87 Pages Posted: 22 Jul 2000

Date Written: 2000


This paper concerns the so-called "paradox of authority". This paradox was first developed in the late 18th Century by the anarchist theorist William Godwin and later popularized by Robert Paul Wolff in the 1960's. Their aim in formulating the paradox of authority was to demonstrate that legitimate authority is impossible. As they argued, the problem with all authorities is that they claim the right to demand obedience even when they are wrong. However, people should never act in ways they believe to be wrong. Hence, people should never recognize the right of authorities to demand their obedience.

Most theorists writing today assume that the anarchist challenge can be met. They disagree, however, on how to meet it. This paper discusses the many "solutions" that have been offered on authority's behalf. The responses fall roughly into two groups: those who believe that problems arise due to certain naive views about the nature of authority and rationality and that revision in our understanding is required, and those who maintain that the puzzle can be unraveled without any radical changes.

While it is argued that those who have offered revisionary accounts have failed to offer viable solutions, the paper accepts that the paradox (or, as it is shown, paradoxes) of authority cannot be solved within standard theories of rationality and morality. Some revisions are indeed necessary. Which revisions are necessary, it is claimed, depends on one's underlying theory of legitimacy. For accounts that tie the legitimacy of authority to its ability to provide instrumentally valuable directives, this paper suggests that the standard account of authority's effect on practical reasoning be modified. Instead of seeing authoritative directives as instruments that willing subjects use to make decisions, they ought to be understood as causal constraints on action. Those who obey directives in order to instrumentally benefit from them do not choose to obey - having submitted to authority, disobedience is no longer an option. Authoritative directives can be justified in instrumental terms when, and only when, they forestall decision-making.

For accounts of authority that tie legitimacy to the moral obligation to respect certain kinds of collective decision-making procedures, such as democratic ones, it is suggested that we modify our views about the nature of moral autonomy. In certain circumstances, the mere fact that another has demanded that we act can indeed give us reasons to act. Rather than a violation of autonomy, obedience can actually show due respect for the value of autonomy.

JEL Classification: K40

Suggested Citation

Shapiro, Scott J., Authority (2000). Available at SSRN: or

Scott J. Shapiro (Contact Author)

Yale University - Law School ( email )

P.O. Box 208215
New Haven, CT 06520-8215
United States

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