Political Authority, Moral Powers and the Intrinsic Value of Obedience

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Oxford Journal of Legal Studies

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Three concepts – authority, obedience and obligation – are central to understanding law and political institutions. The three are also involved in the legitimation of the state: an apology for the state has to make a normative case for the state’s authority, for its right to command obedience, and for the citizen’s obligation to obey the state’s commands. Recent discussions manifest a cumulative skepticism about the apologist’s task. Getting clear about the three concepts is, of course, an essential preliminary to any cogent normative defense of the state. The analysis here yields three conclusions: (i) the state claims to possess a moral power to subject citizens to duties of obedience, but non-consent apologies (including appeals to a principle of fair-play) can at best deliver a ‘side-effect’ power; (ii) consent theories of political authority aspire to justify one moral power by appeal to another, but they encounter familiar objections (including the objection that the state claims authority over non-consenters); and (iii) if authority is a moral power – as the state claims – its justification will have to render obedience as intrinsically valuable. Perhaps a virtue – ethical account can deliver a justification of the needed kind, but that would have to be shown elsewhere.


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Recommended Citation

William A. Edmundson, Political Authority, Moral Powers and the Intrinsic Value of Obedience, 30 Oxford J. Legal Stud. 179 (2010).



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