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Every Person Should Take Responsibility For Free Will Philosophy Essay

In this essay’s subject we are given two positions, that every person who possesses free will and reason has an obligation to take responsibility for his or her actions and if this is valid that there is a distinction between that obligation and the recognition of political obligation. This is found in Wolff’s In defence of anarchism and is of course supported by a number of other writers. For the purposes of this essay I will hold Wolff to be their general spokesman.

Wolff’s position

Much like Sartwell [1] , in his In defence of anarchism, Wolff’s thesis is that there is no such thing as a de jure state, a morally legitimate state is a logical impossibility and that philosophical anarchism is "the only reasonable political belief for an enlightened man." He proceeds by first explaining the concepts of authority and autonomy and then arguing that they are irreconcilable and “genuinely incompatible”. He concludes that the States and political institutions lack moral justification or, in his own words that, "all authority is equally illegitimate” with only one exception, explained below. Following a similar arrangement I will now proceed to explain Wolff’s reasoning and then analyse it through the goggles of some other writers and mine. I will begin with some definitions and conceptual elaborations.

Responsibility and Autonomy of the Individual

According to Kant and the followers of his moral philosophy, individual autonomy as an idea can be generally understood to refer to the ability of a person to be “his own boss”, to live his life according to choices, reasons, motives and justifications that are taken by himself alone and that are not the product of any manipulative or distorting external force. Giving such a moral weight on an individual's ability to do so, regardless of any social status, is a relatively modern concept. It is one of the products of the Enlightenment humanism (some other products are western atheism and the Protestant reformation) of the late 16th and 17th centuries.

For Wolff, the responsible and autonomous person is one that is bound by moral constraints but judges those constraints personally, without any external affection. Such persons are allowed to listen to the opinions of others, where existing, in order to decide what to do, but will not, in any case, rely on another’s authority to determine what they must do, nor be told what they must do, nor submit to any laws that are not regulated and enacted by themselves. In other words Wolff’s autonomous person is one that does anything within her powers to oppose all kinds of slavery, both physical and metaphysical.

Allow me to disagree with Wolff insisting on considering moral autonomy as primary and overriding over everything else, namely authority, or rather don’t understand why. I would rather line up with some of Wolff's critics, like Horton, argue that he is wrong to insist that moral autonomy is our primary or fundamental obligation, for this would require us “to think that autonomy will always over-ride values such as not harming other people, supporting loved ones, doing a favour for a friend or even more mundane desires, such as that for a quiet life, with which this ideal of moral autonomy will from time to time conflict” [2] 

State, Political Obligation and Authority

“The state is a group of persons who have and exercise supreme authority within a given territory…Distinctive of the state is supreme authority whether it be vested in one person or in a group of persons.” [3] 

Political obligation is the duty that falls on a permanent resident of a state, a citizen, to obey that particular state’s laws. It is distinguished from a legal obligation to obey the same laws, which is extended to visitors and tourists.

Much ink has been spilt by political philosophers and writers that have concerned themselves with the existence and nature of political obligation. Most of them have thought it more suitable to “denote” the meaning of the term obligation, to that of duty. Obligation is strict; you ought or you ought not to do something. Duty has a more elastic concept; you ought or you ought not to do something unless there is a sufficient moral justification for the contrary. There has also been much debating over whether such an obligation actually exists, or even if it has ever existed.

Authority is “the right to command, and correlatively, the right to be obeyed, which entails that anyone subject to authority has a – political – obligation to obey those who have the right to be obeyed. The power to compel compliance, however, is not the same as authority. As a matter of fact, states use and threaten the use of force in order to compel compliance with their rules and regulations. But that fact does not confer authority on them.” [4]  

We find in his writings that Wolff is a firm supporter of the non-existence and non-justification of any such authority and naturally neither of a valid political obligation. Not just nowadays, but goes many steps further to claim that they may have never existed throughout history. Like most philosophical anarchists, he “encourages” us to abandon the State and form an anarchic society, by describing every existing political system that as he supports fails to justify its existence morally.

When is political authority legitimate?

Most theorists have argued that the legitimacy of political authority is one that holds only when the political authority satisfies certain normatively important conditions. The four types of general theory of legitimacy that are discussed today are consent theories, reasonable consensus theories, associative obligation theories and instrumentalist theories.

What would a de jure state be for Wolff?

A political authority whose commands have binding moral force and its use of coercion by the threat of force and violence would be justified, in contrast to raw power, as the case of the thief he describes. He namely gives as the only valid political system a unanimous direct democracy [5] , although he himself considers it to be impossible to exist. This I find to be his only difference to Sartwell’s opinion, where “government is in every case illegitimate”

The Conflict

“The defining mark of the state is authority, the right to rule. The primary obligation of man is autonomy, the refusal to be ruled”

You can already see here the real issue entailed in our statement above, that Wolff is concerned with; the conflict between authority and autonomy. We are already told why authority is a threat to moral autonomy; but why is self-control, autonomy, such a threat to authority? An anarchist – libertarian approach is that because the person who controls himself, who is his own master, has no need for an authority to be his master, which in turn renders authority unemployed. Of what use would authority be if it cannot control others? In short, authority needs subjects, persons not in command of themselves; just as parents need children and physicians need patients. [6] Somewhere along this lines lies one of the fundamental differences between anarchism and Marxism, with the first arguing authority to be useless and dangerous, while the latter considering it dangerous only at the hands of the wrong people and action must be taken to take it away from them.

Philosophers like Wolff and Sartwell are trying to create the appearance of a really strong clash; either it is justifiable, therefore allowed to operate, either it is not and must be abolished. Such anarchists are of the conviction that the burden of proof has to be placed on authority, and that it should be dismantled if that burden cannot be met.

However, other anarchists do not follow this line of thinking, notably Noam Chomsky arguing that “if you want to be a part of the society, you have to accept the majority decisions within it, in general, unless there is a very strong reason not to…If you are part of the community, you accept behavioural patterns that maybe you don't agree with. But there comes a point when this is unacceptable, when you feel you have to act under your own conscious choice and the decisions of the majority are immoral…Sometimes you have to decide in opposition to your friends. Sometimes that would be legitimate, sometimes not. There simply are no formulas for such things and cannot be. Human life is too complex, with too many dimensions. If you want to act in violation of community norms, you have to have pretty strong reasons. The burden of proof is on you to show that you are right…There is just too much we don't know, so lots of alternatives should be tried.” [7] 

Can moral autonomy and political authority co-exist?

Wolff attempts to give an answer to that although he has made it clear throughout his work that obeying only oneself is paramount, he is willing to make an exception, that of a unanimous direct democracy, a system where every citizen votes unanimously on every issue. His reasoning behind this is that “under unanimous direct democracy, every member of the society wills freely every law which is actually passed. Hence, he is only confronted as a citizen with laws to which he has consented. Since a man who is constrained only by the dictates of his own will is autonomous, it follows that under the directions of unanimous direct democracy, men can harmonize the duty of autonomy with the commands of authority” [8] 

This is vital as it would seem to me that Wolff’s idea of the perfect state is found in that of the ancient Athens, a direct and unanimous democracy governed by the Church of the People, the assembly of the people, who would vote on everything.

Of course he immediately makes it clear again that such a state cannot exist, as the requirements which he describes are so impossible to meet that make inevitably such a State would be of a short period. Upon that period’s end there would be either anarchy either a rise of a de facto government. Perhaps it is the suggestion of Wolff that Athenians had made the right start, so what went wrong?

Well for once, a point also raised by Wolff, their system was slow and efficient only as long as everyone agreed on the important issues, where there were even a few disagreeing citizens its operation would come to a halt. But I do not want to stay on the reasons of their failure, I would like to commend on the reasons of their success for as long as it lasted and their motives. Ancient Athens was a hegemonic town – State, that came to be such a great military and economic force precisely because of that direct democracy. Unsurprisingly though, and in anarchists’ disappointment, it came to be so because the citizens had realized how strength is in numbers and cooperation. The sole purpose of the creation of that political system was to become strong in a short period of time to fend off their enemies i.e. the Persians and the Spartans. And while such that direct democracy was in force in the metropolitan Athens, its colonies were reduced to nothing but conventional allies and economic partners, in order to inject Athens with army and income at all times. Therefore I would say, however as a Greek I admire ancient Athens, the motives behind that kind of democracy were again, a collective interest by its citizens to welfare and flourish more than their contemporary town – States. Ironically enough, this attitude caused their downfall.

I believe the only way individual autonomy and political authority can coexist is when we, the citizens, ask ourselves one thing; is it so bad to allow some of my autonomy to be lost, when the outcome would be to my best interest, even if I do not understand why? Nowadays we take some human rights, such as the right to privacy, as so impenetrable that even the slightest intervention by the others to those rights is a sin and a terrible thing!

This is not the case, human rights are not hereditary, they have been achieved and granted after long fights throughout history. If today we have the opportunity to debate whether the State has the right to interfere with our lives, that is because in the past our ancestors had thought it morally correct to defend their States against interference by others, thus ascending the State’s image. To be truly free is not to insist no one interfere with us, because by doing so, or to deny any suppression of our autonomy, that is inevitable to happen at many points in our life. To be truly free is to be able, to have the capacity and the willing to keep an open mind, bend our moral rules to adjust with the rules of everyone else and by doing so, since the State is supposed to be our guardian, we will find that we can go a long way without any interference by anyone. After all, who would interfere with someone doing what they do?

“Every person who possesses both free will and reason has an obligation to take responsibility for her actions”

Wolff is a renowned debater in favour of philosophical anarchism, and it is only natural that he supports that priority ought to be given to the duty owed to one’s self to be his own boss and not be ruled by others, over the obligation to obey another’s laws.

As he describes it, “if we acknowledge such an authority, we allow someone else to rule us, thereby violating our fundamental obligation to act autonomously. We must therefore reject the claim that we have an obligation to obey the orders of those who purport to hold authority over us and conclude that there can be no general obligation to obey the laws of any polity that falls short of a unanimous direct democracy.” [9] 

I find this first part of the statement particularly complex and although Wolff spends a small amount of space to justify it, it is still not clarified; why is there any obligation by such individuals to take any responsibility of anything and what is the nature of this responsibility? In his writings Wolff takes for granted and as fundamentally true that any individuals with these traits will always think of their best interest and find the best way to act in every situation. Even if they do not act accordingly, they will however have thought of the consequences of not doing so, thus take responsibility for doing or not doing it. Therefore such a duty as I understand it is owed to themselves.

But this is a far as Wolff goes in trying to justify this claim and we are not convinced of the nature of this duty. Is it a natural and instinctual duty such as the duty – need to feed and stay healthy? Is it a self-imposed duty – habit like greed and selfishness? Is it a moral duty, like the duty to respect the elders, or is it even a theological duty, like the duty not to cheat on your wife? We are not told or given any evidence as to how to identify the nature of such a duty and, if we cannot know its nature, how can you agree that it is paramount as Wolff suggests? Since he commends and analyses parts of Kant’s philosophy, we can only assume that it is supposed to be of a moral nature deriving directly from the moral autonomy of the individual, as described by Kantian philosophers.

Another question remains unanswered regarding this part; is it because of her possession of free will and reason that one has the aforementioned obligation? Note the use of “has” instead of “ought” or “should”. The fact that someone is free, and that she possesses reason, are non-normative facts about her personality. Taken together they entail that she should be capable of taking responsibility for her actions, as explained by Wolff (above), but the writer does not tell us, or even provide a hint to explain how does it follow that she “ought” to take responsibility of them, that she is morally obliged to. From where this notion flows it is not explained neither by him nor by any of his contemporaries; why is it immoral and “untrue” towards oneself to give away even some of her autonomy if the exchange is, say, safety and welfare?

Other thoughts

The morally responsible person relies only on himself for the final decisions, about what he should do. It seems to me that a responsible person, on Wolff's conception, not only will but must disregard any moral instruction that he cannot understand or validate for himself with his own resources. The issue I wish to point here is what if he doesn't know what is in his own best interests? Or only knows it imperfectly? What if he lacks the insight to see what he must do? What if he is morally obtuse or value-blind or lacks the capacity for moral reasoning? Or perhaps he has moral insight but it is routinely and easily clouded by unruly passions. These are very common scenarios that Wolff avoids to consider.

But we are allowed to ask, if people are really of such a high intellectual and moral level, then shouldn’t anarchism be a state of affairs that would have been “imposed” by the same people naturally at some point in history, much like the Marxist movements and the various revolutions of the last century, or even the more recent chained uprisings within the Arab world of the first half of 2011? The only case where anarchism was successful in providing not the perfect Wolffian conditions, but at least a better situation than a previous Communist State, would be that of Somalia [10] , which again is by all means characterized as a failed state [11] and one of the poorest [12] of the world. Wolff and others of the same line would argue that Somalia has failed not because of a lack of a central government – authority – but because of the way it has been treated by the rest of the world – isolation. But at the same time can we not argue that this is a prime example of how utopian an anarchist state would be? If it requires the cooperation of everyone, or at least of a majority of people worldwide, how is that any different than a democratic State?

Perhaps another controversy on Wolff’s behalf is saying that it is never reasonable to give up autonomy in the political case, even though it is reasonable to give up autonomy in the doctor case. Beyond the apparent reason – that one very well admits the doctor’s superior knowledge on the matter – it almost seems as if Wolff implies those people are justified in giving away their autonomy when there is an imminent threat to their life or health. If we take it that, at least on a theoretical level, “the task of the state consists solely and exclusively in guaranteeing the protection of life, health, liberty, and private property against violent attacks” [13] it would seem that the State’s concern is to look after the welfare of a group of people larger than a doctor, but effectively laying down the same requirement; that both citizens and patients must follow i.e. submit to the State’s and the doctor’s orders respectively. Of course, in reality the application of this scenario would seem non – achievable at all times; but after all philosophers deal only with hypothetical scenarios that stand to reason even if they have limited or no chance of succeeding in real life.

The human societies, much like animal societies – no matter how much we like to think we differ from – are founded on the welfare of their members and their ability to cooperate efficiently. Kropotkin points this out very illustratively [14] . It has been the case from the prehistoric era, where larger groups or tribes would drive away smaller ones. In the words of Gray Lankford Dorsey “the necessity for cooperative action is the particular source of the necessity of authority to freedom, for in order to cooperate men must know what behaviour will be expected of them and what behaviour they may expect from others…for these expectations to be known and fulfilled, there must be rules which are commonly followed”.

Even if Wolff’s suggestions regarding the battle between autonomy and authority remain on the moral field, where he finds no moral justification for authority, I dare suggest one could argue that maybe there is no need for such a moral justification; what if the answer is as simple as “it is only natural to follow orders from a superior, it is in our nature”? Of course this concept is perhaps far-fetched for some philosophers, however reasonable for others. If we take as being true out of question that forming societies is an inevitable trait of our nature, the I guess my real question is, is it true that rulers had a need for authority to justify their existence – as Kropotkin suggests – or was it as Dorsey puts it, that people had a need for such rules to guarantee their existence? A need to “delegate” some responsibilities, such as administration of a larger group than their own household? I am sure my suggestion would find many supporters within military philosophers that believe everyone should follow the orders of their superior no matter what, as their superior knows at least one more detail regarding the situation of a wider group; this is after all the reason that one will find lesser and lesser individuals going higher the officers’ ranks, but by no means I do not suggest totalitarianism would be an appropriate system – at least not in most cases.


Autonomy refers to the individuals’ freedom to choose their own paths and be responsible for their own actions. However, this freedom is subordinated to an authority that institutes regulations meant for protecting the bigger society, the bigger group. Thus, people have to conform to certain organizational ethics which may not be similar to their personal ethics, but if they do not wish to lose everything i.e. spiritual and material benefits, they must endure them.

In contrast, where the craving for autonomy is of such paramount effect as Wolff suggests, individuals would just have to resort to choosing a company which holds values similar to their own, or in the last resort, isolation. So in a way, Wolff is right to assert that duty of moral autonomy and the political obligation are not compatible. But that is because some people chose to live on the extremes. For the rest who chose to adjust their modus vivendi for the greater good, the two obligations are not so hostile.

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