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Authority and Democracy . Self-Determination. Analogy individual autonomy – state autonomy. Christian Wolff: “Nations are regarded as individuals free persons living in the state of nature ”

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authority and democracy

Authority and Democracy


analogy individual autonomy state autonomy
Analogy individual autonomy – state autonomy

Christian Wolff: “Nations are regarded as individuals free persons living in the state of nature”

“Since by nature all nations are equal, since moreover all men are equal in a moral sense whose rights and obligations are the same; the right and obligations of all nations are also by nature the same”

wolff on non intervention
Wolff on non-intervention

“Since by nature no nation has a right to any act which pertains to the exercise of the sovereignty of another nation …; no ruler of a state has the right to interfere in the government of another, consequently cannot establish anything in its state or do anything, and the government of another, and the government of the ruler of one state is not subject to the decision of the ruler of any other state”

individual autonomy state autonomy
Individual autonomy  State autonomy

Individuals have a right to pursue their own ends without interference (provided they do not harm or interfere with others’ liberty themselves).

Just like individuals have a right to be “respected as sources of ends” (as long as they do not harm or interfere with others) so do states.

states as sources of ends
States as “sources of ends”

Objection: in what sense should we think that states are entitled to be “respected as sources of ends”?

“States lack the unity of consciousness and the rational will that constitute the identity of persons” (Beitz, p. 81). So where does their claim to autonomy come from?

Standard answer: the rights and duties of states are somehow grounded on the rights and duties of the individuals who form them.

michael walzer just and unjust wars
Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars

“The rights of states rest on the consent of their members…. . Given a genuine ‘contract’, it makes sense to say that the territorial integrity and political sovereignty can be defended in exactly the same way as individual life and liberty” (p. 54).


Premise 1: individuals have a right of autonomy

Premise 2: individuals consent to enter a certain state, or to be represented by a certain government, so that that state/government will act on their behalf

Conclusion: interfering with the state/government is interfering with the autonomy of the individuals who form it

liberty of association liberty of states
Liberty of association  Liberty of states

The autonomy of states rests on an aspect of the autonomy of persons, i.e. their liberty of association.

Interfering with state governments is prohibited because they represent individual moral agents exercising their freedom of association.


Hardly any states/governments can be plausibly described as founded on the consent of their members because:

  • Problems with actual consent (most people do not have a chance to consent to the state)
  • Problems with tacit consent (voting, failing to leave)

We cannot justify the prohibition against interference with states by appealing to the fact that they are free association.

hypothetical consent
Hypothetical consent

Perhaps a government is legitimate if individuals should/would consent to it under ideal conditions (if they were rational and had adequate information).

Interference is impermissible because “it violates principles that would be consented to by rational citizens as expressing the terms of their association”.

“The analogue of the moral autonomy of persons, at the level of states, is a state’s conformity with appropriate principles of domestic justice. The autonomy of states is the outer face of their legitimacy” (Beitz)

beitz s argument
Beitz’s argument

NB: what is doing the work is the fact that there are reasons why we should/wouldconsent to states/governments.

Legitimate domestic governments exercise coercive power over their subjects without their consent.

But if coercion by domestic governments without consent is permissible, why should coercion by other governments be impermissible?

Both forms of coercion seem justifiable by appealing to principles of justice to which individuals should/would consent, but to which they did not consent.

objection to beitz
Objection to Beitz

We think that it’s impermissible to interfere with individuals liberty, independently from whether individuals act in a virtuous or morally sound way.

Why should we respect states’ autonomy only when their institutions conform to principles of justice?

Why should we value autonomy differently in the case of states?


It’s “because all persons should be respected as sources of ends that we should not allow all states to claim a right of autonomy” (Beitz)

States are legitimate only to the extent that they conform to principles of justice that, among other things, require them to respect the autonomy of their members.

When they do not conform to these principles their autonomy should not be respected because we value the autonomy of those individuals they do not protect.

revisionist view
Revisionist view

Intervention is permissible when:

  • the state’s institutions are unjust


  • interfering would promote the development of just institutions.

NB: Something like this view was defended by Grotius (before Wolff and Vattel defended the orthodox view)

self determination and secession
Self-determination and Secession

Two principles of political self-determination:

  • A state has a moral right to political self-determination if and only if it adequately protect and respect human rights
  • A nonstate group that aspires to become a state has a moral right to political self-determination if and only if it is willing and able to became a state that adequately protects and respect human rights.

[Altman & Wellman]

(2) Addresses the problem of secession

orthodox view
Orthodox view

Internal Legitimacy ≠ External Legitimacy

Walzer: When states fail to fulfil the functions that justify their existence they lose internal legitimacy. This is not yet to say that they lose also external legitimacy.

michael walzer
Michael Walzer

States protect not only individuals rights and liberties, but also their citizens’ “shared life and liberty, the independent community they have made” (Just and Unjust War, p. 54).

Political communities are characterized by a common historyand a distinctive culture grounded in a shared set of values

walzer the moral standing of states
WalzerThe Moral Standing of States

“When invasions are launched by foreigner armies, even armies with revolutionary intentions, and even when revolution is justified, it is entirely plausible to say that the rights of subjects and citizens have been violated. Their ‘slowness’ has been artificially speeded up, their ‘aversion’ has been repudiated, their loyalties have been ignored, their prudential calculations have been rejected – all in favour of someone else’s conceptions of political justice and political prudence”

rules of disregard
“Rules of disregard”
  • When a particular state incudes more than one political community
  • When another state has already intervened and the force of a party needs to be counterbalanced
  • When a state engages in the massacre or enslavement of its own subjects