Can I Recognise the Authority of the State While Remaining Autonomous?
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Reconciling the issue of individual autonomy and state authority is perhaps the fundamental task of political philosophy. The concept of moral autonomy was first explored by Immanuel Kant in the eighteenth century, yet the debate over state legitimacy and its relation to individual freedom and autonomy long predates this (Piper, 2017: para. 2). A number of attempts have been made by philosophers to reconcile the two ideas. This essay will explore these explanations, particularly in the realm of social contract theory and democratic legitimacy, and whether they address the “anarchist challenge” which would contend that no reconciliation is possible.
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It is first worthwhile examining the two concepts at hand. Max Weber famously defined the state as a “human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory” (Weber and Gerth, 1977: 78). The key word here is legitimate, since few would deny that state entities can have de facto authority. Indeed, the mere fact that people think the state has authority, and act accordingly, is enough for us to deduce that state can have de facto authority (Wolff, 1970: 7). Yet a deduction of the legitimate state is much harder, since as a normative concept we must demonstrate a priori its legitimacy (Wolff, 1970: 35).
The idea of autonomy is relatively modern construct, originally becoming a matter of intellectual interest during the enlightenment era (Piper, 2017: para. 1). The precise definition of autonomy is much-contested, yet it it is often used in conjunction with the idea of liberty. However, whilst liberty concerns merely the ability to act without external or internal constraints, autonomy concerns the independence and authenticity of the desires that move one to act in the first place (Möller, 2009: 760). In effect, it is how one governs oneself.
Since autonomy concerns self-government, the question naturally arises as to whether one can be truly self-governing whilst also being the citizen of a nation state. It is here that the distinction between liberty and autonomy is especially relevant. For while being a member of a nation state inevitably entails the loss of absolute liberty, it cannot be taken for granted that being a citizen entails the complete loss of autonomy (Carter, 2018: para. 6).
The first modern philosopher to explore the question of autonomy was Immanuel Kant. In Kantian philosophy, autonomy is rooted in man’s capacity for rational thought (Johnson and Cureton, 2018: para. 1). We are, in a metaphysical sense, completely free. However, freedom is not defined by an absence of laws, but rather laws we have made for ourselves through rational deduction (Johnson and Cureton, 2018: para. 1). We are, in that sense, wholly autonomous and accountable only to ourselves.
Robert Paul Wolff uses Kant’s framework to make the case against the concept of legitimate government. His pre-eminent work, “In Defence of Anarchism”, outlines the incompatibility of Kantian moral autonomy and legitimate state authority. Wolff agues that although the decrees of the state may overlap with one’s moral code, or be followed for practical reasons, it is (almost) never wholly compatible with an individual’s moral autonomy (Wolff, 1970: 34).
Wolff spends a considerable part of his work examining the appropriateness of democracy as a solution to the issue of autonomy and legitimate authority. He concludes that unanimous direct democracy may provide a solution to the issue at hand, however rightly points out that in modern society it is completely impractical (Wolff, 1970: 14). All other varieties of democracy, Wolff states, ultimately leave some individuals unrepresented and therefore without full autonomy (Wolff, 1970: 34).
This contention has, of course, has not gone unchallenged. Lisa Perkin writes that true moral autonomy is dependent on the presumption of a political order (Christie, 1977: 34). Indeed, Wolff’s acceptance of unanimous direct democracy shows that individuals may bind themselves in advance to decision’s they could later regret or find unacceptable. Therefore, it is merely a matter of degrees how far you take this principle, and a minimal libertarian style state (as explored by Robert Nozick) may be just as appropriate (Christie, 1977: 34).
Furthermore, it is noteworthy that both Wolff and Kant use the same concept of moral autonomy to reach radically different conclusions on the issue of the state. Kant not only rejects the idea of anarchy, but considers the state an indispensable component of moral autonomy (Fabienne, 2017: para. 2.2).
Kant reconciles this issue by calling upon social contract theory. The idea of a “social contract” was first developed in the enlightenment era, and concerns the hypothetical (or not) union between individuals and the state to justify state authority (Fabienne, 2017: para. 2.1). There exists a wide range of academic views as to the exact conditions of the social contract, and it is often used by political philosophers as a way to underpin their understanding of human nature. Yet, there are two central tenants that constitute all social contract theories. Firstly, that there is a hypothetical “state of nature” in which individuals exist in a pre-social environment without state authority (Fabienne, 2017: para. 2.1). And secondly, that individuals, for whatever reason, find this pre-social environment untenable and join in a union to create a sovereign state (Fabienne, 2017: para. 2.1).
There exists some philosophical debate as to whether the social construct is a purely hypothetical concept, or grounded in some level of historiography (Friend, 2018: para. 1). Immanuel Kant, however, uses it in a purely hypothetical sense. Kant argues that it does not matter whether individuals in the state of nature actually agreed to the social contract, all that matters is that they would (Friend, 2018: para. 3). This is as rational autonomous actors; we understand the advantage of association in sovereign states. Therefore, by hypothetically agreeing to the social contract, we sacrifice none of our moral autonomy by submitting to state authority (Friend, 2018 para. 3).
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Indeed, Kant argues that not only is there no contradiction between autonomy and state authority, it is our moral duty to follow the decrees of the state. As he writes, “if the subject decides to resist the present ruling authority as the result of ruminating on its origin, he would be rightfully punished, destroyed, or exiled…in accordance with the laws of that authority itself” (Kant and Ladd, 1986: 84).
We have therefore gone from Wolff’s promotion of anarchy, to Kant’s rejection of it, whilst using the same framework of moral autonomy. However, Kant’s hypothetical solution has proved compelling, and John Rawls used a similar framework to defend his social contract in A Theory of Justice (1971) (Fabienne, 2017: para. 7).
Yet, for a number of reasons, we have to treat this form of consent with some scepticism. Firstly, it is not explicit consent. At no point are individuals actually asked whether they agree to the contract. It is assumed that under alternative circumstances (which an individual almost certainly doesn’t find themselves under) citizens would agree to subjugate themselves to state authority (Dagger and Lefkowitz, 2018: para. 1.3). It is here that Robert Wolff’s argument proves more persuasive, since how can one be truly autonomous while obeying a social contract they did not explicitly agree to?
Furthermore, Kant’s justification of state authority is malleable. As J.W. Gough writes, “[W]hen the social contract has admittedly been reduced to an imaginary hypothesis… its content can be manipulated at will, and there is no reason why it should not lead in the end to the totalitarian state” (Gough et al., 1938: 180). Once again we must defer to Wolff’s contention that in the modern age Democracy is the only possible solution to the issue of autonomy and authority, and a theory which can be used to justify authoritarianism is inadequate.
Reconciling the issue of autonomy and state legitimacy continues to be a source of contention in political philosophy (and indeed wider society). We can deduce that states certainly poses de facto authority. Yet no exhaustive solution to the issue of legitimate de jure authority presents itself. It is here that Robert Paul Wolff’s rejection of the legitimate state proves most compelling. Since no form of association can represent the views and beliefs of it’s members at all times and in all circumstances. Yet the ideas of authority and autonomy are so fluid and contentious that they require a nuanced approach. Therefore, it is not appropriate to completely reject the possibility that moral autonomy and state authority are compatible. Social contract theory, in all its iterations, provides a potential solution to this issue which many political philosophers have drawn upon. Numerous other solutions, which we were unable to explore in this essay, further attest to the complexity and nuance of the issue. In conclusion, it would be difficult to presume any single answer to the question at hand, yet there certainly exists a case that the issue of autonomy and authority can be reconciled.
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- Johnson, R. and Cureton, A. (2018). Kant’s Moral Philosophy (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). [online] Plato.stanford.edu. Available at: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/kant-moral/#Aut [Accessed 5 Nov. 2018].
- Kant, I. and Ladd, J. (1986). The metaphysical elements of justice. New York: Macmillan.
- Möller, K. (2009). Two Conceptions of Positive Liberty: Towards an Autonomy-based Theory of Constitutional Rights. Oxford Journal of Legal Studies, 29(4), pp.757-786.
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- Wolff, R. (1970). In defence of anarchism. New York: Harper Colophon Books.
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