What is it to obey someone?
Benjamin McMyler
Texas A&M University
Draft: 6/21/12
I. Introduction
In a characteristically brief and insightful paper entitled “What is it to believe
someone?,” Elizabeth Anscombe argues that the concept of believing a person is
much more difficult to understand than it might at first appear. She argues that both
believing what a person says and believing what a person says on the strength of the
person’s saying it are insufficient for believing the person, and she tentatively
concludes that believing a person requires “trusting her for the truth.” In this paper
I argue that the concept of obeying a person is also much more difficult to
understand than it might at first appear and in ways that parallel Anscombe’s
discussion of believing a person. Both acting as a person demands and acting as a
person demands on the strength of the person’s demanding it are insufficient for
obeying the person. Unlike the concept of believing a person, however, the concept
of obeying a person appears to have two distinct senses, one applying to coerced
action and one applying to non-coerced action based on authoritative directives
(e.g., orders or commands). Though the latter sense of obedience can be understood
as the practical analogue of the theoretical case of believing a person, the former
sense of obedience has no theoretical analogue. This helps to clarify some of the
ways in which belief is and is not rationally subject to determination by others.
II. Doing what someone demands
1
If a speaker S tells an audience A to Φ, what is it for A to obey S? A natural
first answer is that A obeys S just in case A Φ’s. If a police officer orders me to step
out of my car, then I obey the officer just in case I step out of my car.
Anscombe argues that when a speaker S tells an audience A that p, A’s
believing what S says (believing that p) is insufficient for believing S because A
might already believe that p for reasons independent of S’s telling A that p. “If you
tell me ‘Napoleon lost the battle of Waterloo’ and I say ‘I believe you,’ that is a joke”
(1979: 144-145). Similarly, when S tells A to Φ, A’s Φ-ing is insufficient for obeying
S because S might Φ for reasons independent of S’s telling A to Φ. Imagine that I
walk down the street and start randomly ordering people to look both ways before
they cross the street, and imagine that everyone I so order does in fact look both
ways before crossing the street but for reasons that have nothing to do with my
order. Perhaps they always look both ways before crossing the street for
independent prudential reasons. In such a case, they do what I tell them to do, but it
would be a joke to say that they obey me. Similarly, if I proceed to step out of my car
on the basis of reasons that are independent of the police officer’s order, perhaps
because I notice a foul odor, then I act as the officer demands but without obeying
the officer. Even if the officer has the authority to order me to step out of the car, if I
step out of the car for reasons that are independent of the order, then my doing
what the officer demands does not count as a case of obedience.
III. Doing what someone demands because she demands it
2
The forgoing suggests that obeying a speaker involves not only doing what a
speaker demands but doing so because she demands it. As Robert Paul Wolff puts it,
“Obedience is not a matter of doing what another tells you to do. It is a matter of
doing what he tells you to do because he tells you to do it” (1970: 8, original
emphasis). We might thus propose that if a speaker S tells an audience A to Φ, A
obeys S just in case A Φ’s because S told A to Φ.
In Intention Anscombe writes, “If someone says ‘Tremble’ and I tremble I am
not obeying him—even if I tremble because he said it in a terrible voice. To play it as
obedience would be a kind of sophisticated joke (characteristic of the Marx
brothers) which might be called ‘playing language-games wrong’” (1957: 33,
original emphasis). Trembling because a speaker orders one to tremble cannot be a
case of obeying a speaker because, in the imagined example, trembling is not an
intentional action that is performed for the reason of the audience’s order. In the
imagined example, trembling is behavior that is non-rationally caused by the order,
either by the fact of the order itself or by the terrible quality of the speaker’s voice.
The causation involved in obedient action, on the other hand, must be rational
causation. Obeying a speaker requires doing what a speaker says because the
speaker demands it, where the speaker’s demand functions as a rational rather than
a non-rational cause of the audience’s action. If we imagine trembling to be an
action that is performed for the reason of the speaker’s demand—if we imagine, for
example, an actor proceeding to “tremble” for the reason of her director’s demand
that she do so—then it would no longer be a joke to describe it as obedience.
3
We might thus propose that if a speaker S tells an audience A to Φ, A obeys S
just in case A Φ’s and part of A’s reason for Φ-ing is S’s telling A to Φ. This is almost
certainly what Wolff has in mind when he claims that obeying a speaker requires
doing what a speaker tells one to do because she tells one to do it. He is claiming
that obedience is a matter of doing what someone demands for the reason that she
demands it.
I think it can be shown that even this is insufficient for obeying someone.
Anscombe considers an analogous position concerning what it is to believe a person,
the position that believing a person is a matter of believing what the person says for
the reason that the person says it. She presents the following counter-example:
Suppose I were convinced that B wished to deceive me, and would tell the
opposite of what he believed, but that on the matter in hand B would be
believing the opposite of the truth. By calculation on this, then, I believe
what B says, on the strength of his saying it—but only in a comical sense can I
be said to believe him. (1979: 145, original emphasis).1
This case is similar to a case that Lackey (2006) calls CONSISTENT LIAR. Lackey
argues that, despite the insincerity of the speaker, an audience can acquire
knowledge in cases like CONSISTENT LIAR. Similarly, it would seem that, given
some appropriate stage setting, an audience can acquire knowledge in Anscombe’s
case as well. In McMyler (2011a), however, I argue that the category of testimonial
knowledge is most fruitfully theorized as knowledge that requires believing a
speaker, meaning that even though knowledge can be acquired in cases like Lackey’s
CONSISTENT LIAR and Anscombe’s bluffing case, properly testimonial knowledge
cannot.
1
4
Anscombe claims that in this bluffing case she believes what B says “on the strength
of his saying it” but that she doesn’t thereby believe B. I take “on the strength of his
saying it” to be equivalent to “for the reason of his saying it.” In the imagined case,
Anscombe believes that p for the reason that B tells her that p, but she doesn’t
thereby believe B that p. We can construct an analogous counter-example for the
above account of obedience. Suppose I were convinced that B wished me to do the
wrong thing in the situation (for example, to breach local etiquette) and would tell
me to do the opposite of what he thinks ought to be done, but that on the matter in
hand what he thinks ought to be done would be the opposite of what actually ought
to be done. By calculation on this, I do what B tells me to do, for the reason that B
tells me to do it, but only as a joke could I be said to obey B. In this practical bluffing
case, as in Anscombe’s theoretical case, I Φ for the reason that B tells me to Φ, but I
do not thereby obey B.
The problem in both of these bluffing cases arises from the particular kind of
“calculation” being performed on the part of the audience of the speaker’s tellings.
The way in which the audience is calculating on the speaker’s telling her that p or to
Φ makes it the case that, even though the audience takes the speaker’s telling to be
good reason to believe that p or to Φ and proceeds to believe that p or to Φ on this
basis, the audience does not thereby count as believing or obeying the speaker.
Even though the speaker’s telling functions as part of the audience’s reason for
believing that p or for Φ-ing, it is functioning as the wrong kind of reason for the
resulting belief or action to amount to a case of believing or obeying the speaker. In
effect, the audience in these cases is treating the speaker as little more than a
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reliable instrument—the audience is treating the speaker’s tellings as little more
than reliable indicators of what is the case or what to do—and though we can
certainly treat speakers as reliable instruments and acquire good reasons for belief
and action on this basis, to do so is not to believe or obey the speaker.
Once we appreciate this, we can begin to imagine less complex counterexamples to Wolff’s claim that obedience is doing what a speaker tells one to do
because she tells one to do it. In fact, Wolff himself presents what would appear to
be just such a counter-example. Wolff claims that “the autonomous man” can treat a
speaker’s orders or commands as genuine reasons for action without thereby
obeying the speaker.
If I am on a sinking ship and the captain is giving orders for manning the
lifeboats, and if everyone else is obeying the captain because he is the captain,
I may decide that under the circumstances I had better do what he says, since
the confusion caused by disobeying him would be generally harmful. But
insofar as I make such a decision, I am not obeying his command; that is, I am
not acknowledging him as having authority over me. I would make the same
decision, for exactly the same reasons, if one of the passengers had started to
issue “orders” and had, in the confusion, come to be obeyed. (1970: 15-16,
original emphasis)
The reason that the autonomous man is not here obeying the ship captain is that he
is treating the ship captain as nothing more than a reliable instrument that he uses
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to make up his own mind what to do. The autonomous man recognizes that orders
are being issued with the intention that they be obeyed, but he is treating these
orders as providing reasons for action that are no different than other ordinary
first-order reasons. As a result, though he does what the captain tells him to do, and
though part of his reason for doing what he does is the captain’s telling him to do it,
he does not obey the captain.
IV. Two varieties of obedience
The above cases demonstrate that obeying a speaker requires not only that
an audience act for the reason of a speaker’s demand but that the speaker’s demand
function for the audience as the right kind of reason. Moreover, they suggest that in
order for a demand to function as the right kind of reason it must function as
something other than a merely reliable guide to action, something other than a
consideration on the basis of which an audience makes up her own mind what to do.
I propose that there are two distinct senses in which a speaker’s demand can
function for an audience as a genuine reason for action without the audience
thereby making up her own mind what to do.
The concept of obedience is often used in ordinary English to characterize
actions performed in response to authoritative directives such as orders and
commands. A soldier might thus be said to obey her superior officer’s command to
cease fire, and a child might be said to obey her parent’s order that she go to her
room. Let’s call this form of obedience deferential obedience.
7
Deferential obedience: If a speaker S tells an audience A to Φ, A
(deferentially) obeys S just in case A Φ’s and part of A’s reason for Φ-ing is
A’s acknowledgment of S’s practical authority.
The concept of obedience is also sometimes used to characterize actions performed
in response to coercive threats. I might thus be said to obey a mugger’s demand that
I give her my wallet or else suffer an unwanted consequence.2 Let’s call this form of
obedience coerced obedience.
Coerced obedience: If a speaker S tells an audience A to Φ, A (coercedly)
obeys S just in case A Φ’s and part of A’s reason for Φ-ing is the desire to
avoid a consequence that S has threatened to bring about if A does not Φ.3
These two senses of obedience must be distinguished, I contend, because the
reasons for action involved in the two cases are different. In the case of deferential
obedience, the audience’s reason for action stems from her acknowledgment of the
speaker’s authority, while in the case of coerced obedience, the audience’s reason
for action stems from her desire to avoid a threatened consequence.4
The mugger might legitimately be said to order me to Φ, but the mugger’s order
does not amount to what I am here calling an authoritative directive. I will thus
refer to the mugger’s directive as a generic ‘demand,’ reserving the terms ‘order’
and ‘command’ to refer to directives that purport to be exercises of legitimate
practical authority.
3 This is an extremely simplified version of the account of coercion offered by Nozick
(1969).
4 In distinguishing in this way between deferential and coerced obedience, I follow
Friedman (1990: 62).
2
8
Political philosophers commonly distinguish in this way between
authoritative directives and coercive threats, claiming that the orders and
commands of speakers in positions of practical authority purport to provide reasons
for action that are different in kind from the reasons for action provided by coercive
threats. Hannah Arendt, for example, writes, “Since authority always demands
obedience, it is commonly mistaken for some form of power or violence. Yet
authority precludes the use of external means of coercion; where force is used,
authority itself has failed” (1954: 92). While there is much disagreement
concerning how precisely to characterize the nature of social influence by authority
and by coercion, it is commonly accepted that reasons for action stemming from the
acknowledgment of a speaker’s authority are different in kind from reasons for
action stemming from the desire to avoid a threatened consequence.5
Estlund (2008) considers an interesting case of a child of a brutal dictator who
orders a minister to leave the palace. Even though the child has no right to make
such an order (even according to the corrupt practices of the regime), the minister
knows that the child will unleash severe brutality on the masses if he doesn’t do as
he is told. By calculating on this, the minister does what he is ordered to do for the
reason that he was ordered to do it. Estlund claims that this is not a case of action
based on authority— that this is not a case in which the child has “the moral power
to require action”—and he claims that this is because “when the minister considers
what to do, the fact that the child commanded him to leave has no weight of its own.
The danger of the dictator’s brutality is triggered by the command, but the
command itself drops out of the set of reasons for action” (2008: 118). It is not clear
to me how the command itself drops out of the set of reasons for action. The child’s
command clearly seems to be part of the audience’s reason for acting. However, it
does seem to be the case that the command is not functioning as the right kind of
reason for the action to count as a case of genuinely obeying an authority. In the
terms that I have developed here, the minister does not deferentially obey the child.
It is not the case that part of the minister’s reason for acting is his acknowledgment
of the speaker’s authority. Nevertheless, the minister does coercedly obey the child
in that part of the minister’s reason for acting is the desire to avoid the consequence
of a standing threat of violence.
5
9
I have claimed that the concept of obedience can be legitimately used to
describe cases of both deferring to practical authority and acquiescing to coercive
threats. The reason for this, I contend, is that both deferring to authority and
acquiescing to coercion involve acting for reasons while, in different ways,
“subjecting oneself to the will of another.” Unlike the practical bluffing case
described above, and unlike Wolff’s ship passenger case, when I defer to an
authority’s directive or acquiesce to a coercive threat what the speaker says is not
simply functioning for me as a potentially reliable indicator of what to do in the
situation. Instead, I am subjecting myself to the will of the speaker, and I am doing
this in one of two ways.
In the case of coerced obedience, I am subjecting myself to the will of the
speaker in that I am acquiescing to the way in which the speaker has constrained
the options for action that are reasonably available to me. Like non-threatening
warnings and non-coercive offers, coercive threats serve to influence the actions of
others via the issuing of conditional statements of the form “If you Φ (or do not Φ), X
will happen.” In the case of coercive threats and non-coercive offers, X is something
that is broadly under the control of the speaker. In the case of non-coercive offers, X
is something that makes the audience relevantly better off than she would be
otherwise (or doesn’t make her relevantly worse off). Offers thus seek to expand
the options reasonably available to an audience.6 In the case of coercive threats, X is
There is a sense in which, in accepting a speaker’s offer, an audience is “subject” to
the will of the speaker. The audience is dependent upon the speaker’s willing to
bring X about. However, we do not typically think of this as a case of “subjecting
oneself to the will of another” due to the fact that this does not amount to a case of
constraint by another. We thus do not classify actions that are the result of
6
10
something that makes the audience relevantly worse off than she would be
otherwise. Threats thus seek to constrain the options reasonably available to an
audience. In threatening to harm me if I do not give her my wallet, the mugger is
making it the case that I no longer have the option of both keeping my wallet and
remaining unharmed, and in obeying the mugger’s demand, I acquiesce to this
constraint.
Deferential obedience involves subjecting oneself to the will of a speaker in a
quite different way. When a practical authority orders or commands an audience to
Φ, she is attempting to determine the audience’s will in a much more direct way
than by attempting to constrain the options for action available to the audience.
Rather than presenting the audience with a threat that the speaker intends will
cause the audience to make up her mind in a particular way, the authority is
attempting to simply make up the audience’s mind for her, to settle for her the
question what to do. In ordering a soldier to cease fire, an officer purports to be in a
position to settle for the soldier the question whether to cease fire, and in obeying
the officer’s command, the soldier allows the officer to so settle this question for her.
So while coerced obedience involves allowing one’s choice to be constrained by
another, deferential obedience involves allowing one’s choice to be actually settled
or “authored” by another.7
accepting non-coercive offers as cases of obedience. However, some offers can be
quite constraining, and to the extent that they are, such offers can become coercive
and “accepting” such offers looks more like a case of obedience—“I had to obey. My
family wouldn’t have survived without the money he offered.”
7 See Friedman (1990) on the Latin ‘auctor’ and ‘auctoritas’ from which the English
term ‘authority’ derives.
11
Different accounts of the general nature of authority can be understood as
different accounts of what exactly is involved in settling questions for others.
According to Joseph Raz’s (1986) service conception of authority, for example,
legitimate practical authorities perform the service of mediating between agents
and the reasons for action that apply to them anyways by issuing authoritative
directives that provide agents with pre-emptive reasons for action, reasons that are
both first-order reasons for action and second-order reasons that exclude the
agent’s action being based on certain other first-order reasons. This can be
understood as one explanation of what is involved in settling a practical question for
another. Legitimate practical authorities settle questions for others by providing
them with reasons for action that simultaneously exclude the agent’s action being
based on certain other reasons. If an agent does what the speaker demands but for
a reason other than the pre-emptive reason provided by the authority’s directive—
in particular, if she acts on the basis of one of the reasons that the authority’s
directive is meant to exclude—then she does not deferentially obey the authority.
She does not allow the speaker to settle for her the question what to do.
I take it to be the task of a general theory of authority to spell out in this way
the precise sense in which authorities are capable of settling questions for others. I
won’t attempt to defend such a general theory here. For the purposes of this paper,
the general distinction between constraining the practical options available to
another and settling a practical question for another should be sufficient to
characterize the different respects in which social influence by coercion and by
authority involve an audience’s subjecting herself to the will of a speaker. This
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being said, however, it is important to note that social influence by authority and by
coercion often work in tandem. The orders and commands of legitimate practical
authorities are often backed up standing coercive threats, leading to a certain
amount of ambiguity concerning the respect in which an obedient agent is
subjecting herself to the will of another. When I pay my taxes, for example, it may
be unclear whether my reason for action stems from my acknowledgment of the
government’s legitimate authority to levy taxes or from my desire to avoid the fine
or imprisonment that may result from my failing to pay. Though I am clearly
obeying the law and thereby subjecting myself to the (collective) will of the
government, it may be unclear whether I am allowing the government to settle a
question for me or acquiescing to the way in which the government has constrained
the practical options available to me. It might even be the case that both forms of
obedience are in play, that part of my reason for action is my acknowledgment of the
government’s legitimate authority while another part of my reason for action is my
desire to avoid a sanction. Deferential and coerced obedience are thus not mutually
exclusive. Nevertheless, it is important to distinguish between them in that these
two forms of obedience involve subjecting oneself to the will of another in quite
different ways.
V. Authority in belief and action
I have argued that just as believing a person requires more than believing
what a person says for the reason that she says it, obeying a person requires more
than doing what a person says for the reason that she says it. Both believing a
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person and obeying a person require that what the person says functions as the
right kind of reason for belief or action. Moreover, I have argued that there are two
distinct ways in which a speaker’s practical demand can function as the right kind of
reason. It can function either as an authoritative practical directive that settles for
one the question what to do or as a coercive threat that constrains the options
available to one. When an audience acts on the basis of a speaker’s demand
functioning in either of these ways, the audience counts as obeying the speaker.
It is instructive to compare these conclusions concerning what it is to obey
someone to Anscombe’s conclusions concerning what it is to believe someone.
Anscombe concludes that “believing someone (in the particular case) is trusting him
for the truth—in the particular case” (1979: 151). The appeal to “trusting him for
the truth” is supposed to pick out what is required for what the speaker says to
function as the right kind of reason for believing what she says, but Anscombe
herself recognizes that the idea calls for further clarification. She ends her paper
with a problem:
I imagined the case where I believed what someone told me, and got the
information from his telling me, but did not believe him. This was because I
believed he would tell me what he thought was false, but also would be clean
wrong in what he thought. Now [in genuine cases of believing someone] I
may . . . have to reflect on whether someone is likely to be right and truthful
in a particular case when he is telling me that p . . . But someone might say:
“What is the difference between the two cases, culminating in belief that p
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because NN has told one that p? In both cases there is calculation; in one, you
believe what the man says as a result of a calculation that he is a liar but
wrong, and in the other you calculate that he is truthful and right . . . The
difference between the two cases is only as stated. When you say that in the
first case you do not believe the man, only what he tells you, and in the
second you believe the man, that is just a bit of terminology: you are only
willing to call it believing the man when you believe he is right and truthful in
intent.[“] (1979: 151, original emphasis)
A parallel problem arises with respect to the case of obedience. I have claimed that
the problem with the practical bluffing case and with Wolff’s ship passenger case is
that the speaker’s demand is functioning in these cases as a merely reliable
indicator of what to do. The audience calculates that in the situation it is likely the
case that what the speaker demands is what ought to be done, and on this basis she
makes up her own mind to act as the speaker demands. However, in genuine cases
of obedience an audience often must calculate whether she should obey the speaker.
In cases of deferential obedience, the audience must often calculate whether the
speaker is a genuine practical authority in the situation. Before obeying a police
officer’s command, for example, an audience might be careful to establish that the
speaker is actually a police officer. In cases of coerced obedience, the audience must
often calculate both the likelihood that the speaker will follow through on her threat
and the relative merits of suffering this consequence versus acting as the speaker
15
demands.8 Before obeying a mugger’s demand that I give her my wallet, I might be
careful to (quickly) establish that the gun is real, that the location is one in which the
speaker could reasonably hope to carry out her threat without getting caught, etc.
Calculation is involved in such cases of genuine obedience and in the bluffing and
ship passenger cases, so is there any more than a terminological difference between
them?9
Clearly, obedience is not opposed to practical reasoning concerning whether
to Φ. An audience’s Φ-ing can be a case of obedient action even if the action is the
result of the audience’s rational deliberation concerning whether to Φ. Obedience
requires not the absence of calculation but simply action based on a particular
reason. As long as part of the audience’s reason for action is either the desire to
avoid a threatened consequence or her acknowledgment of the speaker’s authority,
the action counts as a case of obedience.
The same appears to be true for the case of believing a speaker. Believing a
speaker that p is not opposed to theoretical reasoning concerning whether p. If a
speaker tells me that p, I might be careful to consider the competence and sincerity
of the speaker and the likelihood that p is true given the other evidence available to
me. After deliberating concerning such matters, I might then believe the speaker
Such calculation clearly seems to be present in Estlund’s case of the dictator’s
child. See footnote 5.
9 Note that Wolff’s ship passenger case is unlike the practical bluffing case in that the
audience in the ship passenger case doesn’t judge that the captain is attempting to
mislead. This means that it cannot be right to claim, parallel to Anscombe’s
imagined objector, that the only difference between the bluffing case and cases of
genuine obedience is that in cases of genuine obedience the audience judges that the
audience is not attempting to mislead. In the ship passenger case, the audience
judges that the speaker is not attempting to mislead but still doesn’t obey the
speaker.
8
16
that p. An audience’s believing that p can thus be a case of believing a speaker that p
even if the belief is the result of the audience’s rational deliberation concerning
whether p. This suggests that, parallel to the case of obedience, believing a speaker
requires not the absence of calculation but simply belief based on a particular
reason. But what reason?
Consider again the practical analogue of Anscombe’s imagined objection. In
the case of coerced obedience, it seems quite wrong to say that obedience requires
the absence of calculation. Faced with a mugger’s threat, I might seriously
deliberate about the pros and cons of doing what the mugger demands, but as long
as part of my reason for doing as the mugger demands is the desire to avoid the
consequence that the mugger has threatened to bring about, I count as genuinely
obeying the mugger’s demand. In the case of deferential obedience, on the other
hand, there does appear to be at least one respect in which obedience requires the
absence of a particular kind of calculation. Insofar as deferential obedience involves
an audience’s allowing a speaker to settle for her the question whether to Φ, such
obedience requires the absence of reasoning the result of which is the audience’s
settling this question for herself. The calculation in the bluffing and ship passenger
cases is calculation the result of which is the audience’s making up her own mind
what to do. This is inconsistent with deferential obedience, but not simply because
it involves calculation. It is inconsistent with deferential obedience because, insofar
as the speaker’s speech act is functioning as a merely reliable indicator of what to
do, it is not the case that the audience is allowing the speaker to settle for her the
question whether to Φ.
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The calculation involved in the bluffing and ship passenger cases is
calculation directly aimed at settling the question whether to Φ. The audience is in
the position of attempting to directly determine whether Φ-ing is the thing to do in
the situation, and when she settles this question positively, she thereby counts as
making up her own mind what to do. The calculation involved in the police officer
case is quite different. In the police officer case the audience is attempting to
determine whether to obey the speaker, whether to Φ for the reason of the
speaker’s command, where Φ-ing for this reason involves allowing the speaker to
settle for her the question whether to Φ. Calculating whether someone is a genuine
practical authority is calculating whether the person is in a position to settle
particular practical questions for one. Settling for oneself the question whether
someone is a genuine practical authority thus does not involve settling for oneself
these particular practical questions. When an audience obeys a speaker on the basis
of calculating that the speaker is a genuine practical authority (that she ought to be
obeyed) the audience does not thereby count as making up her own mind what to
do.
Anscombe’s imagined objection in the case of believing a speaker has an
intuitive appeal that parallels the intuitive appeal of the practical analogue of this
objection in the case of deferential obedience. Just as deferential obedience appears
to require the absence of a particular kind of calculation, namely calculation that
results in an audience’s settling for herself the question whether to Φ, so believing a
speaker appears to require the absence of a particular kind of calculation, namely
calculation that results in the audience’s settling for herself the question whether p.
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The calculation involved in Anscombe’s theoretical bluffing case is calculation the
result of which is the audience’s making up her own mind what is the case. This is
inconsistent with believing a speaker, but not because it involves calculation. It is
inconsistent with believing a speaker because it is not the case that the audience is
allowing the speaker to settle the question whether p for her.
In this respect, though there may be calculation involved in both Anscombe’s
theoretical bluffing case and in genuine cases of believing a person, the calculation
involved is very different. In the bluffing case, the calculation involved is directly
aimed at settling the question whether p, and when the audience settles this
question positively, she thereby counts as making up her own mind whether p. In
cases in which an audience genuinely believes a speaker that p, the audience’s
calculation is aimed instead at settling the question whether to believe the speaker
that p. Calculating whether to believe the speaker that p is calculating whether the
person is trustworthy concerning this particular question, or, as we might put it,
whether she is a genuine theoretical authority. Parallel to the practical case,
calculating whether someone is a genuine theoretical authority is calculating
whether someone is in a position to settle particular theoretical questions for one.
Settling for oneself the question whether someone is a genuine theoretical authority
thus does not involve settling for oneself these particular theoretical questions.
When an audience believes a speaker on the basis of concluding that the speaker is a
genuine theoretical authority, the audience does not thereby count as making up her
own mind what is the case.
19
In this way, the fact that the intuitive appeal of Anscombe’s imagined
objection in the case of believing a speaker matches the intuitive appeal of the
practical analogue of this objection in the case of deferential obedience helps to
clarify Anscombe’s claim that believing someone that p is trusting her for the truth.
Believing someone that p—trusting her for the truth—is the theoretical analogue of
deferential obedience. To give it a label, we might call it deferential belief.
Deferential belief: If a speaker S tells an audience A that p, A (deferentially)
believes S just in case A believes that p and part of A’s epistemic reason for
believing that p is A’s acknowledgment of S’s theoretical authority.
Parallel to the case of deferential obedience, deferential belief involves not only
believing what a speaker says for the reason that she says it but treating what the
speaker says as the right kind of reason, as a reason for belief that stems from the
audience’s acknowledgement of the speaker’s theoretical authority. When a
speaker tells an audience that p, she is thus attempting to influence the audience’s
belief in a way that parallels that in which a speaker who commands an audience to
Φ is attempting to influence an audience’s action. The speaker is attempting to
make up the audience’s mind for her, to settle for her the question whether p.
Deferential belief thus involves allowing one’s belief to be settled or authored by
someone else.10
To be clear, I am here claiming that telling an audience that p aims to influence an
audience’s belief in a way that parallels that in which telling an audience to Φ aims
to influence an audience’s action, namely by settling a question for one. This is not
10
20
Again, I take it to be the task of a general theory of authority to spell out the
precise sense in which authorities are capable of settling questions for others. I
have claimed that believing a speaker parallels deferential obedience in that it
involves allowing a speaker to settle a question for one. In the case of deferential
obedience the relevant question is a practical question, the question whether to Φ,
while in the case of believing a speaker it is a theoretical question, the question
whether p. I am inclined to think that the parallel between deferential belief and
deferential obedience is quite deep, that the reason for belief provided by a
speaker’s telling one that p is robustly analogous to the reason for action provided
by a speaker’s telling one to Φ.11 Several political philosophers have suggested such
a deep parallel. Raz, for example, has suggested that theoretical authority can be
understood along the same general lines as his service conception of practical
authority: “Just as with any practical authority, the point of theoretical authority is
to enable me to conform to reason, this time reason for belief, better than I would
otherwise be able to do. This requires taking the expert advice, and allowing it to
pre-empt my own assessment of the evidence” (2009: 155).12 Raz appears to hold
that, parallel to the case of practical authority, theoretical authorities provide the
service of mediating between agents and the reasons for belief that apply to them
to claim that telling an audience that p is a form of command or that belief can be
coherently commanded.
11 For an account of the epistemology of testimony along these lines, see McMyler
(2011a).
12 Hart (1990) and Friedman (1990) also provide brief accounts of theoretical
authority that parallel their respective accounts of practical authority. Zagzebski
(manuscript) argues for an account of epistemic authority that meets the general
conditions of Raz’s service conception of authority, including the condition of
providing pre-emptive reasons.
21
anyways by issuing authoritative theoretical directives (such as expert testimony)
that provide agents with pre-emptive reasons for belief, reasons that are both firstorder epistemic reasons and second-order reasons that exclude the agent’s belief
being based on certain other first-order reasons.13 Theoretical authorities thus
settle questions for others by providing them with epistemic reasons for belief that
simultaneously exclude the agent’s belief being based on certain other epistemic
reasons. If an agent believes what the speaker tells her but for a reason other than
the pre-emptive reason provided by the authority’s directive—in particular, if she
believes what the speaker tells her on the basis of one of the reasons that the
authority’s directive is meant to exclude—then she does not believe the speaker.
She does not allow the speaker to settle for her the question what is the case.
Nevertheless, for all that I have said here, the parallel between deferential
obedience and deferential belief might turn out to be rather shallow. It might be the
case that what it is for part of one’s epistemic reason for believing that p to be one’s
acknowledgement of a speaker’s theoretical authority is importantly different from
what it is for part of one’s reason for Φ-ing to be one’s acknowledgment of a
speaker’s practical authority. Indeed, many philosophers appear to hold that, given
the differences between theoretical and practical rationality, there simply cannot be
a kind of authority over belief that is robustly analogous to legitimate practical
authority.14 Settling questions concerning the depth of the parallel between
Raz recognizes that such pre-emptive reasons for belief do not amount to duties,
as in the case of pre-emptive reasons for action, but he claims that this is because
“duties exist only when (but not always even then) the response to reason involves
the will” (2009: 156).
14 See, for example, Darwall (2006), Owens (2008), and Enoch (manuscript).
13
22
deferential belief and deferential obedience will ultimately require defending a
general account of the nature of authority. I will not take on this task here. I would
like to end, however, by noting one significant difference between the practical case
of obedience and the theoretical case of believing a speaker.
VI. Coercion in belief and action
I noted earlier that in the practical case of obedience social influence by
authority and by coercion often work in tandem. Authoritative practical directives
are often backed up by coercive threats, and as a result the two different ways in
which an audience subjects herself to the will of a speaker that characterize
deferential and coerced obedience often blend together. This is not the case—
indeed, cannot be the case—in the theoretical realm, and this may be at least part of
the reason why many philosophers have thought that action can be rationally
subject to determination by others in a way that belief simply cannot.
I have suggested that believing a speaker is the direct theoretical analogue of
deferential obedience. Coerced obedience, on the other hand, has no direct
theoretical analogue. A direct theoretical analogue of coerced obedience would
have the following form. We can call this coerced belief.
Coerced belief: If a speaker S tells an audience A that p, A (coercedly)
believes S just in case A believes that p and part of A’s (epistemic) reason for
believing that p is the desire to avoid a consequence that S has threatened to
bring about if A does not believe that p.
23
Coerced belief is impossible for the simple reason that the consequences of
believing that p, and the desire to avoid them, cannot be epistemic reasons for
believing that p. Epistemic reasons for believing that p are considerations that a
subject takes to bear on the question whether p, but a subject cannot rationally take
considerations concerning the consequences of believing that p to be considerations
that bear on the question whether p parallel to the way in which she can rationally
take considerations concerning the consequences of Φ-ing to be considerations that
bear on the question whether to Φ.15 A subject can rationally take considerations
concerning the consequences of believing that p to be considerations that bear on
the question whether to act so as to bring about the belief that p, but this is a
practical question, not a theoretical question, and so such considerations are
practical reasons, not epistemic reasons. A direct theoretical analogue of coerced
obedience is therefore impossible.
Even though belief cannot be directly coerced, there are other respects in
which the concept of coercion can legitimately apply to belief. Belief can be
indirectly coerced in that subjects can be coerced into performing actions aimed at
producing belief, actions such as collecting evidence or taking a pill designed to
induce the belief. Moreover, it is plausible that coercion does not always work by
providing an audience with reasons. In the case of action, some coercive threats
may be so terrifying to an audience that, to a certain degree, they overwhelm the
audience’s will and non-rationally cause the audience to act. Something similar is
15
See Hieronymi (2006).
24
possible in the case of belief. Some coercive threats may be sufficient to overwhelm
an audience’s theoretical reasoning thereby causing here to believe. Such direct and
overt compulsion of belief is likely psychologically difficult, but it is plausible that
standing threats of social sanction often play a more covert role in non-rationally
causing belief. If a significant part of the explanation of a subject’s believing that p is
her desire to avoid the consequences that would result from her not believing that p,
consequences such as exclusion from a particular social or professional group, then
the subject’s belief counts as being coercively compelled.16
Though belief can be coerced in these other respects, the fact that belief
cannot be directly coerced is significant. Indirect coercion of belief by coercing a
subject into performing actions aimed at producing belief is simply a species of
practical coercion. Beliefs that are coercively compelled are not a result of rational
determination by others; they are non-rationally caused by the desire to avoid an
explicitly or implicitly threatened consequence. Only the kind of direct coercion of
belief analogous to coerced obedience would amount to a form of direct rational
determination of belief by others, but such direct coercion of belief is impossible.
Insofar as direct rational coercive determination of belief by others is
impossible, belief cannot be subject to the will of others in one of the ways
characteristic of obedient action.17 This is not yet to say, however, that belief cannot
be rationally subject to determination by others in a way that parallels deferential
For a more detailed account of the various ways in which belief can and cannot be
coerced, see McMyler (2011b).
17 In his first Letter on Toleration, Locke uses this point as a premise in an ultimately
unsuccessful argument in favor of religious toleration (1983: 27). For a seminal
discussion of Locke’s argument, see Waldron (1993).
16
25
obedience. I have claimed that just as deferential obedience involves allowing
others to settle for us the question what to do, deferential belief involves allowing
others to settle for us the question what is the case. In this respect, both our beliefs
and our actions are capable of being rationally “authored” by others. Such
authoritative rational influence on belief cannot be backed up by direct coercive
influence, and so cases of deferential belief do not have the background of constraint
by others present in many paradigmatic cases of obedience to practical authority.18
Deferential belief can thus feel much less determined by others. But if the settling of
questions for others amounts to a form of rational social influence that is
fundamentally different from coercive constraint, as many political philosophers
have held, then there is room for a non-coercive form of rational determination of
belief by others. There is room for a form of belief, a way of actively holding a
proposition to be true, that involves rationally “subjecting ourselves to the judgment
of another” in a way that parallels one of the ways in which obeying a person
involves rationally subjecting ourselves to the will of another. It may turn out that
there can be no such deep parallel, that pace Raz, theoretical questions simply
cannot be settled for us in a way analogous to that in which practical questions can.
I think that this would be surprising, but as I’ve said, adjudicating this issue will
ultimately require defending a general account of the nature of authority, a task that
will have to wait for another occasion.
Cases of deferential belief may have a background of indirect and/or compelled
doxastic coercion, but this is importantly different from the way in which
authoritative and coercive rational influence on action often blend together. In the
theoretical case, we do not get a blending together of two different ways of
rationally subjecting ourselves to the judgment of another.
18
26
References
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—(1979), “What Is It to Believe Someone?” in Rationality and Religious Belief, ed.
C.F. Delaney. Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press.
Darwall, S. (2006), The Second-Person Perspective. Harvard: Cambridge University
Press.
Enoch, D. (manuscript), “Authority and Reason-Giving”
Estlund, D. (2008), Democratic Authority: A Philosophical Framework. Princeton:
Princeton University Press.
Friedman, R. (1990), “On the Concept of Authority in Political Philosophy” in
Authority, ed. Raz. New York: New York University Press.
Hart, H. (1990), “Commands and Authoritative Legal Reasons” in Authority, ed. Raz.
New York: New York University Press, 92-114.
Hieronymi, P. (2006), “Controling Attitudes,” Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, 87: 4574.
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Locke, J. (1983), A Letter Concerning Toleration. Indianapolis: Hackett.
McMyler, B. (2011a), Testimony, Trust, and Authority. New York: Oxford University
Press.
—(2011b), “Doxastic Coercion,” Philosophical Quarterly, 61: 537-557.
Nozick, R. (1969), “Coercion” in Philosophy, Science, and Method, eds. Morgenbesser,
et al. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 440-472.
27
Owens, D. (2008), “Rationalism about Obligation,” European Journal of Philosophy,
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Raz, J. (1986), The Morality of Freedom. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Waldron, J. (1993), “Locke, Toleration, and the Rationality of Persecution,” in Liberal
Rights. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 88-114.
Wolff, R. (1970), In Defense of Anarchism. Berkeley: University of California Press.
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What is it to obey someone? Benjamin McMyler Texas A&M