Social and Political Philosophy: A Contemporary Introduction

By John Christman | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 2

The problem of political authority
• The social contract tradition
• Hobbes’s social contract: Mechanism, egoism, and rationality
• Locke: Reason, morality, and freedom
• Lessons from Rousseau and Kant
• From consent to legitimacy
• Chapter summary
• Case to consider
• Notes on further reading

As I described in the Introduction, the liberal approach to political philosophy involves a variety of theoretical and methodological commitments, ones that will be the subject of controversy as we proceed. First, however, I want to discuss various issues within the liberal paradigm, questions that arise against the backdrop of liberal philosophy without putting the components of that paradigm themselves in question. This will serve its own independent purpose, but it will hopefully also set the stage for our critical discussion of liberalism in Part II. The issue to be dealt with in this chapter is, for many thinkers, the fundamental question of political philosophy: what justifies the authority that political institutions wield over citizens? In short, what justifies the state? First, we must be clear about what we mean by ‘authority.’ Clearly, to have authority over someone is to have power over them, to be in a position to shape their actions and reasons for acting. To be under authority, then, is to be in a position where one’s actions and reasons for acting are shaped by that force. But this suggests an important distinction, between authority simpliciter (or de facto authority) and rightful or legitimate authority (de jure authority). Generally speaking, then, authority can be defined as a relation between a person or institution and another person (the subject of authority), which relation provides reasons for the subject to act that override her own reasons. That is, the presence of the authority gives the subject reasons that she otherwise would not

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