Wolff's Defence of Anarchism

05 Apr 2013

I’m currently researching democratic authority which has inevitably lead me to Robert Wolff’s seminal work In Defence of Anarchism. Its a straight forward, concise (80ish pages) argument for rejecting any legitimacy of state authority and is definitely worth the time to read.

His core thesis can be neatly summarised in three premises:

The defining mark of the state is authority, the right to rule.

The primary obligation of man is autonomy, the refusal to be ruled.

An individual’s moral autonomy necessarily conflicts with any state that claims exclusive territorial sovereignty over its subjects.

His first premise is largely uncontroversial and he makes it per definitionem by differentiating de facto from de jury authority, to wit:

Authority is de facto just in case it is acknowledged it exists. Authority is de jure when there is a legitimate source to the obligation to obey.

The distinction is important as I may have many independent reasons to obey the edits of a illegitimate authority – it may just happen that I have independent moral obligations to carry out actions that correspond with the commands the issued, or basic self interest may tell me that the benefits of compliance outweigh the costs of non-compliance – but I don’t obey their commands merely because they ordered. If the authority is de jure however, I am morally obligated to obey just because the authority orders me (p9).

His second premise is also strongly argued. Wolff claims (correctly) that a fundamental assumption of moral philosophy is that we are responsible for our actions (p12) and that a responsible individual is not someone who always does what is right, but rather is someone who doesn’t neglect the duty of attempting to ascertain what is right (p13).

Now because we have the capacity to reason about our choices we can be said to stand under a continuing obligation to take responsibility for them (p12). Invoking Kant: Moral autonomy is a combination of freedom and responsibility; it is a submission of laws which one has made for oneself.

Ergo, we have a categorical imperative to realise our own autonomy. It is our moral duty to do so.

This creates a conflict between autonomy and authority. For 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 (p18-19).

De jury authority of the state it seems, is incompatible with our moral autonomy.

A strong argument perhaps, but I do have some doubts about Wolff’s claims of incompatibility.

His conception of autonomy – namely that moral autonomy is a combination of freedom and responsibility, a submission to laws which one has made for oneself (p14) – doesn’t negate the compatibility of autonomy and de jure authority per se. Wolff acknowledges that under unanimous direct democracy, autonomy and authority are perfectly compatible as individuals are only constrained by the dictates of their own will. What he is objecting to is the compatibility of autonomy and authority when the two conflict.

But I’m not sure even this holds. Wolff’s account of autonomy leans heavily on Kant’s who thought that an autonomous will is one that was free in a negative sense – free from obsession, desire, or psychosis for example – in other words, a rational will that operates by responding to reasons.

The moral authority of a categorical imperative then, stems from pure reason. Our actions, to be moral, are bounded by the requirements of universalisability and willing that others do the same. Autonomy is the submission to laws that we ourselves author (and that are based on reason).

Importantly for Kant, I can only know I am acting morally when there is conflict between what I want and what I know to be right. Virtuous behaviours, while certainly good, are not morally praise worthy unless they are done from duty – i.e. I do the right thing even if I don’t want to do it.

Yet the same holds within the state. We can’t claim compatibility under unanimous direct democracy because there is no conflict between our will and the state. The state in this case is superfluous and identical to no state at all. We aren’t obeying the state simply because its the state but rather because the states edicts coincide with our will. Its authority is vacuous.

But there are other conceptions of the state that are compatible with autonomy. Granted these may not look like our current versions of liberal representative democracy but they are certainly feasible. I’m not going to outline a positive account of something like this right now but it seems it would require the following conditions:

Assuming that these criteria are met, then de jure authority of the state is perfectly compatible with the moral autonomy of individuals and as such, Wolff’s argument for anarchism doesn’t hold.