Wherein I Do Not Accept Crispin Sartwell's Challenge

Crispin Sartwell writes:

do me a favor?: cut and paste this everywhere. it’s a…marketing ploy. but it’s sincere.

A Philosophical Challenge

My irritating yet astounding new book Against the State argues that

(1) The political state or government rests on force and coercion.
(2) Force and coercion are always wrong if they can’t be morally justified. (That is, the use of force is wrong if it lacks a moral justification.)
(3) The arguments for the moral legitimacy of state – for example those of Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Hume, Hegel, Rawls, and Habermas – are unsound.
(4) Hence, state power has not been shown to be morally defensible.
Until you show me otherwise, I conclude that government power is in every case illegitimate.

Not only are the existing arguments for the legitimacy of state power unsound; they are pitiful. They are embarrassments to the Western intellectual tradition.

So I issue a challenge: Give a decent argument for the moral legitimacy of state power, or reconstruct one of the traditional arguments in the face of the refutations in Against the State.

If you can’t, I insist that you are rationally obliged to accept anarchism.

Henceforward, if you continue to support or observe the authority of government, you are an irrational cultist.

We’re all anarchists now, baby, until further notice.

I may agree with Sartwell about legitimacy, depending on what he means by it. But I detect a missing premise or two. For example, that in the absence of a decent argument for the legitimacy of state power, you are rationally obliged to accept anarchism. Aren’t you rationally obliged to accept the social system that does best relative to the values you care about? So what if human flourishing, not legitimacy, is your greatest concern. You can still accept that all states are illegitimate. But suppose the path to the best feasible anarchy leaves people worse off in terms of flourishing than in the best illegitimate states. It seems, in that case, you would be rationally obliged to support states that do better for people than anarchy, despite their illegitimacy. In which case, it would be irrational cultlike behavior to endorse anarchy just because it is not illegitimate.

Now, some people would say that doing better for people than the relevant non-state alternatives is all it means to say government is legitimate or coercion is justified in the relevant sense, but I don’t think so. It seems perfectly coherent to me to say both that an instance or pattern of coercion is morally unjustified and that it leaves its victims better off than they would be in the nearest anarchist possible worlds. In that case, you just have to choose between flourishing and legitimacy.

I think moral and political philosophers have a bad tendency to make all normative vocabulary line up. So you can retrofit all moral language so that “justified” just means “best for flourishing.” But I think that we in fact have multiple conventional moral vocabularies that are orthogonal to one another, which relate messily, and sometime incoherently. In the absence of a revisionist account of moral terms that gets them all to march in a single direction, you just have to accept that sometimes its best (according to one conventional moral conception) to do the wrong thing (according to another conventional moral conception) and there is nothing internal to reason or morality, as such, to tell you which conception generally carries overriding force.

Anyway… The point is: Showing that the state is not legitimate does not deliver anarchy because “If the state is not legitimate, then it is not morally defensible” is a false premise. The existence of a moral justification, in terms of flourishing, say, doesn’t entail final moral justification, since there is no fact of the matter about the final authoritative moral vocabulary. And the language of “legitimacy” may have its own internal logic that is at some level indifferent to flourishing. So showing that the state is not legitimate need not entail that it is morally indefensible.

Note: I am not sure whether I agree with myself.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center