In Chapter 6 Huemer discusses the “psychology of authority.” He relates an experiment in which people obeyed obviously unjust and illegitimate orders. He proposes that even if it were in fact true that all governments were illegitimate, “it is quite likely that we would still by and large feel bound to obey our governments. That is likely, because even people who are subjected to the clearest examples of illegitimate power still typically feel bound to obey.” (110)

However, I disagree that it follows from this that “the widespread belief in political authority does not provide strong evidence for the reality of political authority, since that belief can be explained as the product of systematic bias.” (111) Rather, what the experiments and history seem to establish is that people tend to overestimate the proper scope of authority. No authority has unlimited discretion, and the mistake people make is imagining that the authority has the right to command them to do evil things. But that does not suggest that they are mistaken as to the reality of authority as such. It leaves open the possibility that some appropriately “limited” government can be justified.

Perhaps the argument could be rephrased in Bayesian terms. Let h = “there is political authority,” and e = “widespread belief in authority.”

Then, considering P(h) to be 0.5 for the sake of simplicity,

P(h|e) = 1 / (1 + P(e|~h) / P(e|h)).

Huemer argues that P(e|~h) is larger than it seems. Perhaps it is as big as P(e|h). Then P(h|e) is still no greater than P(h) (or 0.5). Then e is worthless as evidence for h.

Yet this form of the argument is not convincing, either. What the Stanford Prison Experiment described in the book had in common with a state was the fact that the “authorities” had easily exercised power to hurt people. By virtue of explicit design, both the Stanford “guards” and the state had such power. It may be true that when Smith accepts Jones as a political authority, Smith soon develops a compulsion to obey Jones’ orders, no matter how unjust. At the same time, Jones will probably abuse his powers greatly. There will occur both intellectual blindness and moral corruption on the part of both rulers and subjects. What’s the explanation of this phenomenon?

Speculatively, few people would endorse a Hobbesian absolute sovereign. They do not in their cool-headed philosophical moments believe that one ought to follow unjust orders. At the same time, people’s “real” underlying beliefs are often demonstrated in action. Huemer with some reason rejects the idea that the examples of experiments, war crimes, kidnappings, and so on indicate that people act viciously because they cannot tell right from wrong. The folks involved in these situations are not necessarily more likely than anyone to be perverted psychopaths. That people willingly and readily follow unjust orders suggests that they believe not in authority as such but in absoluteness of authority.

In that case, if h’= “political authority is absolute,” and e’ = “widespread belief in the absoluteness of authority” (demonstrated in action), then P(e’|~h’) is indeed high despite the obvious falsity of h’. But that does not prove that P(e|~h) is also high.

But Huemer is right that there is something about political authority that is uniquely disturbing. In a private firm, the manager is an authority for the technician, but no employee will agree to assassinate the business owner’s competitor at the manager’s command. Similarly, the consumer is an authority for the entrepreneur, but the latter is unlikely normally to break the law to satisfy a malicious customer.

In contrast, regarding the “greatest man-made evils,” Huemer points out, “no one has ever managed, working alone, to kill over a million people. Nor has anyone ever arranged such an evil by appealing to the profit motive, pure self-interest, or moral suasion to secure the cooperation of others — except by relying on institutions of political authority. With the help of such institutions, many such crimes have been carried out, accounting for tens of millions of deaths, along with many more ruined lives.” (109)

In other words, it’s as if the state specialized in committing awful injustices on a massive scale, while at the same time busily “devising theories to explain why we have this obligation” to obey. In addition to its primary mission of destructionism, the state is always at work improving its ability to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable.


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