Political Philosophy Spring 2018

A Challenge to Political Authority


Everyone we have read to this point has assumed that people are permitted to grant the state authority. The question has been whether they have actually done so by, for example, agreeing to a social contract. Wolff thinks the original assumption is mistaken. As he sees it, giving the state authority means agreeing to abide by its decisions even when you think they are wrong. But, Wolff thinks, it would be irresponsible to do such a thing and so accepting any state’s claim of authority would be immoral.

Wolff’s case

Autonomy, for Wolff, means making decisions for yourself. Taking someone else as an authority means accepting what they say because they say it. The fact that an order comes from someone with authority over me is supposed to be reason enough for me to comply with the order, entirely apart from my own assessment of whether the order is correct. For that reason, authority and autonomy are incompatible.

Because Wolff thinks we are obliged to be autonomous, he thinks it’s wrong to recognize the state, or anyone else, as having authority.

That means that Wolff is an anarchist. But he is a mild mannered anarchist. He doesn’t seem to have an appetite for getting rid of the state; as Simon noted, the state will still exist with all of its powers even if you accept everything Wolff says. Wolff also thinks that you should usually do what the law requires. You should stop at stop signs, for instance, because doing otherwise is dangerous. And that’s the point. You should stop because it’s dangerous and not because the state said so. That’s the upshot of his anarchism.

I think Sarah’s analogy with civil disobedience is a good one. Wolff advocates thinking for yourself and, when the law is wrong, disobeying it.

Nonetheless, I don’t think we should minimize what Wolff is saying. He’s saying that we fundamentally misunderstand our relationship to the state and that no one can be obliged to obey the state (as opposed to having moral obligations that happen to coincide with what the state commands). That’s pretty dramatic.

Cases where authority seems OK

Wolff thinks we are obliged to be autonomous. I think that’s overstated. I can think of at least two morally acceptable reasons for granting authority to another person.

  1. Expertise: I believe what experts say because they are experts, without evaluating their reasons for myself.

  2. Agency: I authorize agents to act on my behalf because it is convenient to do so, even though they might not act exactly as I would have done.

Then I suggested that some of what the state does is similar to one of these two everyday cases of acceptable authority.

Sometimes the state has greater expertise. That was the entire rationale for Plato’s state: the government should be in the hands of those who know the most about what to do. But even if you think that our state is far from Plato’s ethical aristocracy, you can still concede that, quite often, its officials know more than you do.

Sometimes it’s just convenient to have the state act. One theme of the social contract theorists is that it’s far more important that we have some rules than that we have any particular ones. Since we can only have rules if the government imposes them, it makes sense to view the government as our agent, agreeing to the rules that we would want.

When is authority a problem?

Suppose you subtracted those elements of government that involve either expertise or arbitrary rule making. Would authority be questionable for the rest of the things that the government does?

Sometimes you have to evaluate what the state is doing for yourself. Is this war immoral? Can I comply with the state religion in good conscience? Do I have to comply with the laws regulating so-called victimless crimes, like personal drug use, even if I think they are foolish?

I think that Wolff’s argument is strongest in these cases.

Main points

These are the main ideas you should be familiar with or have an opinion about.

  1. Why does Wolff think autonomy and authority conflict?
  2. What does Wolff’s anarchism involve?
  3. Different cases of recognizing authority.


Wolff, Robert Paul. 1970. In Defense of Anarchism. New York: Harper & Row.