Tag Archives: authority

Conference: The Authority of Tradition – October 3rd 2014, The College of William and Mary

The Authority of Tradition
Conference Schedule

Friday, October 3, 2014

8:30am      Refreshments Available

8:45am      Opening Remarks

9am           Sabina Lovibond, “Between Tradition and Criticism: The ‘Uncodifiability’ of Ethics”

Comments by Christine Swanton

10: 40am   Break

10:50am    Gunnar Hindrichs, “Sensus Communis”

Comments by Felix Koch

12:30pm    Lunch

1:10pm      Joseph Raz, “Fugitive Thoughts on the Justifications of Traditions”

Comments by Nandi Theunissen

2:50pm      Break

3pm           Linda Zagzebski, “Authority in Communities”


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Pittsburgh Philosophy Workshop: Law & Morality

December 1st, 2012 – Pitt University Club: The Philosophy Department at the University of Pittsburgh presents a workshop on Law & Morality


Andrew Koppelman (Northwestern) – “Does Respect Require Antiperfectionism?

Henry Richardson (Georgetown) – “Democratic Autonomy and Democratic Authority

Paul Weithman (Notre Dame) – “The Truth in Attitudinal Accounts of Legitimacy

Comments: Japa Pallikkathayil (Pittsburgh) Michael Kessler (Pittsburgh) Michael Goodhart (Pittsburgh)

Invited participants: Kyla Ebels-Duggan (Northwestern) Louis-Philippe Hodgson (York University)


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CFP: Interdisciplinary Workshop on Authority Beyond States, Paris, 3-4 May 2012

For its third international Authority Beyond States workshop, the AUSTAT network invites submissions from political philosophy, international and comparative constitutional law, and political science to address the exercise of authority by international institutions.

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OPR VIII.22: The Authority of the State

Overview of §22

Chapter VIII of Gaus’ book is entitled “The Moral and Political Orders.” Appropriately enough, it takes up the topic of the relationship between the moral and the political order. Section 22 deals with the place of political authority in a broader story about moral authority. Section 23 discusses coercion in relation to moral and political authority.

Section 22 (“The Authority of the State”) begins by contrasting Gaus’ position with that of the social contract tradition. The latter, Gaus argues, holds that “There is no role for social morality as a distinct and independent source of moral authority” (p. 450). In order to reject this position, Gaus examines what he calls the “Comparative Procedural Justification Principle,” which states that “If the Members of the Public have available two procedures for selecting from the optimal eligible set, O and , and is itself publicly justifiable, while O is not, should be employed” (p. 450). This principle is weaker than the Procedural Justification Requirement, which he discusses earlier. The former, unlike the latter, does not demand a uniquely justified optimal principle; it just demands a publicly justifiable principle be used. Gaus agrees that certain institutional arrangements (basically, those of modern representative democracies) may be good ways to protect basic individual rights (p. 452). This is why “Constant included political rights among the rights of the moderns” (p. 452). But this is “insufficient to yield the justification of a system of governance,” because there are many possible institutional arrangements that might accomplish this goal (p. 455). Hence the Comparative Procedural Justification Principle “does not support political authority over informal social authority, for political authority too relies on informal social-moral authority—an evolution of a political-moral culture leading to the selection of one of a wide range of acceptable political systems” (p. 455).

Gaus then investigates the nature of political authority. Following Thomas Christiano, he distinguishes between three different ideas of political authority. The first, which Gaus endorses, recognizes that states have a blameless liberty to coerce people into obeying its rules. There are good reasons why reasonable people would endorse such rules. Any society will possess people who simply do not respond to moral rules (e.g., psychopaths). Such people can respond to strategic incentives, however, and so if the harms that violations of moral rules can produce are to be avoided, then the state ought to have permission to align incentives appropriately (through threats and, presumably, offers; p. 463). Second, the state has the ability to push people (i.e, through incentive alignment) to participate in a particular moral equilibrium. Gaus holds that in doing so, the state is doing more than just providing a focal point upon which people can coordinate. For “the authority of the state allows us to make the implicit claim that should there be controversy or uncertainty about our claim, there is an authoritative answer that we all have reason to endorse”—the answer provided by the state (p. 466). I’m not really clear on what Gaus is driving at here, but it seems to be a second-order claim that the dictates of the state in resolving conflicts about moral equilibria creates a distinct moral reason for endorsing the resolution. It’s not just that the equilibria would in fact be an equilibria, and that it seems to be the one everyone is moving (thanks to the state) to accept. In addition, there is a moral obligation to do what the state says when it tries to do this. Without this additional moral obligation, the state is serving merely as a focal point, for everyone except psychopaths unable to respond to moral reasons. The third notion of authority is the idea that states have a “right to rule” (p. 468). Gaus takes this idea to mean that when states create rules, people have obligations to the states themselves to obey them. Gaus rejects this idea, and claims that whatever obligations people have to obey moral rules is owed to their fellow citizens. This is compatible with my interpretation of Gaus’ second notion of political authority; one can believe both that it is morally wrong not to accept the moral equilibria generated by states, and that if I commit this moral wrong, I am wronging my fellow citizens, not the state itself.

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OPR V.14 Part 3: Resentment / Indignation vs. Authority

I summarized Section 14 in a separate post; here I want to raise a question about the reactive attitudes and authority claims that Gaus argues are essential parts of our ordinary moral practices. For the purposes of this post, I want to accept Gaus’s claim that recognition of sincere and conscientious disagreement has to undermine feelings of resentment and indignation at rule-violations. The question I want to ask is why in identifying the rules of social morality we must assent only to those rules that all members of the partly idealized public have sufficient reason to accept.

A rule that fails to meet this standard will be one that will not support the normal reactive attitudes with respect to all normal moral agents. But so what? Why is it crucial that all normal moral agents be subject to resentment and indignation for rule violations, to the point that it would be preferable not to have a rule at all, than to have a rule that (in virtue of being reasonably rejectable) would fail to license reactive attitudes with respect to even just one normal moral agent? Gaus’s answer, I think, is that our moral practices include not only reactive attitudes such as resentment and indignation, but prescriptions that claim to be authoritative. We express resentment and indignation as a prelude to issuing imperatives. But if someone doesn’t have sufficient reasons to endorse a rule, it would be wrong for us to order them to comply with it, which means that the rule would effectively not apply to them. But then we would not have a common set of rules of social morality; instead, we would have a parcellized set of rules covering the various overlapping bits of conflicting evaluative perspectives. Morality would not fulfill its function.

If this is the argument, I have two doubts. The first is that I’m still not clear that moral practices involve claims to authority, in the specific sense of authority of one person over another, authority to command compliance in face of disagreement, e.g. “Even though you don’t think you should ?, you should still ? simply because I am ordering you to ?.” Moral practice clearly involves expression of reactive attitudes and claims that others should respect the authority of morality, but these claims may simply be epistemic claims about what is right, rather than claims that others should defer to our judgment about what is right.

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Genealogies of Political Authority

Hello all. I’ve recently published an article that may be of interest to readers of Public Reason, in particular those of you who are interested in questions relating to the normative status of political authority. I’m currently planning a sequel to the piece in which I expand upon some of the central arguments, so I would greatly appreciate some feedback, if any of you could spare the time. A brief summary follows.

The article begins with an interpretation of Nietzsche’s thought that emphasizes his preoccupation with genealogy as a critical method and his insistence that modern forms of political authority pose a peculiar threat to the emergence of the sovereign individual. In the second section of the article, I distill these reflections into a theory about legitimate political authority. My argument is that there are certain requirements that govern the accounts that state officials may give in order to justify their decisions to citizens. I derive these requirements from a series of thought experiments and call them the requirements of legitimate political reasoning. They are: (1) the requirement of right reasons, that is, publicly offered reasons must track the reasons that were actually operative in the decision-making behind closed doors; (2) the requirement of procedural propriety, that is, the account must not appeal to reasons that are inappropriate or extraneous to the decision in question; and (3) the transparency of reasons requirement, that is, within reasonable limits, the account should consist of the full set of reasons that are appropriate to the decision in question, without any concealment of reasons for political purposes.


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