Deference as a normative power

Philosophical Studies 166 (3):455-474 (2013)
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Much of the literature on practical authority concerns the authority of the state over its subjects—authority to which we are, as G. E. M. Anscombe says, subject “willy nilly”. Yet many of our “willy” (or voluntary) relationships also seem to involve the exercise of practical authority, and this species of authority is in some ways even more puzzling than authority willy nilly. In this paper I argue that voluntary authority relies on a form of voluntary obligation that is akin (in some respects) to the kind of obligation one undertakes in making a promise. Voluntary authority depends, that is, on the possibility of taking on certain obligations more or less at will. It is generated through an interpersonal transaction that involves a directed act of deference, on one side, paired with appropriate uptake of that deference, on the other. Deference, in the relevant sense, should be understood as a normative power that is exercised when agents transfer deliberative discretion to others, undertaking directed obligations to treat others’ directives as content-independent and peremptory reasons. Voluntary authority, thus understood, is both grounded in and constrained by the equal moral authority or autonomy of the participants, since only autonomous agents have the standing to defer in a normatively significant way



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Andrea Westlund
Florida State University

Citations of this work

Do We Have Normative Powers?Ruth Chang - 2020 - Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volume 94 (1):275-300.
Promises.Allen Habib - 2009 - Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
XIV—Partiality, Deference, and Engagement.Samuel Scheffler - 2022 - Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 122 (3):319-341.

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References found in this work

What we owe to each other.Thomas Scanlon - 1998 - Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
The Morality of Freedom.Joseph Raz - 1986 - Oxford, GB: Oxford University Press.
What We Owe to Each Other.Thomas Scanlon - 2002 - Mind 111 (442):323-354.

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