Interpretation of Joseph Raz

So this is the essay I ultimately turned in. I got an A on it, if that means anything.

The Legitimacy of Laws

The central issue in Raz’s “Morality of Freedom” is determining the legitimacy of both an authority and the laws it decrees. According to Raz, all authoritative laws are either neither redundant nor unjust, or they do not apply to us. In my essay, I focus on the question of what makes an authority legitimate? I do this by first, considering the anarchist’s point of view that there is no such thing as a legitimate authority, and second, using Raz’s three theses as instruments to construct the possibility of a legitimate authority.

To begin, imagine an individual with a strong moral will, one who acts rationally and reasonably, and in their independent deliberation considering the legitimacy of certain laws, they conclude that there are no authoritative laws. In other words, there are no legitimate laws decreed by an authority. In their eyes, they foresee two possibilities: either a law is unnecessary, or it is unjust.

In the first case, the individual has come to the conclusion that a law is unnecessary, or redundant, if they can arrive at the same conclusion the law does using their own personal deliberation. For example, consider the law not to assault others without plausible reason. The strong-willed individual has neither the inclination nor desire to attack anybody, so they don’t need the law to tell them not to. In other words, they comply with reasons of morality. From this perspective, it can be extended that the strong willed individual will comply with any moral obligation out of their own volition regardless of whether there is a law requiring such action or not. They are not obeying the law because the law says so. Rather, their obedience is simply a parallel coincidence since they are following their own moral guidelines. Thus, they are only ‘obeying’ because they already independently came to the same conclusion as the law, rendering the law unnecessary in dictating their actions. The individual concludes that redundant laws are not legitimate.

On the other hand, the individual decides that laws which require an individual to do something they have no reason to do are unjust. An individual may have absolutely no reason to perform an action, but if an authority is commanding them that they must, the individual is faced with a precarious situation. Either they follow the authority’s orders, or they are punished. In such circumstances, obedience only occurs under duress. For instance, an individual has no reason to follow a law which requires an orange armband to be worn at all times. Not only is orange an unappealing color on most skin tones, a law requiring citizens to wear an armband doesn’t benefit any individual in a society, nor is it useful to the society around them. Hence, they have no reason to comply with such an act. The only plausible reason someone would obey such a law is out of fear of the consequences of not doing so. Laws which citizens only obey out of fear are coercive laws, and according to Locke, no one is obligated to follow a coercive, or unjust authority. Thus, an individual shouldn’t be obligated to follow laws which they have no independent reason to follow. So, the individual concludes that unjust laws are also illegitimate.

At this point, the individual has hit the fork in the road. It seems that when they independently break down the reasons they might have to follow a law, either the law is redundant, and accounts for an action they would do anyway, or it is unjust, and forces them to do something which they have no reason to do. This is where Raz reveals a third pathway, and introduces tools to unearth the possibility of legitimate authority. He does this in three parts: by examining how authorities explain what they do, by defining a legitimate authority with respect to an individual’s deliberation process regarding obligation to its laws, and finally by confirming the legitimacy of an authority by testing if its laws better help individuals comply with reason.

First, Raz looks at the underlying factors of existing laws, and concludes that the essence of laws is always rooted in individual relations and issues. From this insight, he puts forward his first thesis, the Dependence Thesis. This thesis claims that authoritative laws ought to be dependent on, and are limited to, issues which already independently apply to individuals in society. For example, suppose a community is faced with the problem that everybody wants to learn. In response, an authority passes a law providing school houses to be built, and creates laws that require community members within the general schooling age to attend. Under the dependence thesis, the authority is justified in creating this school, assuming the information the school teaches is valid and true, because they acknowledge the problem which individuals in the society had been facing, and create a specific law to address the problem. It follows that an authority is justified in passing laws which are dependent on pre-existing issues already prevalent in the community it has authority over.

The second test to determine the legitimacy of an authority that Raz suggests is that of deciding whether the existence of a command effectively replaces the reasons a community has for following the law. In other words, after the authority creates a law dependent on the reasons of individuals, the test for legitimacy of the law is not merely if people follow the law, but if people justify their obedience to the law with the mere fact that the law told them to do so. This second thesis, which Raz calls the Preemption Thesis, states that if citizens use the existence of a law as reason for their action, then the authority has successfully preempted the reasons of a society. In the example with the community and the school, if someone chooses to go to school, and their reason for attending school is ‘because the law commands it’, then the authority in this situation has successfully preempted the individual’s reason to achieve an education. Ultimately, an authority gives commands, and the primary way to acknowledge an authority is to obey its commands, so doing something because an authority says so, according to Raz, is a sufficient reason.

Laws created from dependent reasons which are preempted by an authority are neither redundant nor unjust. They are not redundant because they are not conclusions that citizens would have otherwise come up with on their own. The citizens in this example desired an education, yet they had no formalized, coordinated schooling system prior to the law passing. Because of this, they would be unable to decide in their own free will to attend a school, because no such thing existed. Additionally, establishing the school and requiring a certain range of people to go isn’t an unjust decree to make because it is a solution to the problems the citizens already had. Requiring them to go complies with their dependent reasons, so therefore it is just.

The final test that Raz proposes to determine the legitimacy of an authority is called the Normal Justification Thesis. This thesis claims that an authority is legitimate only if individuals who obey an authority’s reasons are better off than they would have been had they not. In the example of the new school, the individuals in the community would be better off being educated under the supervision of the established school, rather than continuing to be uneducated. One may argue that not everybody in the community would like to attend this school, so forcing those who do not want to attend is unjust. To this argument, Raz would respond that ultimately, authority is general; it cannot account for the needs of every single individual in a society. However, if a law better helps one comply with reason, one ought to obey. In the situation of schooling, it is reasonable to attend an institution which increases an individual’s knowledge because doing so benefits the person following the law, and causes no, or negligible harm. Thus, if a law better helps one comply with reason, under the Normal Justification Thesis, the authority is justified in creating that law.

After taking into consideration these three prerequisites for determining when a law is authoritative, the individual is still slightly skeptic. What about the previous example of the law not to assault others without plausible reason? This law still appears redundant. In response, Raz gives the simple explanation that these laws simply do not apply to us. Their existence is not for the strong-willed individual, but for those who perhaps have an inclination to be violent and assault others. If a general issue is addressed by the authority in the form of a law, and if those perhaps more prone to violence blame the law for not being able to exercise their desire to assault, then such a law, according to Raz, is legitimate. Thus, commands issued by an authority do have the potential to be authoritative laws.

In sum, I have illustrated that a strong-willed individual might come to the conclusion that laws are either redundant, or unjust. However, Raz offers his three theses as tools to determine when a law is authoritative. Using these tools as instruments, he ultimately paves the way of determining the legitimacy of an authority. Of course, there is the issue of whether one authority is perhaps more legitimate than another, but this is a topic for a different time.


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