Aristotle remains, to this day, a huge influence in various fields of studies like logic, psychology, metaphysics, ethics, and many more. His writings still prove to be a subject of further studies and debate to this day, more than 2300 years after his death. One of the many subjects he touched upon, and had a fascination towards, was the nature of man. In his work Nicomachean Ethics, he called man ‘Zoon Politikon’ which means a ‘political animal.’ This particular description of humanity must be studied in conjuncture to a previous claim of Aristotle’s that man is a ‘Zoon Logikon’ meaning that man is a ‘rational animal.’ Through Aristotle’s empirical observation, he determined that man can’t live without a political association — man naturally comes together to form some sort of community or society wherein he can flourish and develop in relation to his peers, which suggests that political participation is a must and one cannot live in anarchy. Man becomes man among others, and must live in an environment and community governed by laws set forth upon him by a political authority. As political beings, it is inevitable for a public authority to arise as it is in our social nature to thrive only with others and not individual beings deprived of a sense of community. This means that human beings also understand the importance of the perpetuation of the common good of the community and the implications of putting forth the community as a whole, as opposed to the individual’s well-being. This is where political authority comes in.
What is political authority? Helene Landemore of the Department of Political Science in Yale University defines political authority as ‘a distinct form of authority by contrast, for example, with parental or divine authority, in that it is, historically at least, attached to the power of governments and their various extensions.’ As defined by Landemore, political authority is, simply put, an ability by a political entity to seek obedience and coercion from their subordinates, or the citizens in a community. Authority is a power to create an obligation amongst the masses to obey and follow the rules set forth by the government. Furthermore, it grants the government to exercise the threat of punishment against insubordinate citizens.
Additionally, William A. Edmundson of Cambridge University gives three ideas that provide legitimacy to a state: obedience, coercion, and intrusion. All of which, he says, are inseparable from the government. Obedience refers to the citizens, wherein they are being asked to follow a set of rules and regulations set by a political entity. Coercion refers to the threat of punishment by the government once a citizen fails to perform his responsibility. Intrusion refers to the government’s right to intrude into a citizen’s private life but with restrictions and reservations that they must adhere to, stemming from natural law.
Michael Huemer, a professor of Philosophy in the University of Colorado in his book ‘The Problem of Political Authority’, defines political authority as ‘the right of government to coerce conformity to its rule and the duty had by those subject to the government to obey.’ He, furthermore, argues that the concept of ‘authority’ has two simple aspects:
- (a) Political Legitimacy — the right to rule, or the right of the government to impose laws and enforce them by coercion into the citizens. It concerns the right of a certain body or an institution to govern over the masses and the right for them to derive their mandate to tax, organize defense, institute social programs, regulate the economy, etc.
- (b) Political Obligation — the obligation of the citizens to obey their government and the rules that are set upon them. However, some might say that political obligation deals more with answering the question of why it might be prudent to obey the state but not why we are obligated to do so. Instead, if we are politically obligated to obey the laws of the state, then it is morally wrong for us to disobey them.
By Huemer’s account, it can be inferred that political authority goes both ways: for an authority to be successfully in effect, it must be coerced by the government and it must be obeyed by the citizens.
Later on, in the same book, Huemer also outlined an alternative list of qualities that constitutes political authority, given:
- Generality – which means it generally must be applied to all citizens
- Particularity – which means it is specific to its citizens and residents within its territory
- Content-dependence – the state’s authority is not tied to the specific contents of its laws or other commands
- Comprehensiveness – the state is entitled to regulate a broad range of human activities, and individuals must obey the state’s directives within that broad sphere, and;
- Supremacy – the state is recognized as the highest form of authority
Given the definition, what is now the role of political authority? It can be argued that authority is the most important characteristic of a state. Going back to Aristotle’s statement that, “Man is a political animal,” it can be said that every state, in any way it is being run, needs a governing body with authority. The authoritative power of a state is crucial to maintaining a structure, which is the very essence of a state. Without structure, a society is no different from barbarity and having no identity as a whole. Authority creates an identity for a society by establishing norms, values, laws, and traditions that bind a society together. Thomas Hobbes described life without the state as “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short” as he believed that the natural state of man was bellum omnia contra omnes or a war of all against all. Without a recognized political power, people would naturally revert back to their animalistic tendencies just to survive.
The common criticisms of political authority include an assumption that authority is essentially the enemy of freedom, and by imposing authority we are threatening the very core of our society – which is liberty in free will. In response to this criticism, Desmond Hume wrote in his essay “Of the Origin of Government”:
“In all governments, there is a perpetual intestine struggle, open or secret, between authority and liberty; and neither of them can ever absolutely prevail in the contest. A great sacrifice of liberty must necessarily be made in every government, yet even the authority, which confines liberty, can never, and perhaps ought never, in any constitution, to become quite entire and uncontrollable.”
Hume acknowledged that liberty and authority should co-exist harmoniously in order for them to perform their functions as intended. He acknowledged that if an equilibrium between the two is to be established, neither liberty nor authority should supersede the other. Some freedom or liberty must be sacrificed and, in return, authority must be kept in check.
What are the limits of political authority? Jeffrey Mirus of Christendom College argues that for a political authority to be legitimate, it must adhere to the natural law. Natural law is, simply put, the recognition that all of humanity inherently possess within themselves inalienable rights bestowed to them by a higher being as well as a collection of universal rules by which every human being is expected to adhere to. Mirus argues that the government does not in itself generate or possess the principles of morality by which its policies must be shaped. These moral principles come from nature, which is prior to government, and they are native to the persons over which the government, by whatever accident of history, presides.
One other problem of political authority is the question of what happens to someone who fails to live up to their political obligation – what punishments may befall them and how to implement those punishments. After all, the word “coercion” instigates a sense of punishments and sanctions to those who fail to follow authority. Back to Huemer’s book “The Problem of Political Authority,” he tells us that:
“Government is a coercive institution. Generally speaking, when the state makes a law, the law carries with it a punishment to be imposed upon violators. It is possible to have a law with no specified punishment for violation, but all actual governments attach punishments to nearly all laws. Not everyone who breaks the law will in fact be punished, but the state will generally make a reasonable effort at punishing violators and will generally punish a fair number of them, typically with fines or imprisonment.”
Huemer, then argues that the implication of this is that this may lead into the perpetuation of physical violence as, without the threat of violence, deviants may simply choose to break the law and ignore their political obligation. He further drives this point by telling us that there are corresponding gravities of punishment that is given to someone depending on the severity of the crime, and that if it gets more severe, the government is responsible for equally increasing the severity of the punishment as well.
For this, Max Weber wrote: “The government upholds the claim to the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force in the enforcement of its order.” What Weber tells us is that violence can actually be used by the government legitimately for “enforcement of its order” or coercion. He argues that the use of force is actually acceptable but only in the jurisdiction specified by the land. He argues that, not only is violence a requirement of society, but actually a pre-requisite in creating a harmonious community. Weber tells us that the police and military are the state’s main instruments of physical violence, while it is further acceptable for a private citizen to use self-defense in order to defend one’s self from an attacker given that they were in a recognizable grave situation. For example, a police officer is legally required to use physical force in subduing an insubordinate criminal and, likewise, a soldier caught in the middle of a crossfire is allowed to use his gun in order to defend himself and his state. Furthermore, a private citizen is allowed to use physical force once he detects a grave danger that may befall him. The use of force may be justifiable when it is required to preserve the life of oneself or of others.
In conclusion, despite all of its flaws, why should people accept political authority?
In a country or in any state, it is expected of man to work harmoniously instead of individually. Like Aristotle said, man is a political animal. This authoritative power allows states to grow and flourish; without it, people are reduced to being animals. It can be argued that having political authority is counter-productive in a free nation but it can also be argued that political authority is necessary in order to ensure that mankind has guidance as well as a unifying and regulating body to go push through barriers and achieve more compared to an individual working alone.
There may not be any absolute answer to the question, “why should people accept political authority,” without it having any counter-argument. Political authority, in general, may just be the lesser of two evils. Even John Locke’s view on the state is that it is a necessary evil that shall serve the interests of the people and in turn, its legitimacy shall be anchored on sovereign popularity. Would mankind rather spend their lives without a common goal nor any sense of political obligation and political legitimacy, or would it rather give up a few bits and pieces of freedom to ensure the flourishing of one’s community?
Mankind is a social and political animal. No matter what the circumstance may be, it is very likely that humans will form some resemblance of society. Without society, we subject ourselves to the brutish state of nature that allows every man to live for himself and by himself. For that, mankind must install some kind of authority once a society is formed – in order to ensure the perpetuation of camaraderie and community amongst themselves.
In the question of violence, violence itself is a natural condition of things. Man fought nature, man fought God, man fought man. It’s a never-ending cycle of violence. Establishing authority gives a monopoly of violence that allows mankind to utilize a barbaric method into something that is controlled and may potentially benefit the community. It can be argued that it is necessary in terms of the natural state of things and can actually be something that helps maintain a sense of harmony among the state.
In general, the question of why should people accept political authority isn’t really a question of why, but why shouldn’t they?
Imagine a day, just a single day without political authority. No one collecting taxes, meaning streets would be overflowing with garbage and other basic needs of the people are not attended to. Looters are everywhere since there is no person of authority to make them do otherwise. Contaminated water and food infiltrate communities because nobody is there to regulate. Agencies and services that run on taxes are shut down: weather services, garbage collection, prisons, etc. People not following any traffic rules because there are none. A person would be lucky to be alive at the end of the day. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.
To be fair, one may argue that mankind can continue to sustain itself given that we have morals and good nature instilled upon us and to some extent there are. But now that there is political authority governing us and still crime and injustice persist, would it get better without political authority?
Man is a political animal. We belong in a society and it is up to us to fulfill our political obligations. Structured systems to manage human conduct is a necessity in establishing a civilized society. This is what separates humanity from savage, untamed beasts. Without anybody or anything to keep people in place, what is to stop them from tearing each other apart? Therefore, in order to ensure that a harmonious society exists, we need political authority to assist humanity in its constant pursuit of truth, knowledge, and prosperity