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Right To Rule Citizens Duty Obey The Law Philosophy Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

“If the individual retains his autonomy by reserving to himself in each instance the final decision whether to co-operate, he thereby denies the authority of the state; if, on the other hand, he submits to the state and accepts is claim to authority then… he loses his autonomy”. [1] Therefore, the free will of each person, correlative to autonomy, and the political obligation, correlative to authority, are contradicting terms for years. There are theorists who support that contradiction, such as Kropotkin, and others who are opposed, such as Robert F. Ladenson. The main follower of this conflict is Robert P. Wolff who supports that state’s right to rule and the citizen’s duty to obey the law are correlative views. In other words the citizen’s free will and the political obligation are two notions which cannot co-exist. In other words, basically the argument is that autonomy and political authority are ‘genuinely incompatible’.

Autonomy is the death knell of authority, and authority knows it. There is only one political sin: independence; and only one political virtue: obedience. In other words, the only offence for authority is self and there is only one obeisance to it: submission to control by authority [2] . Why is autonomy, or at least what some theorist wants it to be, such a threat to authority? Because the person who controls himself, who is his own master, has no need for an authority to be his master. In this way authority has not real work to do since what is he to do if he cannot control others? In short, authority needs subjects, persons not in command of themselves. However, how far is this view truthful and accurate? Is there no possibility for the two notions to co-exist even if not in their full capacity?

The term free will is a correlative view of autonomy. Autonomy is the capacity to choose one’s action, namely a self-legislating capacity. Is the duty to take responsibility for one’s action, or to make oneself the author of one’s conduct. Robert Wolff supports the view of autonomy that Kant pointed out, that “men are metaphysically free, which is to say that in some sense they are capable of choosing how they shall act.” Most philosophers suppose that the concept of free will is very closely connected to the concept of moral responsibility. Acting with free will, on such views, is just to satisfy the metaphysical requirement on being responsible for one’s action. [3] Free will also appears to be a condition on desert for one’s accomplishments, on the autonomy and dignity of persons.

It is simply not true that the absence of coercion has no value independently of a consideration of the ends and purposes that an individual may pursue. The fact that one is not coerced means that whatever is done is a product of choice, irrespective of whether it is directed to one’s long-term ends, the value of which may be in dispute. This is why anarchists oppose this much to authority and political obligation. They believe that the main reason for obedience is coercion, fear and insecurity. By having authority people are obliged to do something they have not chosen to do and this is against any believe of free will. There is surely some value in the fact that in a free society, opportunities exists for individuals to be authors of their own actions, and the only important moral point is whether their actions impinge on the liberties of others [4] . However, this argument is not necessarily true. There other reasons why a person may obey to the laws which is not related to coercion but related to free will to submit to a society because of the benefits it provides. Being able/free to choose does not necessarily mean to live in anarchy but to be able to decide what is best for yourself and the others around you.


Authority is the right to tell someone what to believe and/or how to act. There are two types of authority. Theoretical authority is the authority in matter of beliefs and is grounded in expertise and practical authority is the authority in matter of conduct, namely, the right to prescribe how others ought to behave. Robert Wolff defines authority as “the right to command and to be obeyed.” Political obligation is a presumptive moral duty incumbent on each and every individual living in a given territory to obey all the laws enacted by the political institutions ruling the country. For him since institutions are authoritative institutions they therefore carry, due to their nature, the requirement of obedience which essentially is the obligation to obey the rules; in other words political obligation. What is legal authority, and how is it related to obligations? It is a kind of practical authority, namely authority over action. On one influential view, “To claim authority is to claim the right to be obeyed” [5] . For that reason I will then refer to authority.

“Does authority have no basis in reason? Does reason ever prevail without an element of authority? Some argue that authority and reason are closely and by assuming this the developed proposition is that much authority rests upon the ability to issue communications which are capable of reasoned elaboration. The prevailing and erroneous view is often linked to a confusion of authority with power” [6] . But power is not the same thing as authority. In a wider view, authority is a form of power. It is a means through which an individual can influence the behavior of another…however, it is argues that compliance and obedience is achieved by the separation and distinction of the two meanings, which sometimes are referred to as contrasting theories. Power, is often defined as the ability to influence the behavior of another and whereas authority can be considered as the right to do so. Authority is based upon a perceive right to rule and brings about compliance through a moral obligation on the part of the ruled to obey [7] . Therefore, basically coercion is only needed in the situation where there is no ability to gain compliance.

Obedience and obligation

Legal authority is a part of political authority, and is considered to be the right to rule, with a correlative duty to obey. By ‘obeying’ we do not necessarily mean that we have to comply with the law but that the law is used as guidance. Robert Paul Wolff states that “obedience is not a matter of doing what someone tells you to do. It is a matter of doing what he tells you to do because he tells you to do it”. Even so, this is not to say that a person obeys only in treating the authority’s approval as an indefeasible reason for action, however must treat as a binding content-independent reason [8] . And as Raz puts it “the question whether there is an obligation to obey the law is a matter of whether we should act from the legal point of view and obey the law as it claims to be obeyed” [9] . Therefore one can argue that obeying the law is not necessarily forfeiting your autonomy. If the decision to obey the law comes from a continuous analysis and thought of the situation then obedience is a result of a person’s free will.

From earliest times philosophical reflection on political authority has focused on the obligation to obey. Political obligation is the obligation to support and comply with the political institutions of one’s country of residence and so, by extension, the law.

The Conflict between authority and autonomy

The theological doctrine is that man has free will, with which to choose good or evil, and that this is the defining characteristic of his God- given nature. The philosophical debate as to whether man is indeed free or determined has consequences for the adoption of political ideals [10] . “If all men have a continuing obligation to achieve the highest degree of autonomy possible, then there would appear to be no state whose subjects have a moral obligation to obey its commands. Hence, the concept of a de jure legitimate state would appear to be vacuous, and philosophical anarchism would seem to be the only reasonable political belief for an enlightened man. [11] ” Wolff resolves the dilemma in favor of autonomy and on that basis defends anarchism.

There is a substantial difference between de facto (in practise) and de jure (concerning the law). Several philosophers and social scientists are of the same mind that a social order is a legal system only if it has effective authority. Accordingly an effective authority (de facto) may not be justified, but it is in a position to justify/legitimate authority (de jure). The latter, is what the former is generally recognized to have. Philosophers, in order to support the view that autonomy is supreme and therefore incompatible with authority, attack the idea of legitimate authority. Therefore they argue that a legitimate, or de jure, authority is impossible to exist in any nation.

The anarcist theorists support the view that autonomy is superior. On the other hand, according to Aristotle, political authority is more foundamental than the autonomy of an individual. It can be argued at that point that Aristotle considers it to be in the best interest of the individual to approach the law in this way. One could argue that his main point is that, although it is true that a person could resolve the conflict between individual autonomy and authority by simply obeying the rules, if a just person decides to resolve the conflict in this way then it is consistent with autonomy and based on prudence. Sometimes an individual is willing to sacrifice some autonomy in order to gain any benefits from authority and political obligation, but complete incompatibility is not necessary in existence. Therefore, in either way, whichever notion a person is willing to take as more important does not necessarily show incompatibility but rather a willingness to sacrifice a level of one in order to have the other.


Anarchism is a skeptical theory of political obligation arguing that we are under no political obligation, only by challenging the law that individuals can protect their moral autonomy and sovereignty. Anarchism is divided into political anarchism and philosophical anarchism. Philosophical anarchism is the view that the very idea of legitimate political authority is incoherent. This is the view the Wolff follows and the type of anarchism used by most philosophers who insist on the incompatibility between free will and political obligation. However, some argue that the anarchist challenge to authority is either rested upon a misunderstanding of the true nature of authority which the anarchists themselves recognized under another name as based upon reason, or it became self-defeating.

Kropotkin and Proudhon were anarchist theorists who attacked authority in order to preserve autonomy. The former wrote in his work ‘Modern Science and Anarchism’ that “the anarchists envisage a society in which all mutual relations among members are not regulated by laws and by authorities, whether imposed or elected, but by the mutual agreement… No governmental authorities then! No government of man by man and no stagnation, but a continuous evolution such as we find in nature.” Kropotkin sensed the need for authority in the sense here recognized: “there must be men and communications which are capable of reasoned elaboration.”

According to the previous analysis, a political obligation is essentially a prima-facie moral duty to obey the laws of one’s polity. But does such an obligation really exist? Most political philosophers have assumed that the answer is yes. However, there is a significant amount of thinkers who believe the opposite. In their view, no such general obligation of obedience to the law exists not even on the part of the citizens of a reasonably just polity. These dissenters are usually anarchists proper who insist on their argument that governments are coercive institutions which should not exist and should be abolished [12] . However, not all dissenters agree with the anarchist idea. There are still some skeptics who do not believe in their view of the state but accept their view on the obligation to obey the law. They also believe the state is against the law however they do not accept that its illegitimacy requires a vital right to go up against or abolish states. In general, they rather take state illegitimacy to remove any strong moral belief to maintain “obedience to, compliance with or support for our own or other existing states”.

Analysis of the problem of political obligation and its concepts was the main dedication of the political philosophers during the previous century. This was an attempt to develop theories of the obligation to obey the law. Nevertheless, the belief that political obligation must be stated in moral terms continued to be the answer to the above issue. This comes in line with Green’s and almost everyone else who deliberate this issue whose opinion was that the problem of political obligation is a moral problem and the obligation in question is a kinf of a moral obligation. Any person who has an obligation to obey the law consequently has a moral duty to discharge, at least when there are no overriding moral considerations that justify noncompliance with the law. This does not necessarily mean that a person is required to forfeit its personal autonomy and free will by having moral constraints. A person may be bound by moral constraints/considerations but he and only he should be the one choosing these constraint after an assessment of each situation, a person may take advice but in the end the final decision on how to act should be taken by him.

Bakunin defined freedom as following one’s own reason and understanding justice. This is why law is rejected by anarchists; because law follows a wrong conception of free will and it usurps individual reason and morality [13] . Individual freedom consists the major political ides of anarchism and freedom is in contrast with authority. The aim of anarchists is to eliminate dependence and oppression since freedom is defined as the duty to act in conformity with one’s own judgments. Godwin undermines free will with philosophical argument, showing that any action not fully determined by motives would not be free, but merely capricious. By abolishing authority people gain freedom which leads to happiness.

Philosophical or ethical anarchism poses the question: why it is that it is expected from any person to obey the state, by reason of being the state, if he is himself prepared to follow the dictates of a morality that recognizes the integrity of other persons? It is a question that is difficult to answer without recourse to merely prudential justifications for the existence of a centralized body with a monopoly of power [14] . However, there have been many anarchists theorists which developed the view and tried to demonstrate that a stateless society is possible and philosophically justifiable.

Bakunin “stresses as essential to liberty the absence of all interference or restraint; his human dignity which is no other than his liberty, his human right, consists in not obeying any other human being, that is to say, in not allowing his actions to be determined by anything but his own convictions.” Lord Acton, in one of his essays, argued that ‘liberty alone demands for its realization the limitation of public authority, for liberty is the only object which benefits all alike, and provokes no sincere opposition’. Yet, Acton is of course no anarchist! The key point is that he speaks of limiting authority; whereas an anarchist would speak of abolishing authority. Liberal bourgeois thinking ‘ends in an exploiter government of a few lucky or elected ones, and the slavery of the exploited great mass, and for all it means the negation of all morality and of all liberty’. The result of this raving is that ‘all authority must be destroyed!’

As Robert P. Wolff states, “autonomy combines freedom with responsibility.” For an individual to be autonomous, he must be able to choose and therefore to be free. Such a person must exercise his ability, he must act autonomously. If he failed to do so, is like he fails to complete the “primary obligation” of autonomy. Accordingly autonomy is a duty which needs to be enforced. Therefore, the argument is that if we accept this primary obligation then it is impossible to develop a political obligation theory [15] . As Wolff mentions the only possibility to develop it is in the case of a direct democracy which is very unlikely to happen since it requires that there is a unanimous approval from the citizens for every law. He mentions that this is the only possible political system and under any other form of government the notions of autonomy and authority cannot co-exist. Because by recognizing authority as the right to be obeyed a person allows to be ruled by someone else, and that would be a violation of a person’s obligation to act autonomously. So any authority needs to be rejected in order to support our autonomy [16] . However, how far can we support this view? Even Wolff himself supports that there is a political system where the both can co-exist therefore he, himself, rejects his argument about anarchy. So if one political system can be found, who is to argue that is the only one? In a world where democracy already exists who is to say that people cannot be free by obeying the rules which were created by the representatives the citizens have chosen.

Many liberals thinkers, like Rousseau make freedom man’s defining attribute and that the democratic ideal is posited on people’s capacity for free choice [17] . The characteristics of a democratic government are to secure the freedom and autonomy of the citizens. With its rules of law, government restricts our independence to do what we want to do. Democratic people know that this is necessary but they support a view that the rules should be self-imposed or at least should be imposed in accordance with the consent or the will of the citizens [18] . Rousseau defines real will as the will ruled by reason and when this type of will is defined within a social context then it is the general will. The general will is the reflection of the common good and not just a sum of individual wills. For Rousseau by denying the general will is like denying the real will. Therefore, ‘whoever refuses to obey the general will, will be forced to do so by the entire body. This means merely that he will be forced to be free’ [19] . Anything less than a state is not a reflection of the common good. Since these types of associations reflect self-interest they should not be allowed and individuals, they themselves, should decide the general will [20] .

The only problem would be how do we know what the general will is? It is not necessary that it is the will of all or that there should be unanimity. For Rousseau ‘The general will is always right, but the judgment that guides it is not always enlightened. It must be made to see objects as they are and sometimes as they ought to appear to it’. He explains that since force cannot give rise to morality and is not the basis of right then, no one has a natural authority over others and conventions are the foundation of ‘all legitimate authority among men’. No one can be placed under the subjection of another without consent. Some argue that the political system which Rousseau supports is pure democracy [21] . The argument in favor of democracy is that since people are voting then they under an obligation to give effect to their decision to choose; namely to take responsibility of their actions. Therefore, there is a prima facie obligation to obey the laws like an obligation to keep a promise or enforce a contract. This obligation someone could argue that it arises from the ability of people to exercise their free will and decide.

Against philosophical Anarchism

It is widely accepted that any conflict depends on the definition each theorists gives to the notions. People against the conflict between authority and autonomy focus on the fact that, in explaining the conflict, there is a wrong definition of autonomy in relation to authority. [22] Basically the critics argue that taking moral autonomy as a primary or fundamental obligation is wrong because in this way we are always required “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” [23] .

Others argue that is not essential to accept the incompatibility of anarchists between autonomy and authority. As Wolf says, autonomy is a capacity and will need to be developed before it can be exercised. In addition various kinds of authority including political authority will enhance autonomy’s development and increase the possibility of its continuous implementation [24] . Moreover, by rejecting political authority it would be necessary to also reject promises and contracts since they could also be considered as constraints on a person’s autonomy; a problem that leads even Simmons to judge Wolff’s a priori philosophical anarchism a “failed attempt”.


As mentioned above by freedom and free will we mean the absence of any restraints and as long as a person is free he should not be made to do something he would not do otherwise. By being able to choose a person allows himself to be free. However, all possibilities should be open to him in order to be able to make a free choice. This is usually the meaning of freedom and liberty in the political context.

State aims to preserve order and security and to promote justice however, law sometimes may restrict our freedom by imposing some obligations. These obligations are usually imposed to protect the freedom of others. Restrictions may not always be desirable but sometimes are essential. This is why a democratic society which aims to maintain freedom at its maximum should place limits on the scope of state authority. On the other hand, one could argue that since authority provides security and justice this is more important than any type of liberty and that autonomy instead of authority should be limited. In whichever case, it is a matter of controversy when limits should be placed. ‘There is considerable difference of opinion, not just about details of application, but even about the general principles that should mark the boundary between the scope of law and that of individual freedom’ [25] . Therefore, we can conclude that the two notion are not necessarily incompatible; only that they cannot co-exist in their complete extent.

They also believe the state is illegitimate but they do not accept that its illegitimacy entails “a strong moral imperative to oppose or eliminate states. Rather they typically take state illegitimacy simply to remove any strong moral presumption in favour of obedience to, compliance with, or support for our own or other existing states”.

In the twentieth century political philosophers devoted themselves at least as much to the analysis of the problem of political obligation, and to the concepts it involves, as to full-scale attempts to devise theories of the obligation to obey the law [26] . However, the presumption has continued to be that the answer to the problem of political obligation must be stated in moral terms [27] . For Green, and for almost everyone else who has pondered it, the problem of political obligation is a moral problem, and the obligation in question is a kind of moral obligation. Anyone who has an obligation to obey the law thus has a moral duty to discharge, at least when there are no overriding moral considerations that justify disobedience.

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