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Home arrow Law arrow Normative subjects : self and collectivity in morality and law


It is commonly believed that countries, their governments, and their laws make at least a prima facie normative claim on citizens. To be sure, attitudes to one’s country, its government, and its law may diverge, and each raises some distinctive philosophical issues of its own: under the heading of patriotism, philosophers explore the general, mostly affective attitude to the country; political philosophers tend to focus on the question of the government’s authority; and legal philosophy is centrally concerned with the duty to obey the law. But though separable, these issues are closely related. Ordinarily, a vital aspect of allegiance to one’s country is acknowledging its government’s authority, and law is by far the most significant medium through which that authority is exercised. The divergent issues that arise in this area have a common core: we are expected to pay some heed to our country’s interests by, in part, accepting its government’s authority, an acceptance manifested in part in a disposition to obey the law. What grip, if any, does this composite claim have on us? Call this the political question.

In one form or another, the political question has occasioned over time mountains of writings. Under these mountains, however, is buried a simple if dispiriting truth: we are no closer to a satisfactory answer than we have been before. Philosophers who till these fields have their employment secure. In these circumstances, adding yet another molehill to the landscape may seem foolhardy or worse. However, my aim in engaging with this question is not to offer a better answer, since the aim is not to provide an answer at all. It is rather to use this question as the vantage point for an imaginative reconstruction, partial and simplified, of the normative terrain as a whole. The results are the rudiments of a theory, guided by an old insight that goes back at least as far as Plato: that social and political arrangements are refracted in, and are a refraction of, the structure of the human self; to study the one is to study the other.

Two preliminary points. First, the political question arises with particular acuity with respect to an unjust state. “My country, right or wrong” is a well-known, and for many, notorious, sentiment. But we must also query allegiance to a just state. Our obligations to our own political system are supposedly different from our obligations to other systems, no matter how just these other systems may be. The fact that any given country, government, or law is just does not by itself bind us to them in the way in which we are supposed to be bound to our own. Second, the political question is a quest for justification. Such a quest does not arise in a void. Justification usually proceeds as an attempt to silence some qualms or reply to putative or actual opponents. Allegiance to the state, political authority, and law’s bindingness need to be justified. Why? A common answer fixes on the state’s coerciveness, since coercion by itself is presumptively bad. But coercion is not my primary concern. In focusing on normativity, I mean to attend to an aspect of the state, its government, and law that is independent of coercion, and, if anything, is antithetical to it. The state’s and so the law’s normativity consist in an appeal to voluntary allegiance and compliance. The political question is an invitation to assess this appeal quite apart from the fact that the state is in a position to enforce it. What challenge other than coercion gives rise to the political question and guides the efforts to answer it?

It is instructive that there are in fact two prominent challenges, diametrically opposed: one associated with an individual, self- regarding standpoint, the other with a universal, other-regarding standpoint. Seen from the individual’s standpoint the question is, why should I assume the burdens the state seeks to impose on me and accept the setback to my own interests it often demands? From the other standpoint the question is, why do my political community’s claims get priority over similar claims of other people or humanity as a whole? Each of the two opposing perspectives is commonly tied to a normative orientation of its own: individual self-interest defines the domain of prudence, whereas the universal concerns are the turf of morality. The political question accordingly arises between the prudential and the moral, and is answerable to both.

That the challenges to the state’s normative claims come from two opposing directions is sometimes obscured by the fact that the same idiom, of autonomy, is used to express both challenges: being subjected to the state’s authority and deferring to its demands is allegedly inimical to one’s autonomy. But here the polarity is hidden by an ambiguity in these claims between personal and moral autonomy. Roughly, personal autonomy concerns a person’s ability to carry out her wishes and desires and so advance her interests. Moral autonomy, at least as interpreted by Kant, is a matter of acting on universally valid principles one endorses.1 The charge that political authority and the law threaten autonomy can accordingly amount either to the claim that they restrict people’s capacity to pursue their own goals, or that they displace the universal principles that as moral agents people otherwise endorse.

Given the two polar challenges, it is not surprising that answers to the political question should often consist in efforts to account for the state’s normative claims in one of two opposite ways, arguing either that these claims arise out of self-regarding individual concerns and are congruent with them, or else that they are the implications of a universal morality and part of it. This is not the place to canvass the voluminous literature, other than to comment that the very volume and endurance of the two contrasting lines of thought raise some doubt that either is fully satisfactory. In any case, there is a prima facie phenomenological objection to both reductionist accounts, as unable to capture the experience of the political domain as a distinctive site of normative considerations, marked precisely by their failure to neatly align with the self-regarding/other- regarding divide. For example, some people pay their taxes resentfully, betraying a conflict between their self-regarding wish to keep the money and the state’s demands. The same people may feel personally offended and outraged when their country’s embassy is attacked or flag burned. The state’s claims seem in this way to belong to a large and variegated category of what appear to be intermediate interests (values, attitudes) and their associated reasons and norms, which cannot be classified clearly and stably either as one’s own or as those of others. Although a satisfactory answer to the political question would have to meet both the prudential and the moral challenges to the state’s normative claims, the answer also needs to account for the perceived distinctiveness of these claims, rather than collapsing them into one pole or the other.

I have mentioned that the twin challenges to the state’s normative claims are sometimes phrased in the idiom of autonomy, either moral or personal. Here, too, the apparently intermediate location of the political between the individual and the universal can be observed, confounding the binary division. Autonomy is self-government, and a state’s sovereignty is the realization of a people governing itself. Who, however, is the referent of this reflexive expression? It may appear that I have already answered the question in the course of posing it by designating “the people” for that role. But the history of political philosophy is in part the record of pursuing two radically different interpretations of this answer and of coping, inconclusively, with the difficulties to which each of them leads. “The people” either labels an aggregate of individuals, or a single entity, existing over and above the group of individual members. Both answers, however, create a rift between the self-government of the state and the autonomy of its individual members: each individual is governed by a group of other individuals in the one case, or by an independent collective entity in the other. In neither case does the reflexive subject of selfgovernment coincide with the individual self. But here too familiar facts appear to belie this picture. In the name of national self-determination, people often favor a more oppressive regime of their own over a more benign foreign rule. In doing so, they experience themselves as promoting their own autonomy rather than that of some third party, be it other individuals or an impersonally perceived collective entity.

It is possible, of course, to dismiss all such attitudes that people exhibit toward their country as deluded and wrongheaded. But even if this were one’s verdict, it would make better sense to reach it on substantive rather than conceptual grounds. We should be hesitant to diagnose large segments of human history as displaying a conceptual error. The reluctance stems in part from the explanatory paucity of such an account. Given how pervasive the attitudes in question are, an adequate account, even if it does not justify these attitudes, should tell us something about what prompts and sustains them. Ascribing to people a conceptual error that renders their attitudes senseless or incoherent is unlikely to meet this goal. It would be more fruitful to try to maintain conceptual room for political autonomy, seen as a genuine and distinct possibility, even if we denounce on substantive grounds its supposed realizations.

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