Michael Huemer on Political Authority

In his 2013 book The Problem of Political Authority Michael Huemer attempts to defend the idea that states have no legitimate authority and that we should therefore move to an anarchic (anarcho-capitalist) society. I recently read this book, and although it is generally interesting and well-written I have some criticisms to put forward.

Firstly, I believe that a refutation of political obligation to be a kind of misplaced enterprise, because the existence of an obligation is not really something we can prove or disprove. Whether you have an obligation to obey the state, or any other individual or group of individuals, is something that only you can decide. Everyone – a private individual, a representative of the state or a firm – can make suggestions or demands to anyone else, but only you can decide whether you have an “obligation” to obey them. Thus, the state can (and does) exist without there being any “absolute” obligation to obey it. And the question whether the state should exist or not cannot really hang on the question whether political obligation “exists” or not.

Secondly, Huemer’s argument is built upon the idea that we should simply take normal people’s moral intuitions and apply them more consistently. He believes, for instance, that most have the moral intuition that using force is (almost) always immoral. Therefore those who hold this intuition should realize – upon reflection – that the state is also immoral. There are (at least) two criticisms one can make regarding this methodology. First, is it really the case that people have the intuitions Huemer assumes? Personally I believe he overstates the “deontological” character of people’s intuitions. Second, it seems inconsistent on Huemer’s part to urge people to be more philosophical when it comes to the application of their moral intuitions, but not to be more philosophical when it comes to scrutinizing the intuitions themselves.

My third general criticism connects to the point I just mentioned. Huemer seems to assume a controversial metaethical theory which says that there is moral knowledge to be found and that the key to this knowledge is to be found in people’s intuitions. Since this metaethical view is not elaborated in The Problem of Political Authority I cannot really make any deeper criticism of it. But personally I am a rather convinced non-cognitivist in metaethics, so I am very skeptical of this intuitionist moral realism. Contrary to Huemer, I never start a moral argument from common intuitions, because I don’t think they have any special status when it comes to “truth”, and because I believe our unreflective intuitions are mainly formed by our cultural context. And I believe that moral philosophy should question principles that we have simply received from our social environment.

Anyway, I believe that although Huemer does not successfully argue for the wrongness of the state, he is right to reject many common defenses of the state, for instance social contract theories. Personally I believe you can’t really argue for any “absolute” obligation to obey the state or any other organization or individual. All reasons to obey or disobey are ultimately dependent on subjective preferences. I believe there are good moral reasons to obey the laws of a (perfectly) democratic state and no moral reasons at all to obey a dictator, but this belief is based on some assumptions that are not questions of fact or knowledge – if you do not subscribe to those assumptions then you may not share this belief. (Of course, there might be prudential reasons to obey a dictator, just as an anarchist may have prudential reasons to obey a democracy.)

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