved as it is the citizen who authorizes the laws to which later he is required to submit to [17] . Wolff claims that democracy has no claim in the conflict because the person who finds himself in the minority “rejects the alternative [when he voted] to find it forced upon him by a superior power”. His will to be autonomous is frustrated because the will of the majority is placed upon him. However, the individual may recognize a moral obligation to obey the law but consider it to be a prima facie obligation. Since he reserves to himself in every case the decision whether the prima facie obligation is conclusive, then it can be said that he has reserved to himself “the final decision as to whether to cooperate” [18] .

On the other hand, Robert Nozick in his work ‘Anarchy, State and Utopia’ welcomes an argument in favour of a minimal state limited to the narrow functions of protection against theft, fraud, enforcement of contracts, and so on. When a State takes on more responsibilities than these, Nozick says, rights will be violated. In an effort to make a case for the idea of a minimal State, Nozick illustrates that the minimalist State arises naturally from anarchy and that any expansion of State power beyond this minimalist threshold is unjustified. 

Legitimate authority and political obligation are considered to be two sides of the same coin. For a “state” to be legitimate means that it has the right to issue and enforce directives. However, this is only possible if citizens are under a political obligation. As Simmons stated, if citizens do not have a prima facie obligation to obey the law then their governments do not have a right to promulgate and enforce it [19] . However, it does not follow that when a person is under political obligation that he should always obey the law. If this political obligation is prima facie then, does not this mean that moral considerations should always be taken into account when assessing the right course of action? If this is acceptable then there is not necessarily a conflict between political obligation and free will as a person must take into account his own considerations. One can have strong moral reasons for complying with directives issued by his government without owing any obligations to that government. But if we suppose that political obligation does not exist then what follows?

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A person can have moral constraints but as an autonomous man he should be the one deciding on these constraints. For example he can do what someone tells him but not because he told him; he must not submit to the will of others. In the same sense he may obey the law but not because it is the law [20] . The duty to support the commonwealth implies a state of servitude which essentially is the requirement to obey commands, the nature of which is not known at the time the obligation is undertaken [21] . John Stuart Mill in his work On Liberty asserted that “the only purpose for which power can rightfully be exercised over any member of a civilised community against his will is to prevent harm to other” [22] . In Mill’s view the law has no right to interfere with self-regarding actions; in his realm individuals are entitled to exercise unrestrained liberty. Lord Acton in his essays stated that “liberty alone demands for its realization the limitation of public authority, for liberty is the only object which benefits all alike and provokes sincere opposition”. Of course he was not an anarchist and this distinction is obvious as he speaks of limiting authority; an anarchist would speak of abolishing authority.

When Wolff says “constrained only by the dictated of his own will” he means bound only by any prior commitments. Bakunin, an anarchist, stresses that the absence of any restraints or interferences is essential to liberty; that a person’s human right consist in not obeying any other human being and not allow his actions to be determined by anyone but his own convictions [23] . For him the state is the evil but it was ‘historically necessary’. Socrates suggested that there is a need to obey the commands (laws) of the polis. The commonwealth made Socrates “free” and he was arguing that he had a duty not to destroy or injure institutions which had made him free. However, even if the state made him free some flexibility is required by an institution in order for the individual to learn making the right choices and look for alternatives. Socrates argued that the duty to be autonomous and take responsibility for our actions does not abrogate our duty to be loyal to the state. Instead, our duty of loyalty to the laws is valid only if our duty to be autonomous is. However, as long as the sphere of authority expands, liberty is necessarily constrained. Authority can be seen as a threat to reason and critical understanding since it demands unconditional, unquestioning obedience [24] .

The critics and a solution to the problem

There are a number of critics who have argued that there is no necessary conflict between autonomy and authority. According to these critics, a morally autonomous individual takes responsibility for his actions by entering a reflective process in which he takes the final decision. But, individuals can still do this and then decide that they ought to follow the legitimate authorities. Therefore, there is no necessary conflict between the two.

Plamenatz argued about a solution of the conflict [25] . He gave a modern version of consent as justification of political obligation. More concretely, he argued that in voting people consent to obey whoever is elected and that a vote constitutes a promise of obedience to the next government. Therefore, basically he argued for free will in deciding who to vote and taking responsibility of actions by accepting the result of the voting. An argument against this theory would be that it is irrational to consent in advance to whatever a government might do unless it was strictly specified in a manifesto whose terms would not be exceeded [26] . By accepting the democratic system Plamenatz argues people also undertake the obligation to obey a government they have not voted for. Some could argue that it would be better to have free conscience rather than voting. The consent theory tries to make political obligation a result of free choice but then it over-interprets our act as voters to fill us with extensive moral obligations [27] .

Joseph Raz argues than an individual could have a duty to obey the law without having been bound himself to obey it. He argues that a person would have a duty to obey the law if it is most likely that he would do what he ought by obeying the law rather than following his independent judgment [28] . However, by doing this it is not necessarily taking responsibility of his action but rather following someone else abdicated responsibility for his own actions [29] . Individuals should act autonomously and since obeying someone else means he sees himself and his actions as someone else’s responsibility, then someone would assume that no one could have a duty to obey anyone else.

On the other hand, it could be argued that, this argument is not entirely correct. While someone obeying the law in this way is not exactly acting autonomously in doing so he may act responsibly. Although the individual does not judge for himself what the right thing to do is, he may judge if he should obey the law because by doing that he will be able to come closer to doing what he ought to do. Therefore, one could conclude that, a responsible subject follows the law not only for moral reasons but also as a result of his own deliberation [30] . Wolff, as well as other anarchists, would argue that by acting against your own evaluations is like doing what you believe to be wrong and that is impermissible. However, since any judgment about what to do rely on judgments about the likely consequences of one’s possible actions, one may regard others as more competent than oneself at determining the consequences. Since he regards other evaluations better than his own then, one may reasonably act on these instead of his own. Therefore, it is reasonable for an individual to obey someone else’s dictates (i.e. the states) when they conflict with his own judgment. Otherwise, would it mean that when there is a clash between the demands of the state and the private interests or moral convictions of the people that disobedience should occur [31] ?

Rawls in his work A theory of Justice he stated that sometimes civil disobedience may be justified since it depends upon the theory of political obligation [32] . There is an obligation to support just and efficient institutions which arises from our voluntary acts. Rawls assumes the social contract as a basis of political obligation and expresses that principles of justice should be those which free and rational men would agree to in an original position of equal liberty. Civil disobedience is non-violent and is justified as an attempt addressed to those holding the political power to correct any injustice. The exercise of authority is only appropriate when exercised in accordance with a constitution capable of being reasonably endorsed by the citizens.

So can moral autonomy be compatible with political authority? Can the conflict be resolved and a solution be found? Since authority is the right to command and be obeyed and autonomy is the capacity to self-regulate one’s actions there seems to be no compatibility between them. For Rousseau, human beings want to be free but at the same time they want the benefits of living in a society. But is it possible ‘to find a form of association that defends and protects with all common forces the person and goods of each associate and by means of uniting with all, nevertheless obeys only himself and remains as free as before? [33] ‘ For Rousseau his theory of Social Contract is a solution for this conflict. Since the whole citizen is the sovereign it cannot have any interests contrary to the interests of the individuals who comprise it. [34] Jeffrey Reiman in an attempt to prove Wolff wrong by arguing for the legitimacy of classical democracy, he also supports the social contract argument. Classical anarchists such as Proudhon, Bakunin and Kropotkin rejected the claims of political obligation; however, they recognized that a healthy society demands sociable, cooperative and respectful behaviour from its members [35] . Jean-Jacques Rousseau viewed democracy as the most important means through which humans can achieve freedom or autonomy in the sense of “obedience to a law one subscribes to oneself” [36] . He insisted that citizens are only free when they participate directly and continuously in their communities. Individuals are only free when they make the laws which they obey.

Is the conflict and incompatibility real?

In conclusion, it appears that when autonomy is the duty of free will and responsibility of actions and political obligation is the duty to obey the law and therefore the obligatory imposition of rules upon citizens, there can be no co-existence between the two. By being autonomous it means to not accept any form of authority upon you and therefore no authority can be seen to be legitimate. Although, anarchists support this idea, many theorists are of the view that there can be compatibility between the two even if a level of autonomy needs to be sacrificed in order to accept authority and ensure security. If a state was not necessary then it would not have been created since – every state is the creation of man. Political obligation is only a theory developed in order for a state to exist and function in a proper way. When even the greatest supporters of the conflict between the two theories such as Wolff depart from this long-supported theory of antinomy [37] it seems difficult to support this anarchistic view of incompatibility and it is considered as an over-exaggeration of the issue.


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