This small book by Robert Paul Wolff was first published in 1970, and has recently been republished by the University of California Press. Details are in the section about the book itself. The book argues the philosophical case against justifications of the state; as such it does not present guidelines for how anarchy would operate, but only argues that no current state is legitimate and that there is very little room to see how any state could be legitimate. What it means for a state to be legitimate is that it has the right to boss us around in the way it does and that we have a duty to obey its commands. Stated like this it becomes apparent that many, if not most, of us endorse small amounts of anarchistic behaviour – disobedience, really, at such a small level – for instance when we decide to ignore parking fines and suchlike.


If states do not have legitimacy, then this does not necessarily mean that we should disobey all their commands. Philosophical anarchism, which includes the anarchism of Wolff, only goes so far as to argue against the state. It does not have the optimism of political anarchism, which argues that a world without a state is preferable to one in which states exist. For philosophical anarchists it is usually better to obey the state – both personally, as it means we won’t be arrested, and in general, since most of what states do accords with our own intuitions.

Such a position may not seem very radical, and indeed anarchism of this sort seems surprisingly attractive, but it does mean that where we believe the state is not justified in its demands we may disobey without any feelings of guilt if we have no other reason to obey. For instance, if my general stance is utilitarian and I do not think that the costs of disobeying the state outweigh the benefits – perhaps I will never be caught and there is no one around who will be badly influenced by my behaviour – then I could happily walk around my living room naked smoking dope, whatever the state may have said about it.

Disobedience may be expressed in a more organised form, as civil disobedience. Civil disobedience tends to be classed as non-violent acts which draw attention to the injustice of a state, where the perpetrators are fully aware of the possibility of punishment for their actions and are willing to accept this in the name of the cause. Examples of this are certain acts of demonstration such as occupying buildings in protest against a war. Civil disobedience is not usually a part of anarchistic philosophy, for its perpetrators tend to approve of the state more widely, which is what causes them to take issue when they believe that the state is unjust.


Wolff argues strongly for the value of moral autonomy. To be morally autonomous in his sense is not to do whatever one likes; instead it is to be self-legislating: it is making one’s own moral law. We must educate ourselves about the world and how it operates, applying rigorous moral reasoning before taking action and responsibility. It is a right whose exercise involves acknowledging obligations. Autonomy and authority – principally the authority of government - are values which conflict with one another: one cannot fulfil the obligation to be autonomous if one habitually obeys a government merely because they command you to do so. I may habitually obey the government simply because I judge in every instance that its commands are just, but most of us do not make these calculations every time we obey the law, and are indeed barely aware of obedience to the law as a moral decision.

Thus Wolff wants to examine if there is any political system which successfully reconciles the requirements authority and autonomy. Democracy appears to be the only even remotely feasible solution, since in theory it demands the rule, or at least consent, of its citizens, yet in practice it leaves much to be desired. Wolff goes on to examine the various forms of democracy in the modern world:

a) Unanimous Direct Democracy: Wolff says it works in principle, if not in practice, because here we all make law for ourselves; we bind ourselves only to obey what we have ourselves committed to. But there is little room to reconsider our decisions. If we are to remain fully autonomous, we should be able to back out of obedience at any time, which is pretty much undermines any authority the state achieves through unanimity in decision-making.
b) Representative Democracy: Like Rousseau, Wolff believes that representatives cannot represent all citizens when the views of the latter differ. Under representative democracy there is no guarantee that my will is brought into play, so I cannot be obliged to obey the laws that are made by my ‘representatives’. I may be morally required to obey in certain circumstances, but in doing so I surrender my autonomy. In this instance one obligation outweighs another, but we still have a generally powerful commitment to autonomy which representative democracy cannot accommodate.
c) Majoritarian Democracy: This has mechanisms for deciding issues when views conflict, but if I am among the minority then I cannot be expected to obey, since once again my will is not represented.

Wolff’s conclusion is that no existing state is legitimate. He goes on to examine whether we are reasonable to demand a state that is legitimate in this way, and to look at the claim that it might be enough that a state be legitimate in the sense that we all agree to abide by the majority will in certain cases, even when we think it is wrong. Wolff finds three kinds of moral motivation for obeying:

1) We obey merely because the state commands: this presupposes authority, but leaves no room for autonomy.
2) We obey because we judge the command to be in line with our own moral beliefs - this preserves autonomy, but does not acknowledge authority
3) We obey because we judge that, given that the state commands it, there are moral reasons for obeying the command which, even if they do not show that the command to be inherently justified; in this we still have some autonomy, yet also acknowledge the authority of the state.

The third of these seems to be some sort of solution to our day-to-day dilemma regarding whether or not to obey the commands of the state, and would seem to operate in cases where we obey the state but withhold the right to disobey later if we have taken the time to judge the moral weight of a command and believe it to be wrong. This may seem a pretty soft option, but it does to some extent assuage our guilt, if we feel any such, at not fully using the autonomy which Wolff values so highly.

Details Of The Most Recent Edition
Paperback: 144 pages
Publisher: University of California Press; (September 1998)
ISBN: 0520215737 |

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