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Thursday, November 02, 2023


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Bill, thanks for this substantive series of posts. I love this topic.

I wonder if it would be helpful to modify the antinomy as such: the obligation [of the autonomous] to obey [another who is not morally, intellectually, and epistemically superior] contradicts the obligation to be autonomous. (I grant that my modification might go beyond Wolff's position and thus might be only Wolff-light.)

On this modification, perhaps there is a paradox but no contradiction. The example of the child and the wise parent can be explained because the child is not (yet) capable of autonomy and the wise parent is (while the child is a minor and a dependent) superior to the non-autonomous child in terms of moral and rational agency, experience, understanding, etc. Hence, it is not contradictory to hold that the parent has a moral right to command the child while he is a child. A similar point, mutatis mutandis, can be made about the state; as you noted, in the here-and-now, a wise and benevolent ruler might have the right to command a non-wise citizen who is not capable of autonomy.

But does a non-wise and/or non-benevolent state have a right to command a wise and autonomous citizen, one who has sufficient reason and understanding, who is not ruled by heteronomy, and who has “the courage to use his own understanding?” (Kant, What is Enlightenment?) Granted, as Kant notes, “a great proportion of men” are unenlightened and not autonomous. But for those who are autonomous and sufficiently epistemically developed, wouldn’t the paternalism of a non-wise state violate their autonomy?


To clarify, my modified antinomy remains a contradiction, but the example of the wise and benevolent parent and the non-autonomous child is not a contradiction. In this case, the parent has legitimate authority, but the child is not obligated to be autonomous because he is not yet capable of autonomy.

In the case of the wise and benevolent state and the non-autonomous citizen, the authority of the state holds if the citizen is not capable of autonomy. (If ought implies can, but the citizen (or child) cannot be autonomous, then the citizen (child) is not obligated to be autonomous.

But in the case of the autonomous and wise citizen and the non-wise, non-benevolent state, there seems to be a contradiction: the obligation of the autonomous and wise citizen to obey the non-wise and non-benevolent ruler contradicts the duty to be autonomous.

Thanks for the comments, Elliot. I was thinking about you this morning in connection with a discussion note on epistemic certainty I found via your Substack by one Moti Mizrahi. Fascinating topic. Perhaps we can discuss it at some point and the related issue of epistemic vs ontic modality which comes up in my discussion with Tony Flood on presuppositionalism. I solicit your comments on a soon-to-appeear MvPhil post in response to Flood.

Mike Huemer has a book out on anarchism. I haven't read it. Have you?

I should re-read Kant's famous essay before resonding to your comments.

Well, that Kant essay is very rich and the translation is poor, so I can't say I fully understand all the moves the Sage of K-berg is making. The point K makes about the private versus public use of reason strikes me as very important and relevant to the Bergoglio case. The pope, as pope, is obligated to use his reason in the private way and not in the public way of the scholar. So if he, as pope, spouts off about global warming, he is violating his obligation.

But maybe the point you are borrowing from K and making above is that one's autonomy is pegged to one's level of knowledge, experience, and intellectual dependence.

I unfortunately lack the time is make this any clearer.

Thanks for your replies, Bill. Yes, epistemic certainty is a fascinating topic. I'll keep eyes open for your post on presupp.

I haven't read Huemer's book, but it sounds interesting. I'll check it out.

>>But maybe the point you are borrowing from K and making above is that one's autonomy is pegged to one's level of knowledge, experience, and intellectual dependence.<<

One question I have is whether (a) autonomy comes in degrees such that one is more or less autonomous, or (b) autonomy is not a degreed-property; i.e., one is either fully autonomous or not autonomous at all.

If (a), then a person might be somewhat autonomous and yet still obligated to obey a legit. authority in areas outside his autonomy. But if a person is fully autonomous, then it seems contradictory for him to obey an external command, especially if it comes from a non-autonomous 'authority.'

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