Symposium on Huemer's Problem of Political Authority, Academic Philosophy

On the Method of Huemer’s The Problem of Political Authority

There’s a lot to like about Michael Huemer’s The Problem of Political Authority. It repeats certain standard objections to the legitimacy of states. These are worth repeating since the defenders of state authority seem slow in realizing their mistakes. More interestingly, Huemer also adds a variety of important new arguments. Be sure to check out his rebuttal of arguments from democracy and hypothetical consent. And Huemer’s defense of market anarchy is, in my judgment, easily the best available. Really worth reading.

I am sympathetic to Huemer’s views. But I am at best a reluctant anarchist. In part this is because I think more enthusiastic anarchists like Huemer adopt what implausible conceptions of state legitimacy. I will return to this topic in my next post. (Also check out these remarks by Chris Morris.)

But this reluctance does not make me detract from many of Huemer’s practical conclusions. So here I want to ask a different question, one about Huemer’s method in arguing for anarchism. If we are to evaluate states and their conduct, we better use the correct standards for evaluation. This, then, is a question about the correct background to Huemer’s arguments, not a question about those arguments themselves.

Here, in brief, is the question: can we use intuitions about inter-personal morality to evaluate the morality of states? Huemer clearly thinks the answer is yes. Throughout the book he uses – to great effect – this method, asking whether the things that states do would be acceptable if you and I were to do them. More often than not, the answer is no. In those cases, and absent some special justification for the state (such as that a social contract was signed, or that democracy has magically moral properties), we should condemn the state just as we would condemn individuals. Or so goes the method.

Here is an example, similar to one Huemer offers. Suppose we want to know whether states are justified in enforcing a monopoly on violence. We might then ask whether some person (aptly named Sam) would be justified in locking people he thought were guilty of crimes in his basement, including people who themselves are also locking people they thought were criminals in their basements. The answer is clearly no. And so – absent again some special justification – we should conclude that states are not justified in doing this either.

Or consider large-scale redistributive programs. Suppose Sam went to the house of his friend Rich, threatened Rich to the point where he handed over some of his money and then gave it to people Sam thought needed it more. Would Sam be justified in doing this? Again, the answer is quite clearly no. And so, Huemer concludes, states without special authority are not justified in doing this either.

The central problem here is that governments do things with the use of force. And there are strong moral prohibitions against the use of force. You and I cannot use force in the ways states do. So much worse, Huemer concludes, for states.

But can we really move this quickly from observations about what people like Sam might permissibly do to observations about what states or governments might permissibly do? I am unsure – genuinely unsure. So let me push back as strongly as I can against this method to see if someone can convince me that Huemer’s method is indeed correct.*

Let’s start with another analogy. Suppose that our world was populated not just by humans and animals, but also by giants. These giants are exactly like human beings except much bigger and stronger. Giants can coerce larger groups of people than human beings. Giants can do much more damage than human beings. And giants are more impervious to attack than human beings.

These giants are potentially more dangerous but also more beneficial. When a giant loses his temper, he might kill or harm many people. But when a giant remains cool-headed, he can protect people in ways no human being can do. Think of the giants as a kind of superhero – with all the possible benefits and dangers that come with this.

Would the moral rules applying to people be the same as those applying to the giants? Must the giants follow exactly the same rules? Or might there be some things that the giants can permissibly do that you and I cannot, and other things that you and I can permissibly do but the giants cannot?

It seems to me plausible that we’d say the rules for the giants are a little different from the rules for human beings. Of course the giants should, just like us, respect the rights and freedoms of everyone else (including people and giants). And of course the giants should, just like us, strive to be kind, helpful, prudent, good friends, spouses, parents, and so on.

But there seem to be risks that are okay for you and I to take, but not for the giants. For example, it might be okay for people like us to interfere when our neighbors are having a mild domestic dispute, but not okay for the giants because of the dangers if things going awry? After all, should the giant get angry about the scene he’s witnessing, he might end up killing the entire family. You an I would probably at worst get into a scuffle. Bad, but not deadly.

So far so good? Suppose now that the giants are different in a key respect from us. Suppose that the giants tend to make judgments that are more temperate, more balanced, and less biased than we are. It seems to me that this would single out giants as particularly appropriate adjudicators of disputes and conflicts. And if their temperance carries over to their uses of force as well, it also seems clear that we should ask the giants to do our justified coercing for us.

You can see where this is going. If – and this is a big if – states are relevantly like the giants, then Huemer’s method is faulty. Just as the giants would occupy a slightly different position in our moral universe than you and I do, so too would states. And if that is true then we cannot draw any conclusions about what states can permissibly do from observations about what Sam, or you, or I can permissibly do.

The general point is can be summarized as follows: the moral strictures that apply to different agents must be sensitive to certain relevant facts about these agents. Now I must confess to be genuinely unsure about this  thought. But at first blush it seems correct. In a way I hope Huemer or some of you can convince me that I’m wrong. But if I am right, the result is significant. For it would mean that arguments like Huemer’s must be rejected – not because the conclusion is mistaken, but because a premise is false.

In closing, let me stress two points that I hope are obvious. First, none of this helps to defend the actual activities of states. Many of these are clearly unjustified and states should cut them out as soon as humanly possible. Second, I am not proposing some kind of romanticism about the state. Following through on the analogy with giants might well suggest that the moral strictures applying to states are more stringent than those applying to us as private individuals. It all depends on the facts of the case.


* The question matters beyond Huemer’s book. For example, my co-blogger Fernando Tesón has an excellent paper coming out in the 2nd edition of Contemporary Debates in Applied Ethics on humanitarian intervention. He there asks whether it would be permissible for states to end a rights-violation in another state  if such actions would have no side-effects. Fernando thinks the answer is yes because it would be permissible for you and I to do so. For a similar view, see this paper by Kit Wellman.

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  • Mary Ritenour

    A corollary to this discussion (do moral strictures apply equally to different agents) should be the assignment of responsibility for an action. An individual acts for himself with clear understanding that he bears the consequences of the action. However, when acting in a group (mob, State), or FOR a group as an agent, the connection between action and responsibility becomes tenuous at best.

    If I cut down my neighbor’s tree, I bear the consequence for it – he gets pissed at ME. If I vote to cut down his tree, I can evade the consequences – his anger. My actions become, to all practical purposes, cost free. That psychology is why mobs are so dangerous.

    I would much rather keep decisions and consequences closely tied. That feedback loop of what is acceptable and what isn’t is vital. State action does not have that corrective feedback loop and so the giant in your example above soon discovers that rules/morals mean little because no one can enforce them.

  • Tobi

    If states were giants, then this could follow. Agents of the state are however just people like you and me. Now states could be more effective, more temperate and thus better at doing the coercing, but then what is the difference between a state and a private enforcement organization?

    Isn’t the difference between you and me, and a state a question of specialization and organization? There is no reason why a group of individuals would not be able to mimic the state in this respect.

    • Basvandervossen

      Yes, I think that’s part of the story. Another part are the procedures that good states force their agents to use when employing force, adjudicating disputes, etc.

  • M Lister

    “The general point is can be summarized as follows: the moral strictures
    that apply to different agents must be sensitive to certain relevant
    facts about these agents.”

    I’d think that this is very close to obviously right, and think it has implications for different rules for action between states and individuals in a straight-forward way. I’ll use an example that I hope isn’t too controversial. The law of self-defense (certainly in the US, but also in many other countries) is much more permissive (relative to power) for individuals facing harm than international law (both customary and treaty) is for states. And, this makes sense, given how individuals can be killed in ways that states cannot, and other relevant differences. While legal differences don’t always (or perfectly) track moral differences, they seem to do a pretty good job in this case.

    Other cases, of course, would have to be looked at individually. But, the general idea that a state can do something only if an individual can seems to be based on a false idea. If Huemer really makes that a foundational premise, then I don’t see how the project even gets off the ground.

    • Basvandervossen

      I agree with pretty much everything here. Two things, though. First, the comparison between state-acitons and individual-actions becomes part of Huemer’s argumentative strategy only after he has shown (successfully to my mind) that states enjoy no special authority due to, say, a social contract being signed or something. (Caveat: I hope I am reading him correctly here. But it is my reading.)
      Second, I first started thinking about this when writing about humanitarian intervention. I have a piece coming out opposite to Fernando’s (in the same volume) article mentioned in the post where I make a similar point to yours: the strictures applying to states regarding international violence (at least) must be more demanding than those applying to individuals.

  • JH

    Bas, you raise some good questions. It could be that different moral standards apply to states than private individuals. Huemer should probably have done more to rebut this argument.

    But I still don’t see why it would actually be the case that different moral standards apply to different kinds of agents. For fun, let’s use your “giants” hypothetical. We can just run the same cases that Huemer uses with the giants. Suppose that giants are more temperate and impartial than us, but that they are also stronger and more dangerous. Okay, so far so good. Maybe we would be more willing to give them the benefit of the doubt if they coerced people. But suppose that a giant decides to implement a redistributive welfare program. He then mugs a bunch of people or threatens to put them in his basement if they refuse to pay out. Well, this still seems wrong. Alternatively, suppose that giants decided to lock Mary in his basement for having sex with Bob for cash. Again, even though giants do have different capacities than most human beings, it is hard to see why this makes any difference.

    So, it seems that it is also wrong for agents with different capacities than you and I to coerce people in the way that states routinely do. At least, it is hard to think of a concrete case where this would make a difference. The only case that I can think of involves risk. If an agent were less fallible than normal human beings, then perhaps this agent would impose fewer risks on people when enforcing coercive commands. If people have rights against risk, then more impartial and capable agents would be less likely to violate these rights. But this doesn’t seem to fundamentally affect Huemer’s argument: we would still condemn most of the state’s actions if these actions were performed by private individuals, even if they were more competent than most ordinary people.

    • Basvandervossen

      Nice post. And I agree – as I said in the post, I think Huemer is right on the conclusions. Most states do unjustifiable things most of the time. It’s just not for (all) the reasons he offers.

      Also, as I mentioned in my response above: the difference would not be that state-agents are somehow different qua people. The idea is that using certain kinds of procedures would help constrain some of our faults.

  • Ross

    I believe that Tobi has the right critique. Giants are agents. States are made of people. Their agency is an artificial construct. They are not in and of themselves accountable except through their component individuals.

    Alternatively, if we accept that States are like giants, by somehow giving an account of merged agency, then we must ask why other organizations of individuals are not similarly giants, and then we move the problem of political authority to a question of why some giants have more authority than other giants. An account of how to tell which giants are relatively wise and which are relatively dangerous would be required — as well as some justification to why superior wisdom produces authority beyond that commanded by the recognition by others.

    I’m glad that this post stuck with the methodology: why can some agent of X do this and not my neighbor Sam? And isn’t bogged down in “what is a state? what is coercion?”

  • Fallon

    ‘It’s not romanticism.’ But it is. This is the same mistake Vallier makes. Why is it difficult for philosophers to accept that only individuals act, have consciousness, live, breath? It seems unbecoming of reason to make a state mean anything other than a specific set of ideas and the individual actions informed by them. Collectives have metaphorical value. That’s about it.

    • Kevin Vallier

      How does methodological individualism relate to either post?

      • Fallon

        Justification informed by a perception that a “state” is some kind of conscious being or a transcendent sum greater than the parts is playing right into the hands of a Corey Robin or Michael Lind, no? As ironic as it is that Robin et al. be pointing fingers…

        The errors of statist economic management emerge from aggregative economics, e.g. looking at wholes covers up for the real effects of inflation (stabilization theory) and justifies the military industrial complex . The device of political aggregation, re-orienting the locus away from the individual agency, is the tool of tyrants and socialists.

        It starts with the seemingly minor and slight alteration, apologetics for collective consciousness. ‘The Giant has its proper role’. Once that is allowed– it easily grows into the following:

        “Tutto nello Stato, niente al di fuori dello Stato, nulla contro lo Stato”

        Would public reason justification work without the collectivizing device?

      • daniilgorbatenko

        I don’t think methodological individualism relates to your post but it does, in my view, relate to van der Vossen’s. States don’t consist of giants but of ordinary human beings. So to claim certain special moral features for states because they are specific agents is effectively to abandon methodological individualism in ethics. Because if you retain it any group (including the state) may not have rights that its members don’t have.

    • Les Kyle Nearhood

      I think that is mistaken. Groups of human beings retain some of the rights responsibilities and agency of individuals because they are made up of individuals. That is why it is just as immoral to steal from a big corporation as from an individual. beause that company is made up of individuals,
      Similarly the state, in as much as it may reflect the will of the people, then acts in the benefit of the people. Now we understand that states do not always act in the benefit of the general public but often for certain specific groups. So that is why we prefer to limit their power. But it does not mean that their laws are all immoral or somehow lacking in authority. Some may be and most will not be.

  • The first thing that comes to mind when I read this critique is, “If all men were angels, then no government would be necessary.”

    Except that this criticism applies equally to Van Der Vossen’s point: If all states were giants, no anarchy would be necessary.

    Men aren’t angels and governments aren’t giants. The relevant question here is whether the risks of anarchy outweigh the risks of the state and/or vice-versa. I think that’s a value judgement.

  • Christopher Morris

    It’s clear that states claim (normative) powers that no individual possesses (aside from the Deity). But might some of the (normative) powers claimed by states be possessed by GROUPS of individuals? Suppose we live in a small community, which is neither a state nor a political society founded on genuine consent (i.e., free, informed). Might the community have the power to create a number of rules governing the members of the communities and outsiders who wander by? Would these rules bind the members? The reply of many libertarians will be negative. But others might wonder whether talking about organized groups rather than named individuals might make a difference.

    The methodological question Bas raises might be asked about all polities and not only about states.

    • Fallon

      “Might the community have the power to create a number of rules governing the members of the communities and outsiders who wander by? Would these rules bind the members? The reply of many libertarians will be negative.”
      I believe that is a false empirical claim reflecting the same old atomization charge. Please provide evidence, an examples please. You really want to imply that the belief in competition– even in the provision of things associated with “state”– also means no e.g. housing associations? The absence of investment in special political monopoly does not preclude collective action based on particular binds. Hoppe’s covenant community, e.g.?
      Anyway, let’s see some evidence. I want to know who these libertarians are that fit your claim so they can be sent to libertarian re-education camps.

    • reason60

      What is the difference between a group of people forming a community, and a state?
      Is there a difference between 1,000 condominiums forming an HOA with private streets and services, and 1,000 condominiums forming a small town? Is one a legitimate entity and the other not?

      • I have posed similar questions to anarchists many times, and have never really received a satisfactory answer. I think the general idea is that there is no declared monopoly, even if natural ones emerge, and that somehow this will protect us from abuse of power by whomever speaks on behalf of “the community.”

        I think people are more inclined to believe that the less experience they have with being coerced by non-state communities. Those of us who have been outsiders are far less sympathetic.

        • LvM

          All modern states directly or indirectly gained at least a significant part of their territory and assets by conquest and/or expropration. Except for the obvious moral difference with voluntarily formed communities, there are also practical differences. Voluntary communities have, by their nature, differences in scale and form from their statist counterparts. You will probably find a more satisfactory answer in the book.

  • Andrew

    Are the moral rules by which the giants must abide actually different from ours? In your case of interfering in a domestic dispute, it seems to me that a human and a giant who caused harm as a result of interfering would each be responsible to the extent to which they caused harm. That is, the giant’s interfering is not morally different from the human’s, but it may well be pragmatically less advisable for him to do so. I would view it as analogous to two people with significantly different alcohol tolerances each drinking half a bottle of wine and then going out – the morality of their actions is identical, but the one with a low tolerance is behaving in a significantly less advisable manner since they bring upon themselves a greater risk of causing harm. If this is correct, then differences between individuals and the state would affect what the state should do, within the space of permissible actions, but it would not make impermissible actions permissible.

    • Basvandervossen

      Suppose the domestic is going on and you and a Giant are standing outside. Each is ready and willing to go in. Do you think it’d be permissible for the Giant to go in instead of you?

  • Chris H

    Reading this, doesn’t this argument just become a utilitarian argument for states? The argument of this post seems (please correct me if I’m misunderstanding) to be essentially saying that “the rules states operate under are fine as long as we have strong reasons to believe that this produces a better outcome than not having those rules.”

    In this regard, isn’t that concern dealt with in the section on consequentialist arguments for the state and then again with the discussion of how an anarchist society might function without/improve upon states?

    Also, one other thought. Could it also not be that your giant analogy might apply equally well with private dispute resolution or protection agencies? The major difference I would see is that rather than the incentives which are considered public choice models, the incentives facing the giants would be market incentives. These may not be perfect but as a general rule don’t market incentives normally tend to be more closely aligned with consumers (in this case of protection/dispute resolution services) than government incentives (which tend towards favoring particularly interests or irrational views that people don’t have market incentives to abandon)?

    • Basvandervossen

      Nice questions.

      First, these concerns could be accommodated by a consequentialist theory. But they don’t require it. Any plausible theory should be sensitive to risks and (certain) outcomes.

      About your second point: yes, it might in principle work exactly the same for private enforcement agencies. Like I said, I’m sympathetic to many of Huemer’s conclusions. But we couldn’t simply say that what’s okay / not-okay for you or I to do would be the same for those agencies.

    • Bayesian_Rationalist

      His arguments against consequentialism don’t take into account expected utility, or expected consequences. Whilst it is true that any one individual disobeying the law would be unlikely to lead to a toppling of the government, even the small probability of this large impact occurring would require a utilitarian or consequentialist to obey the law, unless doing so would consistently lead to worse outcomes.

  • daniilgorbatenko

    But is your post really attacking a problem with the method or just the fact that Huemer failed to consider this particular potential justification of the special ethical nature of the state among those that he did consider?

  • Nonesen

    ” And if their temperance carries over to their uses of force as well, it
    also seems clear that we should ask the giants to do our justified
    coercing for us.”

    This might be true – but it doesn’t follow that the giants have the right to do so without out asking/consenting.

  • ScottA

    It’s an interesting point, but it’s crossing a dangerous line between metaphor and reality. It can be useful to think of states as if they are individuals – can draw out some useful principles and make comparisons (as Huemer does) – but it’s not representative of what states actually are. This goes back to Hobbes, I suppose, if not further.

    The key question is the set of institutions that generates the giant’s thought-processes, on top of the giant’s own unique capabilities. The state is clearly uniquely capable, but the stuff going on inside it’s ‘head’ is quite different from the stuff going on inside a human’s head. Which I suppose is also a question mark for Huemer’s method, which bring me back to the beginning in saying: interesting point.

  • Matt Skene

    I don’t see how your giants are different from a rational, temperate, unbiased gun owner (like, say, Michael Huemer), living among a group of people who don’t have access to firearms. He would seem to have all of the features of these hypothetical giants. He wouldn’t seem to therefore have a special moral status.

  • Bayesian_Rationalist

    As a utilitarian, I was not convinced by Huemer’s use of ethical intuitionism – our moral intuitions are known to be wildly inconsistent and often incompatible with each other. Indeed, his objections to the strongest counter-arguments, such as the Argument from Equality for democracy as well as consequentialism itself, boiled down to the notion that these theories demand a lot of us in everyday life (giving every spare $50 we have to the most effective charities fighting global poverty as opposed to spending it on ourselves, for instance). Yet, many utilitarians do in fact accept these admittedly counter-intuitive conclusions.

    Thus, I cannot say that I was convinced by his rebuttals to the strongest arguments in favour of political authority potentially being permissible.