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Relationship Between Political Authority And Moral Autonomy Philosophy Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Philosophy
Wordcount: 4517 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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“Every person who possesses both free will and reason has an obligation to take responsibility for her actions. This obligation is not compatible with the recognition of political obligation” Discuss this statement with particular reference to the anarchist literature on the obligation to obey the law.


In this essay, I am going to contemplate a fundamental jurisdictional problem of political philosophy, the relationship between political authority and moral autonomy. Value will be given to the concept of political obligation imposed by the state to all individuals. I will then seek to present a number of the most influential theories of anarchist philosophers, that come to invalidate political obligation with respect to the notion of autonomy that each individual possesses. Dealing with the unravelling of today’s society, I will eventually defend that the compatibility of individual autonomy with political obligation in a state, is not a futile demand, but rather a reality.

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The Concept of Political Obligation

Throughout the years, the matter of political obligation has been at the at the very heart of political philosophy. One should acknowledge that to have a political obligation is to have a moral duty to obey the laws of one’s country or state [1] . The basic function of law is to ensure that all humans beings are being treated equally and to protect individuals from injustices of our everyday lives. In approaching this issue, it can be argued that law gives a sense of order and decency among people. According to the author Smith, prima facie obligation to obey the law is owed, not to one’s government but rather to one’s fellow citizens [2] . According to Milne, the central idea of obligation is that of having to do something because it is the right thing to do [3] . It can be argued that all individuals of a community must therefore be obliged to respect and obey specific laws in order to maintain and promote the public interest.

Law has had a very significant meaning for the dignified passage of man from this life. However it seemed that law at some point prevailed over human beings and did not favor individual’s rights. The individual’s obligation to obey the law was therefore questioned. Individuals illustrated the main rationale behind political obligation, which was the authority of the government. The problem of political obligation therefore indicated the question as to why citizens of modern states should accept the state’s claim to be a duty imposer [4] . Fundamental topics of political obligation, such as its existence, scope and justification became crucial matters on the debate of political philosophy. position of power is established inequality is automatically created, Inequalities caused by society). Authority is inherent with human relationships. Between the one who exercises authority and the one who is affected by it, there is a relationship of inequality.

The concept of political obligation was first reversed by anarchists. The complex nature of political obligation concerned anarchists in the ground that when imposed by the state, it came in contrast with individual freedom and autonomy. Political obligation is defined as the clash between the individual’s claim to self-governance and the right of the state to claim obedience [5] . Anarchism, is the only modern social doctrine that unequivocally rejects the concept of the state with its omnipresent evils of political power and authority [6] . Anarchist theory which was opposed to the respect of law, was largely reinforced by opinions by several anarchist philosophers. Anarchist literature acquired fans and along with the creation of many groups they reached to the point to threaten the existing political situation.

Anarchist literature on political obligation

The examination and analysis of the anarchist literature, is an essential component for the understanding of anarchist views regarding the nature of personal autonomy and its conflict with political obligation. Initially, we must examine what it is meant by anarchism. Anarchy, is the state of affairs in which a society operates without authority and mediators. Anarchism supports a situation  in which  everyone has the first word on every aspect of everyday  life,  without imposed restrictions and laws by the state, without hierarchical relations and exploitation. Anarchist philosophers use the concept of autonomy to argue for the legitimacy of obedience to authority, and emphasize on the individual’ s right of making up his own mind based on the ideal of moral autonomy [7] . Authority is a political problem in relation to anarchism, which is why anarchism requires the abolition of the state.

Anarchism does not mean  unlimited  freedom  nor  denied responsibility. As Kropotkin argued, “socialism, must become less dependent upon indirect government through elected representatives, it must become more self-governing” [8] . Kropotkin justified his own theory on anarchism. According to his point of view, anarchy is the name given to a theory of life and conduct under which society functions without government [9] . In such a society, the harmony succeeds  not  through obedience to the law, but with free agreements concluded between various groups [10] . Humans could achieve the full development of all skills, intellectual, artistic and moral without being hindered by the overtime in favor of the monopolists by or the servility and inactivity of mind of the vast majority [11] . 

Anarchism is considered the only political doctrine consistent with the virtue of autonomy [12] . The significant philosopher Paul Wolff in his book ‘In Defense of Anarchism’, concludes that the moral autonomy of the individual will never be compatible with the legitimate authority of the state. He argues that a citizen cannot retain his autonomy and at the same time be under an obligation to obey the commands of the state simply because they are the commands of the state [13] . He indicated how a citizen is related to the commands of authority by expressing that the autonomous man is not subject to the will of another and he may do what another tells him, but not because he has been told to do it, because for the autonomous man, there is no such thing as a command and therefore he is politically free” [14] .

Anarchists disapprove authority of the state because they support that no one within a society should be under rules. Wolff supports that authority is defined to be the right to command and correlatively, the right to be obeyed [15] . He considers on that basis that the defining mark of the state is authority, the right to rule, while the primary obligation of man is autonomy, the refusal to be ruled [16] . Illustrating the incompatibility of the concept of authority with the rationale of autonomy, was similarly expressed by the political philosopher Raz, who pointed out that authority sometimes requires action against one’s own judgment and consequently it requires abandoning one’s moral autonomy and since all practical questions may involve moral considerations, all practical authority denies moral autonomy and is consequently immoral [17] .

The well-known Russian revolutionary Bakunin, supported that the principle of authority that is applied to men who have attained their majority, becomes a monstrosity, a flagrant denial of humanity, a source of slavery and intellectual and moral depravity [18] . He consequently concluded to the consideration that the only grand and omnipotent authority, at once natural and rational, the only one which we may respect, will be that of the collective and public spirit of a society founded on equality and solidarity and the mutual human respect of all its members [19] . Accordingly, Bakunin elucidated possible future developments by arguing that “the future social organization must be made solely from the bottom upwards, by the free association or federation of workers, firstly in their unions, then in communes, regions, nations and finally in a great federation, international and universal”  [20] .

The dominant model of autonomy can be argued to be the exact opposite of authority. As a political ideal, autonomy is used as a basis to argue against the design and functioning of political institutions that attempt to impose a set of ends, values and attitudes upon the citizens of a society [21] . Kant described the protection of autonomy at the political level and stated that each person had the right to any action that can coexist with the freedom of every other person in accordance with universal law [22] . For that reason, he stated that instead of being obedient to an externally imposed law, one should be obedient to one’s own self-imposed law, adding that the autonomous man is not subject to the will of another [23] . On that basis, Rawls expressed that the concept of Kantian constructivism was to establish a connection between the first principles of justice and  the  conception of moral persons as free and equal. With the aim of describing the rejection of political institutions by autonomy, it is significant to present McLaughlin’s view which states that anarchists reject the traditional claims made for the legitimacy of state authority and challenge those authoritative powers which cannot justify their claims and which are therefore deemed illegitimate or without moral foundation [24] .

As an aspect, autonomy is generally intertwined with the right to pursue one’s interests without undue restriction [25] . It is crucial to affirm that Proudhon achieved one of the most  important  contributions in anarchist theory and socialism in general. He declared the idea, that the great complexity of social life, required decentralization and autonomy of communities [26] . The basic outline of the argument, is that through the complexity of the interests and advancement of ideas, society is  forced  to renounce the state, by devaluing the mechanism of the government under the shade of its political institutions [27] . Proudhon argued that society slowly  and silently formed its own organization, building for itself a new order which reflects  the vitality  and  autonomy ‘ [28] .

It is prima facie impermissible to interfere with an individual’s right of autonomy where the individual is respectful of that right in others [29] . Autonomy, found a constructive expression in Mill’s writings. The philosopher defends the rights of individuals to pursue their own personal goals, and emphasizes the need for being one’s own person [30] . According to Mill, “the conduct of anyone in the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute and over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign” [31] . Every individual who possesses free will, has self-control and at the same time rejects any need of control by authority. Having no people to control, authority faces(antimetopizi) autonomy as the central threat to its existence.

Following a middle path compatibility will arrive

In defending my position, I consider that authority and its entailed duty to obey, can be compatible with and basically necessary to individual autonomy. In a modern democracy, obligation to obey the law must be exercised to benefit society. By obeying laws, which constitute the basis of the democracy, we ensure a stable regime of democracy, which has been revealed to be the most ideal throughout the centuries. The functioning of constitutional institutions and processes of political democracy provides opportunities, wider organizational framework and  ideological debate. In order for democracy to be maintained, law must exist. In view of that John Locke provided the idea that “every man, that hath any possessions, or enjoyment, of any part of the dominions of any government, doth thereby give his tacit consent, and is as far forth obliged to obedience to the laws of that government, during such enjoyment, as anyone under it” [32] .

In defending obligation to obey the law, we have a duty to support and to comply with just institutions that exist and apply to us [33] . It is a necessity therefore for the individuals to understand that all rules require a positive effort to comply, which cannot be achieved passively [34] . As Philip Soper demonstrated, we have a duty to respect those officials who in good faith strive to further the common good by maintaining the rule of law, by acknowledging a duty to obey the law [35] . Everyone would agree, that in order to refrain from murder, rape, or breach of contract, there is a prima facie obligation to obey specific laws in order not to violate laws which prohibit these acts. Accordingly, the philosopher Baier held the view that a universal obedience to certain rules that override self-interest, would produce a state of affairs which serves everyone’s interest much better than the unaided pursuit off it in a state where everybody does the same [36] .

The state, gives the ordinary citizen freedom to express his opinion in the political process. According to my estimation, obligations of people before the law, do not bound them as to the extent of not being able to have their own judgment or opinion. The authority of the state, can affect the lives of citizens, but citizens can influence policy as well. The existing political system and legislation allows people to apply their judgment through their right to vote. The ordinary citizen cannot suggest any law, but the system of democracy allows him to express his opinion, by giving him the right to vote his representatives who will suggest laws to be voted. Furthermore, in some constitutions the public opinion applies. The courts in the United kingdom have the interpretation of legislation and meander more regularly according to the public opinion, instead of legislation. This justifies that constant efforts are being made by the state, for the fair administration of human situations, in order for the state not to violate the citizen’s human rights. Nonetheless, several laws that are suggested, favor a certain group of people while others are left aside. The only solution for those whose rights are being violated, is the mobilization and massive reaction towards everything that is not good for us, namely an anarchist reaction.

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Anarchism is the public opinion that has affected the political system, and it is necessary in order to balance autonomy with the obligation to obey the law. Anarchists display the view, that autonomous persons are in a kind of authoritative control of their own choices, actions and goals and that guarantees that a person’s life is free of the domination of others [37] , This is regarded to be an extreme view, but this does not mean we must become extremists, because it would then mean non compliant to social norms and therefore law. What I would suggest, is that where we feel that regulations treat us wrong and limit our autonomy, it is there where we should at least show an anarchist reaction. It is only there, that we are obliged to be anarchists and not in all aspects of our lives and on everything that might be imposed upon us. It is worth establishing that I am not canceling all laws, but anarchists have opened our eyes by indicating us that we should not have blind obedience to law. As Harris stated, those for whom the law has come weight in their moral decision-making, are entitled to question the need for the law, just as they are entitled to question any other rule that has moral import for their decisions on how to act [38] . Hence, those responsible for the law have an obligation to take these views into account in a dispassionate and reasoned way, for that is a requirement of the moral point of view under reasoned discourse [39] . Whatever does not benefit us as human beings we must try and overturn it towards the best.

In view of the fact that although anarchists thoughts on autonomy are accurate, anarchism by itself is neither possible nor desirable in a political system. The principle of autonomy in terms of defending individual choices and decisions, promotes human individuality and it could be criticized that it overlooks the importance of social relationships and dependency. Individuals need to depend on each other in order to succeed in the path of life. It would be detrimental for constant revolutionizing to exist because people need stability in their lives. No anarchism regime has survived in practice and this situation justifies the fact that the value of autonomy can be seen as compatible with the social need. On that basis, law should be desirable because it works as a mediator to the maintenance of good human relationships and will provide the stability in people’s lives. The reasoning of the great philosopher Hobbes is to be welcomed, because it demonstrates that individuals without government, would be tremendously unlikely to live in security and peaceful cooperation, by identifying that we would violently compete to secure the basic necessities of life, we would fight out of fear so as to ensure our personal safety, and we would seek glory for its protective effects [40] . Law will protect the weak from the powerful one. For that reason, law is required to provide legislation, that is accepted and obeyed by all individuals as a means that protects their rights and does not restrict their autonomy.

Finally, free will and responsibility must be applicable within a more temperate policy system. Analyzing the concept of political obligation and anarchists views on autonomy, we can assume that they encompass outcomes that are both good and bad. Even so, what both represent, are absolute and radical views and those kind of views cannot and must not prevail. We are free and sentient beings, who should realize that government was created because human needed it and therefore it would be intolerable from us to use anarchism as a means of breaking down the system. What I would suggest, is to successfully arrange some form of government. This will be achieved if we uphold the moderate views and combine them, and only then will we be able to reach a desirable result, that will satisfy everyone. In order to accomplish that, law must give importance to autonomy and its fundamental role it plays in our understanding of the world, and in the way we structure and organize society [41] . In addition, individuals that are affected by law, must positively accept and apply it in their everyday lives.

It is significant to establish that politics are considered to be the science and art of alternative solutions. As a result, government must be able to reconcile the authority of the state with the autonomy of the individual, in order to manage uncertainties and risks to society. It was realized by Hobbes, that our attention must not be focused on the question of social and political order, but rather on how to maximize liberty, how to define social justice, how to draw the limits of government power, and how to realize democratic ideals [42] . The state must release innovative social forces, increase social wealth, choices and opportunities and minimize the fear and insecurity generated by the scientific and technological revolution, globalization, integration and expansion of markets and the personalization process in today’s society. Following Rawls thought, the intuitive idea is to design the social system so that the outcome is just whatever it happens to be, at least so long as it is within a certain range [43] . Government needs to convent this problem into an opportunity.

Authority is a form of domination, it is a dominative power, that involves the capacity of one party to exercise control over another party [44] .

I and I alone, am ultimately responsible for the decisions I make, and am in that sense autonomous [45] .

Acting autonomously is acting from principles that we would consent to as free and equal rational beings [46] .

generally intertwined with the right to pursue one’s interests without undue restriction

Primary question


As has been shown, several legal philosophical issues arising from the concept of political obligation and the value of autonomy, have been analyzed and embodied in this essay. Extensive investigation of political and anarchist literature helped us root out whether a harmonic relationship between individual’s moral autonomy and the political obligation to obey the law can be established. Carole Pateman and John Simmons have argued that political obligation is an unsolved problem for liberal theory [47] . Nevertheless, this essay depicts that moral autonomy and political obligation can and should coexist.

Autonomy should be conscientiously guarded, with both knowledge and awareness of its usefulness to the humanity. It is justified that,

This situation can constitute an attitude that over time, if not reversed, will take such dimensions, that will

theory that is based on the idea that individual autonomy is a fundamental political value

picture of the world


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