An individual who is self-governing is autonomous. An individual who is autonomous engages in conscious, reflective deliberation over an option set, reaches a conclusion about what to do, and makes a reasonable attempt at doing it. Autonomous individuals are self-governing in the sense that they are self-directed.
Societies and polities can be self-governing, but in a looser, more approximate way. Generally, a society should be considered legitimately self-governing if it has enough of the institutional features of republican forms of government. These features include a recognition of individual liberty and equality, the rule of law, protections of due process, and a separation of powers. People in self-governing societies have what some Early Modern thinkers called "federal liberty," or the freedom to act according to and within agreed upon or constitutional constraints (Elazar 1998, pp. 43-44). The establishment of a society or polity in a foundational agreement that defines citizens' federal liberties and responsibilities is sufficient to make it legitimately self-governing.
Understood in these terms, self-governance seems straightforwardly incompatible with subjection to divine authority. Standard accounts of divine authority depict an imposing God of the Hebrew Scriptures saddling people with commands that cover even the smallest details of their lives and are reinforced by the gravest of threats. These standard accounts are mistaken. In the sections that follow, I present the problem that self-governance and its associated institutions are meant to solve (sec. 2), locate this kind of solution in the conceptual device of a contract (sec. 3), begin to account for the significance of such a device in the narrative accounts presented in the Hebrew Scriptures (sec. 4) and, finally, identify in those narratives a nascent form of republicanism (sec. 5). I show that the ancient Israelite tribes and peoples--a group that saw itself as a nation under God's special care and authority, even as a kind of theocracy--were legitimately self-governing.
The Problem of Practical and Political Authority
Practical authority is a kind of normative power that boosts the choiceworthiness of an action (Raz 1986, p. 24). Someone who has practical authority with respect to another can make it the case by issuing a directive that the other has reason to do something. For example, Ellie is a practical authority with respect to Lucy if and only if Ellie's directive that Lucy bake a cake constitutes a reason for Lucy to bake a cake. Furthermore, the reasons constituted by an authority's directive, according to this account of practical authority, are (1) normative and (2) weighty.
First, they are normative in the sense that the directive justifies the action, rather than simply explains it. If Ellie is a practical authority for Lucy, then Lucy should bake the cake because Ellie directed her to do it. Even if it's true that Ellie will punish Lucy in some way if she fails to bake the cake, and even if that fact explains Lucy's motivation to bake it, that fact isn't what makes baking the cake the thing to do. Rather, the directive of the authority does.
Second, the reasons for action created by the directive are weighty in the sense that they should figure prominently in the subject's deliberations about what to do. Lucy might want to bake cookies instead of a cake, but Ellie said that she should bake a cake. The directive of a practical authority obligates the subject to act a certain way. If Ellie is a practical authority for Lucy, Lucy is obligated to bake the cake in the sense that her simple refusal to do it would be blameworthy.
These conditions are strong. We might wonder how Ellie acquired this normative power to direct Lucy in a way that obligates her. What could make it true that she has this position with respect to Lucy? Call this the problem of practical authority.
The problem of political authority is, in a similar way, a consequence of thinking about what it means to say that a state has practical authority with respect to its citizens (Huemer 2013). For example, the US government is a practical authority with respect to US citizens if and only if the government's directive that citizens pay an income tax constitutes a reason for them to pay an income tax. National governments tend to claim for themselves the normative power to obligate their citizens via the legal system to act in certain ways. The resulting laws purport to be (1) content-independent, in the sense that citizens' reasons to comply don't depend on what the law requires or forbids; (2) categorical, in the sense that citizens' reasons to comply with the law don't depend on their goals or interests, and (3) preemptive, in the sense that citizens' reasons to comply with the law will typically override their own respective views about the merits of the law (Hart 1982, pp. 254-55; Raz  1990, pp. 35ff).
Political authority, then, is a kind of practical authority where the right of the state to rule and issue directives delivers a citizen's obligation to obey. In other words, the fact that a directive comes from the state means that citizens have at least pro tanto reason to act in accordance with it. The problem this account gives rise to is whether the state actually has this authority to obligate citizens in these ways. What could make it true that it does? How far does the state's authority to obligate its citizens properly extend?
The problem of political authority is particularly acute assuming a liberal conception of the state and its relationship with its citizens. Liberal states respect individual autonomy. Liberalism, as a political philosophy, acknowledges that all people are free and equal in moral status. A legitimate state is subject to constraints on the exercise of arbitrary power so that it is justified in using power only to pursue commonwealth goals in accordance with the rule of law. More generally, the state's power to obligate is subject to a standing obligation to justify the coercive nature of the rule. How could a political entity come to occupy authoritative status under these conditions?
The Contract Device
Since contracts are agreements based on voluntary consent, they would seem up to this task. A social contract, made voluntarily among self-determining agents with their own respective beliefs, goals, desires, and commitments, that delivered to a designated authority a right to rule, however specified and limited, would seem to obligate citizens while respecting their free and equal moral status. Here we would have moral agents who...
The Hebrew Republic? Divine Authority and Self-Governance.
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