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Center for Law and Philosophy


The problem I have in mind is the problem of the possible justification of subjecting one's will to that of another, and of the normative standing of demands to do so. The account of authority that I offered, many years ago,1 under the title of the service conception of authority, addressed this issue, and assumed that all other problems regarding authority are subsumed under it. Many found the account implausible. It is thin, relying on very few ideas. It may well appear to be too thin, and to depart too far from many of the ideas that have gained currency in the history of reflection on authority.

Criticism can be radical, rejecting the service conception altogether. Or it can be more moderate, accepting the service conception or some of its central traits, especially the normal justification thesis, as setting necessary conditions for the legitimacy of authority, but denying that they constitute sufficient conditions. Most commonly, moderate critics argue that legitimate authority, at any rate legitimate political authority, presupposes a special connection between rulers and ruled, a special bond that is overlooked by the service conception. My purpose is to revisit the problem of authority, and to examine moderately critical claims, or some of them. I will start by explaining in the first section some background methodological points. Part II will briefly restate the service conception and the way it deals with the problem of authority. Part III develops the service conception and elaborates some of its implications by dealing with a series of only loosely connected questions and doubts to which it .is open. Part IV examines in general terms the argument that authority, at any rate political authority, presupposes a special link, missing in the service conception, between government and the governed. Part V considers the possibility that such a link is forged by consent, whereas Part VI comments on the possibility that the link is constituted by identification with or membership of the political community (or some other group).