, Volume 166, Issue 3, pp 455-474
Date: 08 Nov 2012

Deference as a normative power

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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.