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Episode 5: Authority and autonomy / September 25, 2020

With Dr James Humphries

Hosted by Jasmine Hunt Keir Aitken

Edited by Constantinos Stylianou

Posted in Political Philosophy Main feed Autonomy States Consent

Why do we have a government? Why don’t we just ‘Lord of the Flies’ it? Do we really have to obey political authority? James Humphries, lecturer in Political Philosophy at the University of Glasgow, talks us through these questions and many more in this episode of Thoughts. Keir Aitken and Jasmine Hunt join him in discussion.

They discuss what a world without a state might look like. James introduces two types of authority, how they differ and how we should treat them. They then go on to discuss how and when we know when we shouldn’t obey an authority and our roles as individuals in consenting to obeying authority. They finish with James explaining what a world without states would look like and why he would like to abolish states.

4:50 – James explains how we can know when we should or shouldn’t obey authority.
8:07 – What happens without social consent to political authority?
13:31 – James tells us what change he would like to see in the world – his answer? Get rid of states...

Further reading:

Craig, E. Knowledge and the State of Nature (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1990)
Lane, M. ‘States of Nature, Espistemic and Political’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society (Vol. 99, 1999), pp211-224

Hurd, H. ‘Challenging Authority’, Yale Law Review (Vol. 100, No. 6, 1991), pp1611-1677
Raz, J. The Morality of Freedom (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1986)

Hobbes, T. Leviathan (multiple versions available, eg Project Gutenberg)
Rousseau, J-J. The Social Contract (multiple versions available, e.g. Wordsworth: London, 1998)

Benhabib, S. Situating the Self (Routledge: New York, 1992)
Rawls, J. (ed. Kelly, E.) Justice as Fairness: A Restatement (Harvard University Press: Cambridge MA, 2001)

Brown, B. ‘The Uneasy Status of Statism’ (unpublished; available at brookesbrown.com)


James Humphries: ...right, um, you need to know what a punch is, you need to know what a face is, right? It's like Fat Tony in The Simpsons…


Keir: Hello everyone, and welcome back to another episode of Thoughts. My name is Keir...

Jasmine: ...and my name is Jasmine. 

K: ...and today on the show we have James Humphries, who is a professor at the University of Glasgow and who works primarily on political philosophy. 

J: On today's episode of Thoughts, we ask James to talk a little bit about what philosophers mean when referring to the state of nature, and what grinds his gears. 

K: Here are some Thoughts on whether we ever have a moral duty to follow any political system. 

K: So, to start off, we'd just love to know a little bit more about what your specific interest in philosophy is. What's your niche?

Dr James Humphries: Cool. So, as you said, I work in political philosophy, which is to say - broadly understood - the norms, structures, kind of, institutions that we should have within a society, and what justifications there are for those norms, structures and institutions, looking at it in a particular way... So that's political philosophy very generally. My niche is, uh, in the relation between, kind of, authority and autonomy. In particular I think if we want to reject state authority for autonomy-minded reasons, it becomes really hard to work out why we don't reject all authority. So, why we don't end up, essentially, being kind of mountain men, right? Just kind of living in our shacks, refusing to have anything to do with anyone else, erm, because that seems like the wrong outcome, to me. But it's quite a difficult one to evade. So that's primarily where I work. 

J: So, in preparation for this interview, two terms relative to types of authority came up that I'd love to discuss: practical authority and theoretical authority. So, would you be able to differentiate between the two for us? 

Dr JH: Sure, erm, so let's take theoretical authority first. This is, roughly, being able to tell people what to believe, right? Or giving, sort of, people good reasons to believe a particular thing. So here's why you should believe that I know this thing, and there's different markers that we might have for that. So, in maths--I think this is Cambridge, I could be wrong, one of the Oxbridge Universities anyway, has got this notion of the senior wrangler, so the person who comes top in their honours cohort for maths. And that's a kind of marker for theoretical authority, right?– ‘I’m the senior wrangler of maths at Cambridge; here’s why you ought to believe what I say about maths’, right? Erm, practical authority is still about giving people reasons for action. I mean, plausibly that’s what all authority’s are about, ultimately. But practical authority is much more focused on telling people what to do and why they should do what you say. So you have a reason to tell people what to do, for some purpose. So the example is the person who sits at the front – or possibly the back, I dunno – of the boat (this is very Oxbridge focused)…so yeah, the idea is the person who sort of tells them when to row, who shouts ‘stroke’, you have a reason to pull your oar when the cox shouts ‘stroke’, uh, because you want to go faster. As a group of people you’ll do much better at this competitive rowing if you do what the person sitting at the back of the boat tells you to, right?

K: That makes total sense. So you’ve got theoretical authority, that someone has the authority of some theory or discipline. And then practical authority, someone who’s the authority of a practical matter, practicality. So you mentioned a benefit there of a practical authority being collectively that you might be able to achieve some sort of goal. I was wondering if there was any drawbacks you’d like to talk on about practical authority.

Dr JH: Yeah, erm, I mean the obvious drawback is that you have someone telling you what to do, right? And that’s not in itself a drawback unless they’re telling you wrongly, right? Or potentially if you realise that actually you didn’t want to commit to this goal in the first place. So, you’re kind of rowing up and down the, I dunno, the Cam or the Isis or the Thames, whatever it is, and you go “actually, I’m really not into rowing, this is a terrible mistake, I don’t like this guy shouting ‘stroke’ at me all the time”. That would be a drawback. That doesn’t look like a kind of drawback of the authority itself – you’ve kind of been mistaken about your own reasons. The other reason would just be if the, kind of , rowing shouty man starts chasing you around and telling you to do things that don’t look like that have anything to do with rowing. When they overstep their authority. Plus there’s the old, if they’re just bad at what they’re doing or if they’re corrupt, right? If they’re not serving the purpose that they’re supposed to.

J: Cool. So then, how and when do we know if we shouldn’t obey authority?

Dr JH: Good. I think there’s two aspects to that. So, both of which I kind of eluded to in my previous answer. Firstly, you shouldn’t obey an authority – or at least on the face of it you shouldn’t obey an authority – if you don’t think that you’re doing the thing that they’re authoritative over. Um, so, if would seem weird for a traffic warden to come and tell me to eat apples, right? The other reason that you shouldn’t obey and authority – when you’ve got good grounds to think you shouldn’t obey an authority – is when you buy into what they’re supposed to be doing but what they’re doing doesn’t appear to have the appropriate justification. So the traffic warden comes and tells you to move your car, and this looks like an appropriate thing for them to be doing but you discover that actually you’re not parked on double yellows, you’re not out in the road or anything, they’re just after you to make some money. They’re sort of quietly splitting the difference on all these fines. So, yeah.

K: So when you, in some ways, consent to an authority it needs to be an authority that is accurate in that discipline, or one that will always be within the framework that you’re wanting to consent to. But, as an individual working within the state and you’re consenting to them, you’re not always having to consent as an individual. There’s a kind of social aspect to it as well. And I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the difference between individual and social consent.

Dr JH: Yeah, erm, to some extent this boils down to, again, what the social structures are for. So, it might very well be the case that you don’t – and in fact we don’t – individually consent to lots and lots of things; possibly most things. But if you’re operating within a society that has, or is taken to have, certain reasons, certain motivations, certain goals, then you might think that the function of that particular authority has a kind of, a level of social consent, right? So you don’t in fact explicitly consent to there being this restriction on where you’ve parked at a particular time in Glasgow, but either you do – or you can reasonably be expected to have – consented to the idea that there are some organisations that codify and, erm, organise parking, or kind of driving, or whatever, right? Even if this particular instance you haven’t consented to, the thought is that you have or you would consent to there being something like this institution. So even if you disagree with the traffic warden about this particular instance, you’re taken to still agree that there should be traffic wardens, right? This might just be an instance of traffic wardens not doing their job correctly.

J: Ok, so you mentioned social consent and social reasons. That kind of brings me onto my next question, where if we want to live in a society in which the general public have real control over their own agency, we as philosophers have to imagine how the world could be and a common name for the alternative world is a state of nature. So could you explain what a state of nature is for us?

Dr JH: Yeah, sure. So I think the one line summary is that a state of nature is a state of affairs where some concept of authority is missing. That I think is the pithiest way of putting it. So, the two that we’re kind of primarily concerned with for the purposes of this are the epistemic state of nature where you lack some authority about knowledge or belief, right? You lack something that will tell you “this is what you should believe or this is why you should believe certain things” and a political state of nature where you lack some kind of central organising authority, something that can justifiably say “you should do this and here’s why”

J: So, a state of nature there, a political state of nature if I’ve understood correctly, is a world in which there is no social consent; no social reasoning within the political sphere, if that makes sense.

I think that’s accurate. So it’s not strictly the way that all state of nature examples have been set up. So you can, for example in Hobbes who’s probably the most famous state of nature theorist, in Hobbes it actually looks like there are instances where people totally accept that they have reasons to do certain things and not to do certain other things and they may even agree with each other that they will do these things and not do certain other things. But Hobbes thinks this isn’t sufficient for what the kind of, what we want these kinds of institutions to do, because we can always get out from under them. This is how he kind of parodied it right; essentially in the state of nature for Hobbes, you can agree to do something with someone, but it’s always going to be to your advantage to screw them before they screw you. We have the state, he thinks, the role of the state is to change [indecipherable] it will never be advantageous for us to welch on deals because the state will come after us and punish us. So yeah it’s not always the case that we’re going to lack something like social consent in states of nature, but that’s certainly how it’s generally understood, right? That we lack this centralised authority or norm or kind of plausible powerful institution that will help us to comply with reasons that we have or things we want to do.

J: Ok, so I mean you’ve sort of mentioned it here then that it’s useful to think of states of nature as worlds to sort of come up with ways of working out how our political structure should be, but can you go into a little bit more detail about how useful worlds are. So obviously in – or, not obviously but – a lot of philosophers use the ideas of worlds to look at theoretical ideas, if that makes sense? Um, so can you, what’s the value of using other worlds?

Dr JH: Cool. So this is contested, and I think it’s become increasingly contested over the last 20 or 30 years. Very broadly, so not just states of nature but, exactly as you said, other worlds, kind of hypothetical states of affairs. I think they’re something like controlling for variables in science. I don’t want to say philosophy is exactly like STEM, or indeed that it should be exactly like, kind of STEM, as they misleadingly call it “the hard sciences”. Erm, you know, you don’t get terribly useful information out of a scientific experiment unless you know roughly what kinds of things are acting on that experiment, right? So similarly, you create some more or less contrived hypothetical world, so you say, look, let’s just stipulate that everyone likes autonomy or everyone likes safety or everyone is fundamentally self-interested. What, then, do we get out of that? What kind of theoretical and practical implications come from that? Now the other reason of course is that philosophers on the whole don’t get out very much. Uh, so, hypothetical examples, it gives them free reign to come up with really really silly thought experiments to just go, no no this is serious academic research, right? Imagine for a moment that you wear a banana on your head on a Tuesday. So, that’s perhaps not the best reason but it’s definitely a reason. That’s what these kinds of thought experiments, I think, are fundamentally for, they’re supposed to allow us to focus on one or two particular things and to say, well given these things – what should we believe? What should we do? What does it suggest about the rest of our theories?

J: Have you come across any states of nature which are just there to push their own agenda?

Dr JH: Erm, so this is what I was saying about the use of states of nature being contested – there’s good reasons to think that whenever anyone comes up with a state of nature example they’re, to some extent, pushing their own agenda. Now, I don’t mean that necessarily people are being dishonest when they do this, or that they’re sort of acting in bad faith, but we all have certain presuppositions – sometimes un-examined presuppositions – that we’re not even aware of that cause us to load the bases in a certain way. So Hobbes clearly thinks that we’re ultimately all self-interested, right? That’s why the state of nature looks so bad for him. Rousseau thinks that we’re kind of noble savages; he sets up his state of nature with the idea that humans are, kind of, originally, perhaps in their best form, fairly solitary creatures, right? But for a specific case where I think it looks very much like someone’s life experience caused them to adopt a particular state of nature.

K: So, you mentioned that almost everyone has these underlying agendas even if they don’t quite realise it. And I was wondering, if everyone in the world was forced to read your work, James, what would be, what’s your underlying agenda? What change would you want to see in the world?

Dr JH: Erm, so I would get rid of states. A very minor change, right? Yeah, the kind of through-line for all of my work is that I think for substantive moral reasons, but also for self-interested reasons, we all have an interest in the world maximising the things that we can do. So, autonomy fairly broadly understood at this stage. Being able to pursue your own values, your own goals, your own desires insofar as they don’t objectionably interfere with other people’s values and goals and desires. And I think that states are really really bad at doing this. Because of the way they’re set up states are in fact just there to, ultimately to perpetuate themselves. So, whether or not people are, kind of, out and out bastards, I think it’s true for lots of politicians that they are just bastards, but I don’t think it needs to be true. People can genuinely and un-selfconsciously think that something is right, and be doing harmful things nonetheless. I mean, people will object to this about me, right? That I’m genuinely committed to lots of nice sounding, idealistic beliefs about humans but ultimately, I’m just an idiot. Um, but of course I’m not a state.

K: I wouldn’t be that harsh on yourself James!

Dr JH: Um, so yeah I think the agenda that I have, the thing that I want to push in the research that I do, is that if you care about autonomy – and you know, there’s an argument off-stage about why I think you should care about autonomy – if you care about autonomy then you should think that states are unjustified; that you should also think that a kind of radical individualism is unjustified, right? Ultimately, the reason that you shouldn’t be an individualist – and the reason that you should reject the state – is the same reason: which is that you do better, and everyone does better if you exist in a society that maximises everybody’s autonomy.

K: Ok, ok, so – imagine Guy Fawkes, he was successful, parliament falls, um, Sturgeon’s off…What does a world without states actually look like?

Dr JH: Erm, this is the killer question. I mean it should be pointed out as well, that Guy Fawkes wanted an incredibly hard-line theocracy, right? For all that he was the last man to enter parliament with honest intentions, as the joke goes, he was not my political hero in this respect. What does a world without states look like? Well, this is one of the big problems; it’s one of the things that got me into my research in the first place. One of the longstanding problems for a kind of, at least, left anarchists or kind of communist anarchists…people don’t need to be saints, they can be kind of self-interested but people are much, much less self-interested than they’re forced to be under the state and under capitalism. We have to compete with each other under capitalism because that’s the nature of the game. To a certain extent you’re just a bloody fool if you act like an anarchist in a capitalist society, and I think you’re right but nonetheless people say look, you’re being irrational. Um, so what does a society without a state look like? That kind of depends on whether you have a state to start with. And of course we do have states to start with, right? The problem is, it’s a longstanding problem – how do we get from here to there? How do a bunch of people who have been raised in the state, who have been raised under late-stage industrial capitalism, get rid of all that and make things all nice and kind of flowery and happy-go-lucky, and here’s the killer: I don’t know, man. But I think that there are, um, lots of things that we can pull from, lots of cases of people operating outwith or indeed against the state. I mean you can see this happening now, in places all over the world, right? And what does this kind of post-capitalist society look like? I can’t give you chapter and verse on what it would look like, but I think we can look at various actually existing non-state societies and say perhaps it looks something like this.

J: Could authority arise in a state of nature without an epistemic or theoretical authority also being present?

Dr JH: Cool. So, I think this is really interesting. It’s actually, it’s not something I’ve considered super deeply before…there’s, obviously you have to have some idea of knowledge, otherwise none of this makes any sense, but I hadn’t thought about it very deeply. But no, I think you need something like epistemic authority for anything else to get going. So if you take the most, kind of, brute, straightforward, ‘do this or I’ll punch you in the face’ – the Hobbesian political authority in fact. Erm, at the very least you need to have a good reason to believe that they will, right? You need to know what a punch is, you need to know what a face is, right? It's like Fat Tony in The Simpsons, right? ah-what’s a face? Sorry, I’ve been introducing my daughter to The Simpsons which is great. [laughter] Erm, so, I think you’re right that there’s something very like, if not just, epistemic authority. It’s probably a precursor to any other kind of authority; it’s probably a precursor to practical authority. If for no other reason then you have to believe that someone knows what they’re talking about, and you have to have good reasons to think that they’re going to do what they’re going to do. So yeah, it looks like epistemic authority is prior to any other kind of authority. Heidi Heard thinks that all authority might ultimately be a kind of epistemic authority, which is interesting but might take us a bit off topic.

J: I think this brings us to our last question, and my absolute favourite question of what grinds your gears in philosophy?

Dr JH: Um, so, the petty thing that grinds my gears is people misusing ‘validity’. I get it that in lots of language games that aren’t philosophy to say that something is valid is just to give it the thumbs up, right, it seems reasonable, yeah, sure. But in philosophy, for something to be valid means that it’s an argument where it’s impossible for the premises to be true and the conclusion to be false, right? That’s what it means. There’s lots and lots of other words that we have to say, ‘oh I think this is a nice argument’, right? Or, ‘this is a good point’ – I’ve just said it, right? ‘It’s a good point’. Points cannot be valid, right? Arguments can be valid or invalid – that’s it. So, that’s what grinds my gears.


K: Fantastic. Well, thank you so much for coming on James. It’s been an absolute pleasure.

J: It really has.

Dr JH: Thank you very much for having me on guys.

K: I hope that all the noble savages out there who are listening have enjoyed this podcast, and come along for the next episode of Thoughts.

Transcript written by Frances Darling