Revision:Political philosophy - authority


How is power exercised?

  • Persuasion
    • Power is exercised by making the masses willingly corporate.
    • They do not cooperate solely for the government; they agree to the action and have their own reasons for cooperating.
  • Coercion
    • Power is exercised through forcing people to act in the way you want them to
    • This is can be done with the exercise of superior physical force, such as the police or the armed forces.
    • Not always necessarily with the consent of the people.

Although these two forms of exercising power are mutually opposed, there are common cases where they both contribute toward the same goal. For example, trade unions ‘negotiate’ with employers by threatening industrial action. It is disputed as whether this is a persuasive force or a coercive force, as the employer doesn’t have any choice but to agree with the unions.


  • Aristotle evaluated some institutions as better than others. One of the ways he done this was by to decide whether the rule was conducted in the interests of the ruler or the interests of society (common good).
  • Who would you rather be ruled by? Somebody who shows you why decisions are in your best interests or somebody who forces you to act in a certain way?
  • To be coerced into action without explanation is to be treated as ‘less than human’, or effectively like a child.

It is disheartening to some philosophers that people tend to obey and accept the authority of the state without any real reasoning or rationalization as to why they are obeying them in the first place. If I asked an average person “Why do you obey the prime minister?”, he may very well reply back with “Because he Is the prime minister!”

  • Philosophers such as Kant and Rousseau have stress the importance of obeying the rules you set for yourself. One is free to create their own law, so it is a shame to waste this faculty by blindly obeying an authority without question.
  • Mill argues in On Liberty that one should strive to develop his own individuality and not blindly follow the rules of custom. Uncustomary things allow us to see what is fit for custom.
    • Does Mill not contradict himself? Encouraging uncustomary things to see what is fit for custom…
  • Conservatives may argue that law is the memory of the solutions to problems of the pasts, and the solutions that worked in the past may very well work in the future. What worked before can work again
    • Not always necessarily the case. The political and social situations in the past are clearly very different to what they are now, so previous solutions may no longer be applicable.
  • Authority is a convenient social mechanism for getting things done quickly and efficiently.
  • It also allows for the accumulated experience of the community to be used when it is dealing with problems.
  • However, authority short-circuits all argument and endangers innovation.
  • It is a threat to an individual’s liberty as it suspends their own judgement in favour of established procedures.


What is the Legitimacy of an authority?

Legitimacy is how well the authority is able to account for being accepted as an authority. Ie, why should we accept it as an authority?

Max Weber defined the 3 main points which contribute to the legitimacy of a power;


  • Rational-legal: Some would say that this is the authority that we are used to, as the state justifies itself on legal grounds and codified law.
    • Legitimacy is earned through arguing putting points across in a relevant and rational way. Usually, the most legitimate would be the party that can put forward the most compelling argument.
  • Traditional: Authority is inherited. Such a case would be a Monarchy which passes down power from heir to heir.
  • Charismatic: The leader would be able to put his points forward in a very precise and maybe even charming way. Some may argue that there is an element of this type of authority in our government.
    • Would not generally be regarded as truly legitimate, as the basis of the legitimate factor would be purely the leaders own personality. We should avoid assuming that a leader knows best when all we like about him is the way he puts his ideas across.


On what grounds can the government legitimately account for our obligation to obey their laws?

  • Consent of the governed
    • A view taken by the Liberals. Consent is central to obligation, and people are only bound by the obligations which they have freely taken on. The government has no right to manufacture a Social Contract theory without the official consent of society.
    • Anarchists take this further and argue that nobody has any obligation to obey an authority, as there is no opportunity for them to ever agree to such.
      • Consent is given within the act of remaining in the jurisdiction of the authority. If you remain, then you are enjoying the benefits of that authority, and thus consenting to it’s rule.
    • Marxists would argue that consent of the people is manufactured by the state when the proletariat rises up and seizes the means of production from the bourgeoisie.
  • Hobbes’ account of obligation is that the consent comes from a treaty, or non-aggression pact created after a successful conquest.
    • By agreeing not to show aggression to the new state, you are accepting their authority.
    • There is a total obligation to obey the conquerors rule. Under Hobbes’ account, there is no room for criticising the legislator as you have consented to whatever law he may want to impose.
      • This may not account for all generations. Do the people of a subsequent generation to the conquered have a right to object to the ruler? They haven’t consented to anything, especially if they do not have the resources to move out of the states control.
  • Achievement of the General Will

(not finished yet)


These notes are aimed at A Level Philosophy students for the module on 'Political Philosophy'.

Originally written by coldplasma on TSR Forums.