Rodger Beehler, "The Wolff at the Door," Canadian Journal of Political Science / Revue canadienne de science politique, Vol. 5, No. 4, (Dec., 1972), pp. 553-559.

The Wolff at the Door

Rodger Beehler
University of Victoria

It is the contention of Robert Paul Wolff that we live under governments which have no right to govern us.1 Most of us of course believe that our governments have legitimate authority. We believe that by far the greater part of what our governments require of us they have the authority to require. Wolff insists that it does not follow from our belief that most, or at least many, governments rightfully govern, that in fact any government rightfully governs. He is right of course; it does not follow, unless our beliefs are true. And we might be mistaken. The question is, are we?


Wolff marks out his inquiry in this way:

"Authority is the right to command, and correlatively, the right to be obeyed. It must be distinguished from power, which is the ability to compel obedience, either through the use or the threat of force.

That men accede to claims of supreme authority is plain. That men ought to accede to claims of supreme authority is not so obvious. Our first question must therefore be, Under what conditions and for what reasons does one man have supreme authority over another? The same question can be restated, Under what conditions can a state (understood normatively) exist?

[A]ll normative concepts are non-empirical ... Hence, we cannot justify the use of the concept of (normative) supreme authority by presenting instances. We must demonstrate by an a priori argument that there can be forms of human community in which some men have a moral right to rule. In short, the fundamental task of political philosophy is to provide a deduction of the concept of the state." (pp. 4, 8.)

Wolff speaks of supreme authority. He is aware that an authority may be accounted supreme in two senses, as possessing jurisdiction over all other authorities, or as having no limit to the ways in which it may be exercised -- and he means his remarks to bear upon both. For while he observes that it is an important question whether in a just state an absolute supremacy could exist, he also means to ask whether even a limited authority may exist. I shall confine my attention to an authority supreme in the first of the two senses. The question of an absolute supremacy I shall ignore, for nothing in Wolff's argument turns on it. I shall take it that by "supreme authority" is meant an authority supreme in relation to any other authority, and no more. It is enough that the state has (or claims to have) authority, and that the authority is supreme in this sense.

Wolff's question then is: ought men to accede to the state's claims of authority? This is a question about the possible existence of such authority. Wolff's contention is that all existing governmental forms are without legitimate authority. He arrives at this conclusion by way of certain results in moral philosophy.


"The fundamental assumption of moral philosophy," Wolff tells us, "is that men are responsible for their actions." (p. 12.) Wolff distinguishes between being responsible for one's actions and taking responsibility for them, where taking responsibility for one's actions is always being careful that what one does is what one ought to do. Wolff then goes on to claim that taking responsibility for one's actions logically requires what he, following Kant, calls autonomy. "The responsible man is not capricious or anarchic, for he does acknowledge himself bound by moral constraints. But he ... alone is the judge of those constraints. He may listen to the advice of others, but he makes it his own by determining for himself whether it is good advice.

Since the responsible man arrives at moral decisions which he expresses to himself in the form of imperatives, we may say that he gives laws to himself, or is self-legislating. In short, he is autonomous.

[M]oral autonomy ... is a submission to laws which one has made for oneself. The autonomous man, insofar as he is autonomous, is not subject to the will of another. He may do what another tells him, but not because he has been told to do it." (pp. 13-14.)

A man is autonomous, in Wolff's sense, only in so far as he acts from considerations which he accepts are reasons (and where moral considerations are at stake, morally compelling reasons) for his action. To submit to any requirement just because it is required, and not because it is independently justified, is to repudiate one's moral obligation always to act autonomously, which arises from one's capacity to choose and to reason concerning your choices. This moral obligation is, Wolff claims, the primary, by which is meant the overriding, moral obligation of men. No government, then, is morally acceptable except a form of unanimous direct democracy under which every person votes on every issue, and only those requirements are authoritative which have unanimous assent. As Wolff compresses the argument:

"The defining mark of the state is authority, the right to rule. The primary obligation of man is autonomy, the refusal to be ruled.

Insofar as a man fulfills his obligation to make himself author of his decisions, he will resist [any existing] state's claim to have authority over him. That is to say, he will deny that he has a duty to obey the laws of the state simply because they are the laws. In that sense, it would seem that [in any existing circumstance] anarchism is the only political doctrine consistent with the virtue of autonomy." (p. 18.)

(I shall take Wolff's expression, "author of his decisions," to mean something like "determiner of his actions." A man has an obligation not "to not let others decide his own decisions," which is absurd, but to not let them decide what he shall, or should, do. He is to decide that.)

Wolff requires of governments a moral right to rule. There is, I believe, a connection between this claim and his insistence that governments can rightfully govern only if people have a moral obligation to obey them. Sometimes it seems that Wolff thinks the moral obligation to obey would create the moral right to rule. Sometimes he speaks as though the moral obligation to obey could exist only where there was, first, a moral right to rule. But he does not say either. The traditional position is that ordinarily, but not always, what it is right to do concerning a certain matter is what those in authority command be done, if they do command. Wolff's claim in essence is that no one can have authority to command a person to do something if this is supposed to lay him under an obligation to do it. (In the unanimous direct democracy the force of any order to obey is to be traced back to one's agreement to the law, which is a sort of promise to obey. And of course all orders are orders to obey; no order can introduce a new law.)


I shall try to work out briefly Wolff's position, not as he himself argues it, but in a way which I hope will point out more clearly the difficulties he sees in the concept of authority, and the path by which he arrives at his position. To have authority, he argues, is to have a right to rule, where to rule persons is to decide what they shall do, and to have a right to rule is to have a right that they shall do it. The question then arises, how does your right that they shall do it arise? To put it differently: your authority puts them under an obligation to obey. How is this done? How does the obligation (and so the authority) begin? It cannot be that your moral right to rule imposes on me a moral obligation to obey. For that would mean it would be right that you should judge and decide what it would be right that I should do. But my moral autonomy requires that I should judge -- and decide that. Suppose it is the other way about; your moral right arises from my moral obligation to obey. But from what does my moral obligation arise? I can never have a moral obligation simply to obey. My moral obligation is to do what is right to do. If a government commands me to do what is right, then I have an obligation to do it. But my obligation is in no way connected to the fact that the government commands it. In what then can the authority of the government consist? The government cannot add to my obligation here. Nor, it seems, can it create an obligation to do something where there is not already a moral obligation to do it. The government commands x. To obey is to do x. But if there is not already an obligation to do x how can the state create an obligation to do x simply by commanding that it be done? How can the state create an obligation to obey its commands? It cannot do so simply by commanding that they be obeyed. For if the other commands need this command in order to be morally obligatory then this command too (that all the state's commands should be obeyed) is in need of something to make it obligatory, and so on. What creates an obligation to do something, what makes it right to do it, is that it is right to do it. It cannot be that the state should make it right to do what it commands simply by commanding it.

If I were asked to describe in one sentence the mistake in this argument, I should reply that the error consists, first, in thinking that a moral obligation to obey the law would interfere with the subject's moral autonomy, and second, in thinking that the only half-way plausible account of the origin of an obligation to obey the law must be in some act or decision of the state, which idea can, in the above way, be shown on close examination to be untenable. I shall counter this argument, first, by trying to show that even under existing governments there is a moral obligation to obey the law, but that the existence of this obligation is not to be traced to any act or decision of the state but to moral considerations themselves. The state decides what one is to do in order to obey the law; it decides, by the laws it makes, what obedience will amount to in practice. But the state does not decide that one has a moral obligation to obey. Secondly, I shall try to show that the existence of a moral obligation to obey the law in no way puts in jeopardy that feature of moral life which Wolff refers to as moral autonomy. I shall try to show that here (as in the case of the origin of the obligation to obey) Wolff goes wrong in not attending closely enough to the circumstances or ways of living in which the commands or requirements are laid down. It cannot (Wolff is right this far) ever be the case that simply in being required of me anything can be made morally right for me to do. Everything turns (and this he does not see) on who requires it, and what is required.


Is the obligation to obey the law a moral obligation? I wish to argue (from within a long tradition) that it is in this sense: (1) If there are established practices in the community according to which certain people, in certain circumstances, may command that certain things be done, or not done, and (2) if there is general acceptance of these practices as the appropriate procedures for securing things which it is important, and right, be secured, and (3) if these practices and procedures do realize and secure these things, and are not corrupted, then, in the case of something which is commanded by these people in accord with this tradition and practice, one is, as a member of this community, under a prima facie moral obligation to comply. To have legal authority is to be marked out by these practices as having a certain significance or status attached to one's actions in certain circumstances. To be under a legal obligation is to be placed so that one's action or situation falls under a rule made by those who have legal authority. The prima facie moral obligation to obey arises out of at least two considerations: (1) in so far as one accepts the enactment of rules which touch or affect others then, where the law obtrudes upon one's own concerns or practices, considerations of justice require one to comply, however unwillingly, as one complied willingly, and accepted that others should comply, before; (2) the moral importance of these institutions and practices and the connection between obedience and the integrity of these institutions imposes a prima facie obligation to obey. It might be thought that this makes it the case then that simply in being required of me a thing is made morally right to do. In a sense, this is so. "Other things being equal," which is to say, where no other moral considerations obtrude upon the matter, there is a moral obligation to obey the law. This, if you like, is a moral obligation to do what is here made the right thing to do. But directly other moral considerations obtain they must be attended to, and the question of what to do cannot simply be answered: what the law requires. What one ought to do here is (as before) what is morally required. And that may be to disobey the law.

Wolff's position is that other things are never equal. The question of one's autonomy is always present, and therefore it can never be right to do something simply because one is legally required to do it. I shall try to show that this is a mistake.


The informing spirit behind Wolff's book is Kant. Kant attached importance to the notion of the good will -- the will to do what is right because it is right. The importance of autonomy in Kant's moral philosophy is connected to this notion of a good will. No one else can make your will a good will. A good will embraces the good of its own accord, and the importance of that free, autonomous embrace is understood once we appreciate that it is possible not to embrace the good. Freely to choose one's duty as one's duty, as what it is right to do, is to realize one's will as a good will.

Wolff seeks to deduce from a formal property of morality a substantive moral principle. It is not conceivable that one could act morally, in the sense of act from a good will, if one did not choose autonomously. The autonomy of the choice is a logical requirement for the goodness of the will. To have a good will means freely to choose to do what is right as right, as one's duty. This philosophical doctrine is borne out by our interest in what lies behind the apparently moral acts of a man. We appreciate a man not only in terms of what he does, but in terms of what he is as well. We are concerned to know whether a man is honest, kind, or loyal because he cares to be honest, kind, or loyal, or for some consequence these actions bring him. We wish to know not only the 'acts' but the character of a man. From the fact that autonomy is a necessary feature of morality, in the manner outlined above, Wolff argues that we have a moral duty never to abrogate our autonomy. There are a number of confusions here.

In the first place Wolff seems not to distinguish an autonomous moral choice from any other autonomous choice. On page 23 he remarks that "a man who is constrained only by the dictates of his own will is autonomous." Perhaps. But in fact, not every exercise of autonomy is a case of moral choice or judgment, nor is every denial of autonomy of the same importance. Wolff doesn't seem to distinguish the importance in morals that I act, that I judge or appreciate, from the quite different and varying degrees of importance attached outside of moral situations to the independence of my action.

It is sometimes the case that there is no good reason to do what an authority requires independently of the fact that the authority requires it. Because of this, we seek to constitute the state authority in such a way as to prevent the enactment of stupid, unreasonable, or vicious laws and to provide needed and sensible laws. Often, there is very good reason to do what the state authority requires, independently of the fact that the state authority requires it. In our community, governments have the authority to require that concrete structures erected to support bridge spans meet certain specifications. The government can require a contractor to provide a structure he might not otherwise provide. Now Wolff wants to say that this contractor, if he does not admit the reasonableness of this demand, forfeits his autonomy if he complies. But does he? Suppose, though he disagrees, he obeys, because it is right to obey. Does he not act antonomously? For he does what it is right to do because it is right to do it.

Wolff wants to say: the question of its being right is what is at issue. He also wants to say (and this is important): the contractor must decide what it is right for him to do; that is why he cannot be subject to any authority which is to impose on him an obligation simply to obey; there cannot be any such obligation for his first obligation is always to decide.

But in what sense is he to decide what is right? Is a thing's being right to depend on his decision? Is "what is right" equivalent to "what he decides"? It sometimes looks as though Wolff thinks this is how it has to be. But it cannot be that way. We do not allow that a man might decide in that sense what is right (nor did Kant allow it). We distinguish between what it is right to do, what a man decides to do, and what he decides it is right to do. And we accept that what he decides it is right to do is perhaps not right to do at all. This may be how it is with the contractor. It may be that he does not see any wrong in erecting structures of a certain sort because he accounts them safe enough. Because we disagree about the facts (the safety of the structure), we want to say that he thinks that what he does is right when in fact it is wrong. A mistake about the facts leads him to see no wrong where there is wrong. Of course it may be that he cares nothing for any wrong involved at all. He does not care whether the bridges are safe. He cares only for his convenience and profit. Here, whatever he does, he is wrong in not caring. But in whichever way he is wrong (whether he is mistaken, or whether he does not care about the safety of the structures) we require him by law to do what he would like not to do, because it is more important that bridges be safe than that he be allowed to do what he likes.

Is Wolff to oppose our doing this? Is he to oppose this man's moral autonomy to the realization of what it is right to realize here? What if the man has no concern to do what it is right to do? Wolff's position seems to require two assumptions: (a) that men always are concerned to do (and so to find out) what it is right to do, and (b) that this continuous concern to act rightly and responsibly must always issue in right and responsible action. Though Wolff himself explicitly observes on page 13 that "a man may take responsibility for his actions and yet act wrongly. When we describe someone as a responsible individual, we do not imply that he always does what is right, but only that he does not neglect the duty of attempting to ascertain what is right." But it is assumption (a) which is the critical one. If, as is the case, not all men care to act rightly, what is Wolff to say in the face of their unconcern? The traditional justification of authority involves appeal to just this kind of human situation. Some part of the purpose of authoritative requirements is to ensure that men do what they ought but are not willing to do.

It will perhaps be objected by Wolff that those who are made to do what it is right to do are surely deprived of their moral autonomy. I should say rather that, where what they are made to do it is right that they do, they are deprived, in this case, of their autonomy; and what requires that deprivation is morality. This brings us to a deep-going tension in Wolff's account. Wolff's concern that men should be autonomous arises out of his concern that men should take moral responsibility for their actions. "The moral condition demands that we acknowledge responsibility and achieve autonomy wherever and whenever possible." (p. 17.) The autonomy Wolff wishes to insist upon is an autonomy necessary for a searching and unflinching fidelity to the claims of morality. That is, the importance of autonomy derives from the importance of acting rightly and responsibly. (It has to, since how else could the obligation to be autonomous itself be, as Wolff claims it is, a moral obligation?) The obligation to be autonomous is nothing more, or less, than the obligation to heed moral considerations.

From this position it is a short (but mistaken) step to the view that to act rightly is -- to act autonomously. That is, the obligation to be autonomous is first connected to the obligation to act rightly, but then later a moral importance is attached to autonomy per se. Once this is done, once one conceives (or tends to conceive) of acting rightly as acting autonomously, one searches about for what it is about autonomy which makes it (now) constitutive of moral action. One is likely to end up at the notion of what is the proper and fitting way for a creature such as man to act. In autonomous action a man realizes himself as the rational and responsible and self-determining creature he is. The result of this shift of emphasis is that a tension now arises between the claims of morality (which first led one to insist upon autonomy) and the claims of autonomy (which seem now to forbid even constraint to secure what it is morally right should be secured). I believe this tension is at work in Wolff's account. Consider these remarks of his on compliance with authority.

"[I]t is not enough to show that there are circumstances in which men have an obligation to do what the de facto authorities command. Even under the most unjust of governments there are frequently good reasons for obedience rather than defiance. It may be that the government has commanded its subjects to do what in fact they already have an independent obligation to do; or it may be that the evil consequences of defiance far outweigh the indignity of submission. A government's commands may promise beneficent effects, either intentionally or not. For these reasons, and for reasons of prudence as well, a man may be right to comply with the commands of the government under whose de facto authority he finds himself. But none of this settles the question of legitimate authority. That is a matter of the right to command, and of the correlative obligation to obey the person who issues the command.

The point of the last paragraph cannot be too strongly stressed. Obedience is not a matter of doing what someone tells you to do. It is a matter of doing what he tells you to do because he tells you to do it. Legitimate, or de jure, authority thus concerns the grounds and sources of moral obligation" (p. 9, Wolff's emphasis).

In the last sentence of this passage Wolff connects the existence of legal authority to the existence of a moral obligation to obey. This is unfortunate in that one might wish to be allowed to say that circumstances might easily arise in which one ought not to obey the requirement of a perfectly legitimate (that is, legally constituted) government. In other words, that one may be under a legal obligation in respect of some order or rule, which one is morally required to repudiate. But I do not wish to stop here. The issue I want to examine is that raised in the words "Obedience is not a matter of doing what someone tells you to do. It is a matter of doing what he tells you to do because he tells you to do it." I have two remarks. (1) The claim is that one obeys authority when one acts for a certain reason. The reason is that someone with authority has told one to act in such a way. On Wolff's account, persons are said to obey those in authority only when they do what they are commanded to do, just because they were commanded. This means then that for every law for which there is a good reason, common to us all, to have it (for example, the laws requiring payment of income tax, or forbidding extortion), we cannot be said to obey this law if that reason enters in any way into our obedience. But this is absurd. Surely the citizen who respects the authority of his government obeys even as he appreciates the reasons there are for doing what he is by law called upon to do. On Wolff's account, you obey only when you act, as it were, unthinkingly; without any reason other than that they have authority. (2) But how could governments ever acquire authority unless there were reasons for them to have (and exercise) it? If being governed is doing what others tell one to do just because they tell one, who is to justify government? But then who is going to try to justify government without an appeal to what government realises -- to the reasons there are for what governments do, and so the reasons there are for being governed? If the cases Wolff has in mind of people complying not because there are reasons to comply but because they have been told to do it were the paradigm cases of government, who could justify government? The answer of course is, no one.

The connection between these remarks on compliance with authority and those above about a tension between morals and autonomy is this: as long as it is moral autonomy that we are discussing we have before us the connection between autonomy and moral integrity. (Indeed a loose synonym for "moral autonomy" might be "moral integrity.") But directly a moral importance is attached to just plain autonomy we are in danger of being separated from what was first to give autonomy moral importance (its connection to right action). Autonomy involves acting for reasons: it is precisely the opposition of one's own reason to the will of another which is the attractive profile of autonomy. Autonomy is subjection to reason; heteronomy is subjection to another's will. But if acting for reasons is too closely identified with autonomy it will perhaps be thought that what must characterize any instance of obedience will be the absence of reasons, or better, the absence of any reason except that one is to obey. One now conceives of obedience as, acting just because one is subject, and then one asks after the alleged moral obligation to obey. But who is able to deliver a moral obligation to do what one has no reason (moral or otherwise) to do, other than that someone "in authority" tells one to do it? (Again) not surprisingly, no one.

There remains Wolff's claim that if one does comply with an authoritative requirement just because it is authoritative this is to renounce one's autonomy. This thesis fails to account for a number of requirements to which one might submit diffidently because they are not important to one. That one's will must be attested to by three witnesses, that one's driver's licence must be signed, that one's motor vehicle shall not exceed a certain speed, these are (in Wolff's view) erosions of one's autonomy -- though notice that one chooses to do what is required, even where one does not attend to the reason which might explain the requirement. Wolff wishes to confine the expression "autonomous action" to action which one embarks upon for (morally acceptable) reasons which one consciously accepts as relevant and weighty. But why should we accept this confinement? Ordinarily we hold that the man who obeys because he wishes to escape punishment acts autonomously. It is precisely because he does that we hold him responsible where the law he obeys is vicious and wrong.

Wolff insists that: "It is out of the question to give up the commitment to moral autonomy. Men are no better than children if they not only accept the rule of others from force of necessity, but embrace it willingly and forfeit their duty unceasingly to weigh the merits of the actions they perform" (pp. 71-2). The fact is that morals do not remove from a person's situation even when a rule is imposed by force. Wolff speaks as though so long as one is coerced one is exonerated; but morals require that one should do right even in the face of adversity. If there is to be any sense to the doctrine of "submission only to laws which one has made for oneself" it has surely to be that one has always to heed the claims of morality. Sometimes this will mean to defy those who coerce.

Wolff continues: "When I place myself in the hands of another, and permit him to determine the principles by which I shall guide my behaviour, I repudiate the freedom and reason which give me dignity. I am then guilty of what Kant might have called the sin of wilful heteronomy" (p. 72). I submit that Wolff struggles with a problem he has made, not discovered. The state's authority is a legal authority. It is always open to one to distinguish between what the state may legally do and require and what anyone, including the state, may morally do or require. From the fact that I am legally required to do a thing it does not follow that it is right to do it, unless no moral considerations obtrude upon the matter other than that a lawful requirement is made. So long as I am able morally to appreciate what the state authority requires, and have the courage to comply only with laws which are morally acceptable or morally indifferent, in what way has my moral autonomy been renounced? To acknowledge authority is not to abdicate reason or responsibility (any more than to be free is to be free to do anything). When I acknowledge the authority of the state I do not allow that it can legally do anything. But more importantly, I do not allow that it can morally require anything. Nor do I "place myself in the hands of another, and permit him to determine the principles by which I shall guide my behaviour." Certainly I do not necessarily do so. If I am a coward then perhaps I have created a situation in which it is conceivable that the state should lay down what life I shall follow. But if I am possessed of some courage, then what the state requires is what the state requires; it is still an open question whether I shall, or should, do it, and why.2


1 R. P. Wolff, In Defence of Anarchism (New York, 1970).

2 I want to thank A.R. Drengson and H.J.N. Horsburgh, who by their remarks on an earlier version of this paper forced me to make my argument clearer than it was. Perhaps they should not be happy with it still.

I should also like to thank the journal referees, who made helpful comments on the paper and kept me from two or three inaccuracies of detail. To take up and meet their comments I had briefly to study Wolff's essay again. In doing so I came upon assumptions the exposure of which seemed as important as what I had uncovered before. What is printed here as the latter two thirds of section V is thus indirectly the result of their prodding