Philosophical Anarchism: Self Autonomy vs. State Authority

To be a human being in our modern civilized context is to exist in relation to authority; to a state. Indeed, most of human history has been defined by hierarchical relations between people. For thousands of years, the legitimacy of authority and hierarchy have scarcely been questioned. There may have always been someone in any given society who has questioned such concepts, but for the most part gods and kings have exerted their dominance over others. Only since The Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries has authority, whether celestial or terrestrial, been systematically questioned. However, even to this day we struggle with the legitimacy of authority, the concept of personal liberty, and the conflict between the two.

Anarchy, proposed and advocated by many people throughout modern history, is seen as a possible solution to the problem of authority. Louis Pojam, in his paper The Justification for Government, distinguishes between two forms of anarchy: positive and negative. The former is a belief that human nature is inherently good and a utopia can exist on Earth if only we can be free from the chains of the state. The latter, more sober in its approach, is advocated by Robert Paul Wolff, and asserts that the issue of the state can be boiled down to the conflict between state authority and personal autonomy. Wolff believes the two are inherently in opposition and favors autonomy. State authority, according to Wolff, is the right to rule or command. It is obvious that most people do, indeed, concede to state authority. They do it for a myriad of reasons, but mainly because it’s just normal to do so. We were born into this world under the command of the state, our parents obeyed the state, and we just pick up where they left off. Most people never sit down and criticize this assumption, unfortunately, and so the state lives on exerting its authority. Personal autonomy, on the other hand, consists not in merely choosing how to act (being responsible for your own actions) but in taking responsibility for your actions. Which , according to Wolff, consists in “gaining knowledge, reflecting on motives, predicting outcomes, criticizing principles, and so forth”. By acting in such a way the responsible man comes to be autonomous; to be sovereign over himself. I, personally, appreciate this distinction and I think Wolff does an impressive job with defining the two concepts.

Wolff also discusses the “paradox of man’s condition”, which is the fact that man’s increasingly clear understanding that he is own master runs parallel with an increasingly complex, technological and bureaucratic state. This is an interesting as well as an insightful claim. Indeed, politics does seem to be so complex that even an intelligent, aware, and politically motivated person has a very hard time keeping up on all of the issues of the day. It is impossible for any one person to grasp our relatively new and ever-changing global political situation. In my opinion, this is cultural evolution, speeding up exponentially, for both the individual and the collective. Neither the state nor the individual has any hope of slowing this process down, let alone stopping it. I do not know where this process will take us, but one thing seems plausible to me: The more people become aware of their own ability to be their own master, the more appealing anarchy will look. I am going to step out on a limb and suggest that all forms of human socio-economic liberation movements (LGBT, women’s rights, civil rights, worker’s rights, etc.) will eventually culminate in the realization that the individual needs to liberated from authority, in all of its forms. I do not think that will happen in our lifetime and I do not think most people can handle that sort of radical freedom at this point. But in 500-1,000 years, if our species is still around, I think anarchy will be the only form of social organization that will suit our intelligence and morality. The push from kings to elected representatives is a push towards human liberation and there is no reason to believe that that progress will stop at parliaments and presidents.

The notion of autonomy that Wolff asserts has been critiqued, notably by G. Carl Cohen. Cohen argues that autonomy is a necessary but not sufficient condition for morality. After all, an autonomous actor may simply be wrong about what he feels the right thing to do is. In essence, there is an extra layer of morality that needs to be applied to autonomy. Autonomy has to coincide with good ethics, and nothing about autonomy alone encompasses that intrinsically. I believe that Cohen has a great point, and it does help clean up Wolff’s notion conceptually. However, I think Wolff would acknowledge the legitimacy of Cohen’s critique and easily incorporate it into his concept. I think it is implicit in Wolff’s argument that good ethical decisions are to be favored, it’s just that Wolff is focusing on defining the concept of autonomy and doesn’t really discuss that aspect of it. But much like Aristotle, it is implied that by gaining knowledge, being reflective, etc. good moral conduct rises to the top. Of course that may not always be the case, but it is obviously to be preferred.

The conflict between the authority of the state and the right for every man and woman to be autonomous consists in their definitions. As Wolff claims, the former is defined by a right to rule and the latter by a refusal to be ruled, making the two mutually exclusive. In my opinion, although Wolff makes a compelling argument and I feel a surge of anarchic rebellion in my gut whenever I read him, I do not think we need to define the two concepts in a way that necessitates their mutual exclusivity. A proper state, which very well may never have existed thus far in history, would respect the autonomy of individuals while maintaining a decent society in which everyone has the equal opportunity to flourish. An attempt at this type of state was clearly made by the founding fathers of America, although, based on the contradictions of slavery, classism and sexism of the time, it was never truly implemented, in my opinion.

Wolff’s anarchism has been criticized by many people, including social contract theorists, who make various claims about the legitimacy of a state and its theoretical ability to not only coincide with personal liberty, but to actually create a context in which such liberty can flourish. For Hobbes, it was necessary to avoid a “nasty, brutish, and short” existence, and a social contract which established a state was a way to avoid such unappealing circumstances. In fact, people prefer to establish such a state in order to preserve their natural rights. The no-so-implicit claim made by Locke, Hobbes, and the other social contract theorists is that anarchism is exactly what people don’t want. However, there are problems, which anarchists and their ilk gleefully point out, and high on that list of issues is the problem of consent. I, Brett Anderson, was simply born in America and had no say in the matter of who governed me. I never signed a document conceding to state authority, so what right does the state have to assume my consent? Well, according to the social contract theorists, the fact that I do not leave this country is indicative of my tacit consent. From Socrates to Locke, the point is made that I am free to leave at any time. But, as David Hume has pointed out, this is not truly feasible for most people, and I would argue it has inherent class restraints. It costs money to fly, to buy new property in a new place, to find work, etc., not to mention the emotional and social ties that I would sever by leaving my community of family and friends. Thus, the problem of consent is a sticking point for social contract theorists, and the reply from the anarchist is loud and clear: abolish the state and the problem goes away. I am not convinced that the problem disappears entirely, but that is a discussion for another time.

Another critique to Wolff’s anarchism comes from a paper entitled “Ethics and Sovereignty” by Blizek and, one of my personal favorite philosophers, Rory Conces . They argue that freedom and autonomy are not necessarily diminished by the state. In fact, the state can actually provide a form of security that could very well be lacking in an anarchist society. I have a daughter, and I find the fact that the police and ambulance are always 10-15 minutes away quite reassuring and comforting. Anarchy, although valid in some respects, cannot always guarantee the safety and security of its people. How would an anarchist society defend itself from a non-anarchic state the size of China or Russia, or from the blind aggression of states like Iran or North Korea? Also, how would an anarchist society protect me from intruders and aggressors in my home or on the streets? Would every man, woman and child be responsible for their own security or would anarcho-capitalist security firms have to be paid to ensure security? Both of those alternatives are horrifying to me. On this point, Locke, Hobbes, Blizek and Conces have a strong point.

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One thought on “Philosophical Anarchism: Self Autonomy vs. State Authority

  1. Harry Ingram says:

    Really great and interesting article, thanks a lot.

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