The Authority of the State: From Joseph Raz to Thomas Hobbes
Research Fellow and Assistant Professor

(National Scientific and Technical Research Council, Argentina - Social Sciences Department, National University of Quilmes)

Luciano Venezia completed his PhD in Political Philosophy at the University of Buenos Aires and the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales. He is now Research Fellow at the National Scientific and Technical Research Council of Argentina and Assistant Professor at the National University of Quilmes. He works in the history of political philosophy as well as in analytical political and moral philosophy. He is currently working on both conceptual and normative issues related to the notion of authority. He was invited at the EHESS on the 4th April 2019 to present his paper “Mistaken Authority and Obligation1” at the CESPRA Séminaire de Philosophie Politique Normative.

This interview was conducted prior to the seminar by Luc Foisneau (CNRS director of research). In the interview, Luciano Venezia and Luc Foisneau discuss different aspects of the notion of authority, especially as developed by Joseph Raz in his book The Morality of Freedom.

They also discuss Luciano’s previous work on Hobbes, especially his book Hobbes on Legal Authority and Political Obligation. Finally, they talk about the relationship between the history of political philosophy and modern analytic philosophy.

Edited by Serge Blerald

Why authority?

Luc Foisneau  My first question is a general one. You did your PhD on Hobbes on questions related to political authority. You are still working on the notion of authority. Why do you think it is important nowadays, as a philosopher, to work on this topic?


Luciano Venezia – Well, I think that authority is a topic that has enormous relevance. When we think about authority, we generally think about the authority of the state. So, one important philosophical problem is the following. What is our moral relationship, as citizens, to the state? What are, especially, the moral claims that our state makes on us? And so, are there reasons, even duties, to obey the law? The authority of the state and the political obligations of citizens are traditionally viewed as two sides of the same coin. And even if they are not two sides of one coin, they are clearly related, and I think that political obligation—the obligation to obey the law—is a topic of clear relevance, and therefore the authority of the state is also a topic of clear relevance. But to understand the authority of the state, we have to understand the concept of authority as such. The analytic work on the idea of authority is therefore very important.

Luc Foisneau – In the paper we have discussed during the seminar you do not talk so much about the state, since your main example concerns the relationship between a doctor and a nurse. So, what does it change when we go from questions related to the authority of the state to questions related to authority in other domains?


Luciano Venezia – This is a very interesting and crucial question. Indeed, when we think about relationships of authority between professionals (e.g., the one between a doctor and a nurse, or a teacher and a student), that relationship is very narrow, as it is defined, I would say, by what one may call the limited jurisdiction of the profession at hand. The doctor, for instance, has authority to order a nurse to do certain things related to the task that they are doing together, which involves healing patients and so on. In the case of the state, by contrast, the claims that the state makes on its citizens are much more general. This is because the state regulates our lives in all kinds of ways.

Authority, philosophical anarchism, and why consent theories are wrong

Luc Foisneau – Your approach is morality-oriented. So, when you are talking about the state, the question revolves around the morality of the state. Could you be more specific on how the authority of the state affects what we have to do?


Luciano Venezia – Yes. I think this is a valid question in well-defined cases—like, as I said before, the relationship between a doctor and a nurse, or that between a teacher and a student, or even that between a parent and a child—but also in the case of the relationship between states and citizens. The general idea, I would say, is that a (practical) authority requires that we act in particular ways, and by ordering that we act in particular ways, it creates new duties. So, the idea would be that I have a duty to do X just because someone who has authority over me on this matter ordered me to do X. And, as I just said, this is valid for very specific cases as well as for the state.

So, when the state says that we should pay our taxes, or drive on the right, or do all kinds of things, these are not just pieces of advice, which we may decline to follow. Rather, these are moral requests, meaning that we are duty-bound to do these things—to pay our taxes, to drive on the right, and so on—because the state presents itself as having the authority, or the moral power, to create the obligation in us that we do these things. And, of course, this raises the issue of establishing the grounds of this particular power.

In everyday cases (e.g., the relationship between a doctor and a nurse), there can perhaps be some controversy, but what grounds the doctor’s authority over the nurse seems straightforward. In the case of the state, by contrast, this is less clear. Indeed, in political philosophy, we have been discussing this, as you know, since the beginning, I would say since Plato, since the ancient Greeks. What are the grounds of the authority of the state?

There is an intuitive response to this question, which says that we, the citizens, somehow gave the state the authority that it claims to have over us. But it is not clear how this process took place. And it is not clear either whether it really took place. So, the question of the authority of the state is much more difficult than the question of the authority of a doctor over a nurse. This is also why, I think, many people nowadays think that the state doesn’t really have the authority it claims to have.

Luc Foisneau  This is the position, for example, of philosophical anarchists.


Luciano Venezia – Exactly. Philosophical anarchism is the view that we, as citizens, do not have political obligations. There are two ways of understanding why we do not have political obligations. One is conceptual or a priori. It is the idea that it is impossible for us, who are autonomous, rational agents, to be bound by the authority of the state, or in fact by any authority. But this is perhaps too strong a claim. The weaker claim, by contrast, holds that it is possible for us to be bound by the authority of the state. If we consent to the authority of the state, for instance, we thereby acquire political obligations, and there is nothing problematic about that. But the issue, of course, is that it is simply not true that we did that. We just didn’t consent to the state’s authority over us2. And so, in this respect, Locke, and the social contract tradition in general, is wrong. Not conceptually wrong, but wrong in the empirical aspect of the account they put forward.

Luc Foisneau  You mean that we didn’t consent to the state’s having authority over us…


Luciano Venezia – Yes, and we are therefore not bound because of, or by, our consent, because, as a matter of fact, we didn’t consent to the authority of the state.

Joseph Raz and the state

Luc Foisneau – Is this the reason why, instead of relying on John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, for instance, your main reference is Joseph Raz, particularly his book, The Morality of Freedom3? Is it for this particular reason that you don’t buy Rawls’s contractualist theory, and that you rely much more on Raz, who is a very difficult author? Could you tell us more about why you think it is important for us to read him?


Lucian Venezia – First of all, Raz is an amazing philosopher. It is true, however, that he is very abstract and sometimes very difficult to follow. But the points he makes and the analyses he provides are very compelling and also very useful.

I would say that there are two dimensions of authority in his view. One is the conceptual aspect of it, namely the question of how the requests issued by an authority affect our practical reasoning. This is something that we can separate from the normative account he gives of what justifies, morally, an authority. For this, he relies on the idea of service. A morally justified or legitimate authority provides a normative service, in the sense that it helps us to act as we should act anyway. So, it is a kind of instrument that is useful for our normative life, for it helps us discharge duties that apply to us anyway.

But this second aspect, the so-called “service conception” of authority, is controversial and, in my view, this is not the most important resource that we find in Raz. What is more interesting, I think, is his analysis of how the claims made by an authority affect our practical reasoning. So, we can use this thesis, which he sometimes calls the “preemption thesis,” according to which authoritative commands preempt our practical reasoning…

Luc Foisneau – That means exclude some reasons that we may have to do such and such a thing.


Luciano Venezia – Yes, exactly. Raz also used the idea of exclusionary reasons in previous works4. He uses different terminologies. But I think that the basic thought has always been the same, namely, that when an authority requires that we act in a particular way, our practical thinking is preempted, our deliberation is preempted—or at least it should be preempted if we recognize the authority of the person, or institution, that is issuing the request.

Luc Foisneau – So, you think that Raz is right?


Luciano Venezia – On this point, yes. And this analysis is very useful, I think, because this is something that helps us distinguish two dimensions of authority that are normally not distinguished—especially, I think, in the case of the state—which are the normative power to create obligations, to impose duties, and the causal power to coerce, to compel our action via threats. These two dimensions are clearly different, and so it is useful to differentiate between the two. If we don’t have this conceptual analysis of how the claims made by an authority affect our reasoning, it is not easy to separate these two dimensions.

Luc Foisneau – This is very interesting, because everyone thinks, listening at what you have just said, of Max Weber’s definition.


Luciano Venezia – Exactly. Yes, everything is about power, about coercion. This is the key…

Luc Foisneau – And you don’t share this account of legitimacy.


Luciano Venezia – Well, Weber develops a sociological account of legitimacy, or authority, according to which it all depends on how people react to or think about an authority. Whereas Raz, or the philosophical discussion of authority in general, is focused on the normative claims that an authority makes. And this normative aspect, in itself, has two dimensions. And this is also something that we can see in everyday cases.

I will give you an example, if you allow me. Say that I have a child and that I want someone to take care of my child while I go to this party. So, I hire someone to take care of my child. And by hiring this person, I would say that I authorize him or her to create new duties for my child. If the person says, for instance, “OK, now it is time to go to bed,” this creates a duty, in the sense that my child is now duty-bound to go to bed because someone who has authority over him in this respect says so.

But, obviously, the person I hired doesn’t have the right to punish my child if he does not go to bed, unless I somehow authorized that too. So, we can see that, in cases like this, there are two powers going on, which are different. One is the power to create obligations and the other is the power to impose sanctions. They are different, and one can notice that even in these everyday cases.

In the case of the state perhaps it is more difficult because, in addition to the normative power to create obligations and the normative power to impose sanctions, the state also has the causal power to force people to do the things that it requires them to do. But, again, these are different things. So, the work of Raz—and of many others, of course, but Raz is nonetheless a central figure—is very useful to understand these different dimensions or aspects of the authority of the state.

Why does it matter to read Hobbes?

Luc Foisneau – You published a book a few years ago, in 2015, Hobbes on Legal Authority and Political Obligation5. Could you tell us a bit more about why Hobbes appeared to you as a relevant choice to examine questions related to authority?


Luciano Venezia – Yes, of course. The short answer would be that I think that there is intrinsic value in Hobbes. The kind of work that he did on this topic is very important, and this is one reason to take proper care of it. Furthermore, to go back to the discussion that we just had, the normal or intuitive approach or reaction that we have to Hobbes is that he is all about power in the sense of coercion. Leviathan as a figure is all about having causal power to force subjects to obey the laws of nature, for they are not sufficiently motivated to comply with these norms in the state of nature6. So, the initial idea that we normally have of Hobbes, I think, is that Hobbes is all about coercion.

Luc Foisneau  Which is not your view.


Luciano Venezia – Exactly, this is not my view. And this is why I use Raz, for instance, to try to understand Hobbes. So, I take Raz as a kind of tool to illuminate Hobbes, especially the idea that the state is not just a coercive machine, but also an entity that has the normative power to create obligations. This goes back to an idea that is central in the writings of someone like Locke, for instance, but it is also in Hobbes, namely that the state is a referee, an umpire, a person who makes these kinds of authoritative decisions, where the point is that the state isn’t just forcing people to do certain things, but also deciding controversies among different points of view.

Luc Foisneau – It is the impartiality view which is behind this presentation of Hobbes.


Luciano Venezia – Yes. This is more intuitive, or more prominent perhaps, in Locke, and in other writers in the social contract tradition. Especially in Locke, I would say, because the idea of an impartial judge, of an umpire, is of course very central in Locke7. But I think it is also central in Hobbes as well. The idea of Leviathan as an umpire is crucial. And once we make very fine-grained analyses of these ideas, as I tried to do in my book, and we analyze each one of them separately from the others, it becomes apparent that in Hobbes the different dimensions of the authority of the state are also present. One is the normative power to impose obligations. This is crucial, I think. And there is also the capacity to create incentives via sanctions. So, these things are connected, but they are not the same. This is why I got interested in Hobbes. Another reason is that Hobbes is controversial and counterintuitive.

Luc Foisneau  Would you say paradoxical?


Luciano Venezia – Yes, perhaps. He is in favour of absolute monarchy, for instance, and we are not. I would say that no one today really supports many of his ideas. They are not mainstream anyway. But Hobbes gives arguments for these theses. So, it is interesting to see the reasonings behind the claims that he is making, and to differentiate between the bold claims he makes and the reasonings behind them. The reasonings are very subtle sometimes, and not only in the case of political authority, but also in other aspects. Hobbes believes, for instance, that contracts made under coercion are binding8.

Luc Foisneau – Which is really shocking for us today.


Luciano Venezia – Yes, exactly. This is something that we don’t accept. But he thinks that there are reasons for this thesis. This is not just a claim that the makes, but rather a conclusion that follows from different arguments that he provides. So, this is a controversial thesis, but insofar as there are arguments behind it, it is interesting, and important, in my view, to try to understand the arguments and see where they go wrong. If they go wrong. I think they do. But it is not completely clear that, and why, they do.

History of philosophy and analytic philosophy

Luc Foisneau – This brings us to a final question. Your book is very interesting, and fascinating, for many reasons. But one of the reasons why I find it particularly stimulating is that history is not at the center of your analysis. Hobbes is a 17th-century philosopher, and you tend to deal with him just as if he had been writing his Leviathan fifty years ago or so. Could you explain why you think it is possible to address or to read an author like Hobbes with the tools of analytic philosophy?


Luciano Venezia – Yes, well, I will try to do my best. There is this controversy, as you know, between more historically oriented and more philosophically oriented approaches to historic works9. Of course, Leviathan, and all the books that Hobbes wrote, are pieces in the history of political thought. So, they are not contemporary works. Hobbes wrote them many years ago, in a totally different context. And this is something that, of course, we have to take into account.

But this does not exhaust, in my view, the meaning of these works. Hobbes is trying to provide arguments, as I said earlier, for different philosophical theses. He is not just saying: “Well, this is a product of my circumstances. I am simply fighting an intellectual war within this bigger context, like the events related to the English civil war.” Hobbes is also making philosophical points and arguments. I think, therefore, that we are allowed to take these claims at face value and so to try to understand them as they are presented to us, namely as theses that are supported by arguments, by reasons. This is my first thought.

But I also think that analytic philosophy applied to the history of political thought is a useful tool. By using these resources, we can better grasp complicated ideas through lenses that make them less complicated, and so we can understand the different positions that are presented in these works.

So, my way of approaching these historical works is, on the one hand, to take them at face value, as they are presented to us, but also, on the other hand, to read them with the help of modern moral and political analytic philosophy to try to better understand them. Reading these works with the tools of analytic philosophy makes them more interesting, more nuanced, perhaps even more compelling.

Besides, these analytic tools are useful to see where these works go wrong, as in the case of Hobbes, for instance, but not only in his case. So, the idea is pretty much to read these texts with the methods of analytic philosophy in order to understand them better and to see where they go wrong10.


Luc FoisneauThank you very much!


Luciano Venezia – Thank you!

Unfold notes and references
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Luciano Venezia, « Mistaken Authority and Obligation », Legal Theory, (2021): 1-14

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A John Simmons, « Philosophical Anarchism », in Id., Justification and Legitimacy: Essays on Rights and Obligations, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2001.

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John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, Cambridge (Mass.), Harvard University Press, 1999 (revised edition); Joseph Raz, The Morality of Freedom, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1986.

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Joseph Raz, Practical Reason and Norms, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2nd ed., 1990.

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Luciano Venezia, Hobbes on Legal Authority and Political Obligation, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

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Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan. The English and Latin Texts, ed. by Noel Malcolm. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 2012.

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Luciano Venezia, « Authority and Coercion in Locke », History of Philosophy Quarterly, 36(3) (2019): 217-235.

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Luciano Venezia, « Crucial Evidence: Hobbes on Contractual Obligation », Journal of the Philosophy of History, 7(1) (2013): 106-135.

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Tom Sorell and G. A. J. Rogers (eds), Analytic Philosophy and History of Philosophy, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2005.

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Luciano Venezia, « Historia de la filosofía política: tres tipos de análisis », Síntesis. Revista de Filosofía, 3(1) (2020): 108-124.