The Problem of Political Authority: is there an account of the state’s authority?

To define the terms and concepts contained in the question: is there an account of the state’s authority? A state is group of persons who have and exercise supreme political authority within a given jurisdiction or territory (Wolff, 1970, 4). Despite slight conceptual differences, generally, political authority is considered as the right to command and the right to be obeyed. It seems crucial to distinguish political authority from political power, which is the ability of the state to compel compliance, either through the use of force or the threat of force in a state (Buchanan, 2002, 689). Political authority demands not only the right to command or issue rules but also the right to be obeyed, and therefore, the state’s possession of this right is justified on moral grounds that the subjects of a state are morally obliged to obedience.

The question whether there is an account of the state’s authority implies the problem or, to put it negatively, the impossibility of a sound justification for the state’s authority. The contemporary debates and discussions on the subject seem to be triggered by an alleged difficulty posed by what is called the philosophical anarchism, propounded by the political philosopher, Robert Paul Wolff. The problem put forward by Wolff is that there is a fundamental incompatibility of moral autonomy and political authority, i.e. it is incompatible for a person to comply with the commands of an authority that stops the subject from acting morally autonomously. In other words, it is the nature of state’s authority that confiscates the subjects’ autonomy by demanding its right to be obeyed. Wolff argues that the authority is never legitimate for its demands associated with obedience contradict and are inconsistent with the autonomy of the subject (Wolff, 1970, 18-24). This paper attempts to evaluate contending arguments for the state’s authority in light of the problem posed by philosophical anarchism, and argues for a democratic conception of political authority.

One basic presupposition of Wolff’s notion of autonomy, as I interpret it, is that humans have free will. This becomes problematic in the first place, but I do not discuss the issue in this paper. The consent theory of political authority posits that a necessary condition for the legitimacy of political authority is consent of the subjects in a state (Christiano, 2013). It seems plausible to maintain that a state’s authority is justified if it has the consent of the subjects under its jurisdiction. However, the obvious problem with the consent theory is that no one consents to any state or no state has the consent of its subjects. Realizing the apparent problem, John Locke, attempts to argue that state doesn’t need an expressed consent to have the right to command and the right to be obeyed. He argues that if a subject voluntarily resides in a state and reaps the benefits of the services provided by the state, he or she ought to know that the state’s provision of these benefits depends on the obedience from the members of the state (Christiano, 2013). A subject is obliged to obey the state’s rules if he or she is enjoying the benefits provided by the state. The obvious objection to this argument is the problem of interpretation of consent. It becomes problematic to discern how and when a subject consents because it is not done explicitly (Christiano, 2013). A subject’s continued residence in a territory cannot be taken or interpreted as consenting because of the cost of leaving can be too risky as objected by Hume to Locke’s interpretive move (Christiano, 2013). Hume’s objection is valid, and the consent theory fails to hold any ground for a sound justification for the state’s authority. In addition, the consent-based argument does not succeed in responding to the challenge posed by philosophical anarchism.

As a direct response to philosophical anarchism, the instrumentalist argument denies the incompatibility of political authority and moral autonomy. Raz’s Normal Justification Thesis asserts “the normal way to establish that a person has authority over another person involves showing that the alleged subject is likely better to comply with reasons which apply to him (Green, 2012).” The instrumentalist attempts to encounter Wolff’s challenge by trying to show that there isn’t a conflict between a subject’s autonomy and the state’s authority. It argues that the state’s authority is justified because the state’s directives and rules are based on reasons, which already independently apply to the subjects and are such that the subjects have a reason to do (Green, 2012). However, it seems difficult to see how the instrumentalist argument establishes that the authority (state) considers and issues rules to its subjects that better conform to reason than they could on their own. Most importantly, the instrumentalist argument is blind to the possibility that the state’s authority may depend as much on how those decisions (legislative process) are made as what those decisions are (Hershovitz, 2011, 5). The objection is that the instrumentalist theory of authority rules out the possibility that authority may also depend on process, i.e. the proceduralist objection (Hershovitz, 2011, 5-7). Though one might argue that democracy is not intrinsically just, it is plausible to maintain that resolving a conflict or making a decision through democratic procedures demonstrates and respects subjects’ ‘status as political equals’, and it also expresses that the subjects are autonomously controlling their own lives by actively participating in the democratic processes (Hershovitz, 2011, 4). In addition, the instrumentalist theory of authority doesn’t indicate how subjects determine when they ought to follow or when ought not to follow the rule. It seems to hold that the people should always follow the rules whatsoever. This doesn’t seem a to leave any space for exercising autonomy nor the argument succeeds in making a case for the compatibility of autonomy and political authority.

Both above theories of authority fail to refute Wolff’s challenge of the impossibility of a justified authority. It seems Ronald Dworkin’s theory of genuine associative community as an argument for authority does some service in responding to the challenge posed by philosophical anarchism in some ways. The non-voluntarist theory of authority of Dworkin rejects the question why do we have to obey the authority as a misconception of what it means to be a “member” of political society. Dworkin argues, “political association, like family or friendship and other forms of association more local and intimate, is itself pregnant of obligation” (Green, 2012). In other words, being a member of political society is in itself bears obligations like one doesn’t doubt about obligations to one’s parents and family. Hence, it is a kind of associative or communal obligation constitutive of a certain kind of community that functions on respect, gratitude and trust, beyond the norms of the community (Green, 2012). To what is called a genuine associative community, Dworkins argues for four conditions to be a community of principle. The four conditions are (Christiano, 2012): “One, each member of the community sees herself as having special obligations to the other members; two, they see the obligations as owed to each of the others personally; three, these obligations are understood to flow from a concern for the well being of each of the members; and four, the obligations are understood as flowing from a plausible version of equal concern for all the members.” So, a community that fulfills these conditions is a genuine associative community and thereby brings about obligations to each of the members to comply with the terms (rules) of the association.

With the analogy of family or friendship, Dworkin’s argument that legitimate political authority arises as a consequence of the acquisition of obligations to obey rules as part of being members of such a “genuine associative community” sounds quite convincing (Green, 2012). What Dworkin’s argument implies as a response to Wolff’s challenge is that man is a social being, and that the exercise of individual autonomy has limits. The assumptions of Wolff’s notion of autonomy, as I interpret it, seem to be that man is an autonomous being whose reason and capability for reflection unfetters him from subjection to authority and that his relationship to the environment he is in is one of independent association –contract that he can sign in and off whenever his reason dictates so. But as indicated with Dworkin’s argument, man’s social existence is impregnated with obligations to his fellow social beings as he realizes the nature of his interdependent existence. Thus, at the least, gratitude is owed to everyone one interacts with. Even though, ideally, his obligations to obey and respect the norms can be extended to all societies and associations universally, it is practically reasonable to restrict one’s obligation and obedience to one’s own community. Unfortunately, Dworkin’s family model theory of authority seems to assume that members of political society are emotionally bonded as family members and friends, which is not the case. In addition, the conditions of the associative community don’t specify the obligations and their relations. For instance, what obligation does a child have in the case of reckless and abusive parents? Dworkin seems to have to say that he has to wait until he reaches the age of maturity to be counted as equals in the association.

The associative community theory responds, convincingly, to philosophical anarchism that human condition is not an isolated and independent existence. Man exists as a rational, social and emotional being in a community, interdependently. Still, Dworkin hardly succeeds in making a convincing case for authority. Given the four conditions for an associative community, how is that radically different or better than a democratic conception of authority in which the subjects have an active role of equal participation and that fulfill all these conditions. After all, the claim that a democratic assembly has a right to rule is not incompatible with the idea that there are limits to that right (Christiano, 2013). Nevertheless, as Wolff analyzes, a democratic conception of authority has serious problems except in the case of a Unanimous Direct Democracy, which is practically infeasible in today’s political societies (Wolff, 1970).

Some contemporary theorists of the democratic conception of authority realize the limits of democratic authority and argue for the principle of public equality to check and warn the authority when and how its legitimacy may be at stake. The principle of public equality requires a set of basic liberal rights (freedom of conscience, association, speech and private pursuits) to be respected and protected by the authority (Christiano, 2013). This clearly places a set of limits on the democratic authority and if the authority respects and protects these basic rights, it is a fair play. It is certainly plausible to maintain that when a group of people engages in a cooperative enterprise, which is governed by some rules, those who have accepted the benefits or benefitted from the enterprise have a “duty to do their fair share” (Perry, 28). Hence, authority in this sense can retain its legitimacy and at the same time the subjects do not have to surrender their autonomy of exercising critical reflection as preserved by the principle of public equality.

Work Cited

Buchanan, Allen, Political Legitimacy and Democracy, Ethics, Vol. 112, No. 4, (July 2002), pp. 689-719.

Christiano, Tom, “Authority”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =<;.

Green, Leslie, “Legal Obligation and Authority”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =<;.

Hershovitz, Scott, (2011), The Role of Authority, Philosopher’s Imprint, Vol. 11, No. 7, (March 2011), pp. 1-19.

Perry, Stephen (2013), Political Authority and Political Obligation, Oxford Studies in Philosophy of Law, vol. II, Leslie Green and Brian Leiter, eds.

Wolff, Robert P. (1970), In Defense of Anarchism, Berkeley: University of California Press.


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