The Rule of the Clan and the Problem of Peremptory Authority

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2 Responses

  1. Hi Steve, thanks for your extremely interesting post, and for seeing implications in my book beyond those of its immediate topic. I couldn’t be happier about that. And I’m grateful for the spirit of your analysis, which seems to me to bring a sociological and historical sensibility to a philosophical challenge. My reading of political philosophy is negligible—I would say that I hold even less expertise in the area than I do in field of Irish etymology (see my recent reply to Tim Murphy), and that’s really saying something—and so my impulse is to let those who know more do the talking. Let me just raise a question, then.

    As I understand it, in your view the fact that some actions that a person may undertake require the coordinating decisions of another person cuts against the traditional way of thinking about the problem of political authority, because the traditional way is based on the moral imperative of autonomous choice. You then suggest that my portrait of the rule of the clan shows not only what kind of order exists in the absence of the state, but also the default form of coordinating moral judgment that exists in the absence of the state’s coordination (and you underscore that to undertake a good deal of action in life, persons must necessarily fall under the authority of some coordinating agent).

    As coordinating agents, however, clan and state necessarily differ in the application and scope of their commitment to equality principles, given the powerful in-group/out-group distinctions in clan societies, making the exercise of coordinating authority by either one or the other morally significant. And to the extent that the relation between the rule of the clan and the liberal rule of law is not one of binary opposition but rather a dialectical one, and one of eternal tension, this dissolves the traditional way of understanding the problem of political authority, because it makes “[t]he pervasive existence of the clan … a background condition for all moral judgment.” People are always “caught somewhere between clan and state,” and thus the problem of the state’s authority should be understood differently.

    Is that a fair description? And if so, how should the problem of political authority be posed? I’m eager for your insights.

  2. Stephen Utz says:

    Hi Mark, yours is a more-than-fair description of my suggestion about the traditional political authority problem. You’ve also gently nudged me to be clearer about how the state-clan tension “dissolves” the traditional problem. I think your account of that tension should convince anyone (even any philosopher) that the background against which states assert their authority is not a world of individuals who never have to defer to group norms but a world in which they may have to do so. If that is so, we must understand moral responsibility differently. Trivially, it cannot require moral agents never to defer to group norms. It follows that the alternatives are anarchism (rejection of all norms not generated by the individual) and statism, but a range of alternatives that include at least states and clans of varying degrees of instrusiveness on the moral agent’s choices. Locke argued that the only choices are a state of limited authority (no intrusion on private “property”, by which he apparently meant something like U.S. constitutional law’s sphere of “privacy”) and anarchism. Some contemporary philosophical theorists of political authority — A. John Simmons, Heidi Hurd — proceed as if political authority must be plenary and universal in scope, because they can’t see how political authority can be limited. I’ve argued that if there is anything resembling political authority in the real world, i.e., any asserted authority that is in fact justified, it must be limited in scope to those areas of conduct in which individuals need a group decision maker for some activity they otherwise freely choose to pursue. Your nuanced account of clans and the liberal state argues convincingly that the state is different in fundamental ways from the clan. I’m just beginning to take this in. If you’re right, it seems to me that I should revise my earlier view of how group activities require peremptory authority to be exercised in a limited sphere. I’d already begun to suspect this. When a liberal state asserts authority, it acknowledges that it must not exercise that authority arbitrarily or treat individuals or situations differently, when accompanying differences do not justify different treatment. Clans by definition do not aspire to and could not abide by that principle. I think the traditional political authority problem should be re-interpreted in that light. The question should be whether the individual is ever (or always) justified in retreating from deference to a liberal state’s authority to that of a clan, understood as a norm-generating group that cannot bind itself to something like due process.

    Obviously, I’m struggling here to put this together. Really, Mark, your book has made me re-think all this.