Authority and Harm

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Colleges, School and Institutes


This paper explores the connections between two central topics in moral and political philosophy: the moral legitimacy of authority and the ethics of causing harm. Each of these has been extensively discussed in isolation, but relatively little work has considered the implications of certain views about authority for theories of permissible harming, and vice versa. As I aim to show, reflection on the relationship between these two topics reveals that certain common views about, respectively, the justification of harm and the moral limits of authority require revision. The paper defends two main claims. The first considers the normative situation of agents who are commanded to inflict serious harm on others. Under what conditions (if any) are they morally required to obey? I argue that, under certain conditions, we are all-things-considered required to obey such commands, including in (at least some) cases where causing harm would be morally prohibited in the absence of the command. My argument thus defends a novel ‘authority-based’ form of justification for harm. With the first claim in place, I shift from the question of the normative situation of those subject to commands to cause harm, to those who are threatened with harm by authorized agents. In particular, I consider the permissibility of defensively harming such agents. I defend a second claim, which holds that an agent’s having an authority-based justification for causing harm does not, in itself, raise the justificatory burden on defensively harming them, compared to if they lacked justification. In doing so, I provide an alternative explanation of why it is often impermissible to forcibly resist authorized agents, which argues that authoritative commands can also impose constraints on causing harm, in addition to creating justifications.


Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationOxford Studies in Political Philosophy, Volume 3
EditorsDavid Sobel, Peter Vallentyne, Steven Wall
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 6 Jul 2017

Publication series

NameOxford Studies in Political Philosophy