The Moral Authority of the State

If everyone judged the state and its agents by the same moral standards that they used for ordinary people, then nearly all of us would be libertarians. Judged in this way, essentially all governments behave appallingly.

“Yes,” comes the standard reply, “but we don’t judge governments by the same standards. The state is different, you see.”

Of course, it’s only fair to ask why that might be the case. This month at Cato Unbound, philosopher Michael Huemer does just that, addressing several of the standard reasons why the state purportedly has license to behave very differently from the rest of us. He finds them all lacking in one way or another.

Huemer’s essay draws on his new book, The Problem of Political Authority, in which he addresses nearly all of the most common justifications for treating the state as a moral agent with legitimate powers beyond those of the rest of us. For those who usually shy away from philosophy, Huemer is an intuitionist—he doesn’t build abstract systems of thought, which may or may not be convincing or even comprehensible. He begins instead with common, widely shared intuitions, in the hope that nearly all of us, whether utilitarians, deontologists, virtue ethicists, agnostics, or otherwise, will find his conclusions compelling.

To discuss with him, we’ve recruited a panel of distinguished thinkers of varying persuasions: George Mason economics professor Bryan Caplan, libertarian scholar-activist Tom G. Palmer, and Binghamton University philosophy professor Nicole Hassoun.

As always, Cato Unbound readers are encouraged to take up our themes, and enter into the conversation on their own websites and blogs, or on other venues. We also welcome your letters. Send them to jkuznicki at cato dot org. Selections may be published at the editors’ option.