The ‘moral illusion’ of governmental authority

By Clint Talbott

Michael Huemer asks his students to imagine being a neighborhood vigilante. Suppose, he says, you live in a crime-ridden neighborhood, and nothing’s being done about it. So you hunt down criminals and lock them in your basement.

After awhile, you bill your neighbors for keeping the neighborhood safe. You tell neighbors who balk that not paying means they’ll land in the basement brig with the criminals.

“Most people would recognize this as outrageous behavior,” observes Huemer, associate professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Yet in Huemer’s thought experiment, the vigilante’s behavior is that of a rudimentary government, focused on preventing crime and collecting taxes.

This hypothetical scenario illustrates a question that Huemer argues is difficult to answer: namely, what gives a government the legitimate authority to act as it does?

“There is no satisfactory answer to this,” Huemer says. “In fact, I conclude it’s a moral illusion we’re suffering from.”

Huemer is one of eight university faculty members who have been named CU Center for the Humanities and the Arts Fellows. Three external reviewers rated the applications from a pool of 41 applicants. (See full list here.)

Michael Huemer is one of eight university faculty members who have been named CU Center for the Humanities and the Arts Fellows.

Huemer will complete a book project titled “Freedom and Authority.” The book argues that there is no philosophically satisfactory account of the basis for political authority.

“We are very excited about this first class of fellows,” Helmut Muller-Sievers, director of CHA, said in a statement. “The breadth and quality of these projects show how strong and inventive the humanities and arts are at CU-Boulder. The Center for Humanities and the Arts is proud to support such excellent faculty.”

In a recent interview, Huemer expounded on his ideas, noting that humans seem to be hard-wired to accept authority even when it’s not legitimate.

For instance, Huemer recalled the famous experiments done at Yale University and published by psychologist Stanley Milgram in 1963. Milgram recruited people to administer quizzes to subjects in another room. The “teachers” were told to administer electrical shocks—increasing voltage each time a “learner” got a wrong answer—up to an apparently lethal shock.

The “learners” were not actually electrocuted. Milgram was striving to determine how obedient the experimental subjects would be to an authority figure. The results were shocking.

The “teachers” kept administering shocks even after “learners” protested, screamed in agony and eventually fell silent. About two-thirds of the subjects kept administering faux electric shocks into the lethal zone.

As Huemer notes, the authority figure in this case was a scientist at Yale. “The government has even more authority … to get people to do things up to and including murder.”

This experiment illustrates a “general pro-authority bias people have,” Huemer argues, adding that there’s a related bias toward the status quo. Because functioning governments are so pervasive worldwide, people might assume that a government is the only way to organize society.

Huemer does not make that assumption. Instead, he picks apart the arguments typically made for the legitimate authority of government. One is the social-contract theory, the idea that members of a society are bound by a social contract under which they abide by and enjoy the benefits and protection of the law.

Huemer notes that he likes some aspects of the social-contract theory.

“The only thing that’s wrong with it is that it’s false,” he observes. “There was no time at which somebody wrote up this contract and everybody signed it.”

A common response is that citizens implicitly accept the social contract simply by using public services or residing in a nation’s territory.

The neighborhood-vigilante scenario illustrates the fallacy of that argument, Huemer says. “This would work if everyone were living in my house,” but if neighbors own their own land, the argument breaks down, Huemer notes.

Similarly, some contend that the social contract is implicitly accepted by people’s participation in the political system. One problem with that argument is that non-participation does not amount to an opt-out clause. “Everybody knows that the state is still going to impose its laws on you” regardless of whether you vote.

Another argument for the legitimate authority of government is that, in the United States and elsewhere, the government is a republican form of democracy. Huemer conjures an analogy in which the majority imposes its will on the minority.

Suppose you go to a bar with colleagues, Huemer suggests. You’re all having drinks, and the question of who pays comes up. “A colleague suggests you pay. You say ‘no.’ They take a vote, and they all vote to force you to pay for their drinks. Is that right?”

Huemer’s question is rhetorical. But, he adds, “It’s unclear why that’s different from the democratic state.”

In similar fashion, Huemer dissects the arguments for the “hypothetical” social contract (that people would consent to the social contract if they were rational) and the fairness argument (that citizens should obey government because disobedience would be unfair to others).

The bottom line, Huemer contends, is that one has an obligation to follow only those laws that are actually correct.

“The obligation to obey the law does depend on the content of the law.”

“My view isn’t that you should feel free to disobey any and all laws,” Huemer says. “My view is that there are certain moral requirements that are independent of the state.”

Huemer contends that our governmental system has two flaws: It is non-voluntary, and it is monopolistic. His alternative view is that government functions could be performed by competing interests.

“I caution people not to assume that the status quo is the best way to deal with every problem right now, until proven otherwise.” At the same time, Huemer does not argue that his alternative vision is flawless. He does, however, argue that the status quo is worse.

“If you didn’t have a central authority structure, there would never come a time when we’d be sending people to war and putting people in concentration camps.”

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