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Wednesday, July 12, 2017


I have sufficiently recovered from the shock of discovering that Donald J. Trump is following me to Paris so that I can, in the quiet of my comfortable office, make a stab at clarifying what I wrote about morality and state actions.  This exercise has helped me to come to a clearer realization that the point of view I was trying to articulate is nothing more than an elaboration or extension of the position I set forth more than half a century ago in my little tract, In Defense of Anarchism.  Say what you will, at least I am consistent.

Moral judgments, strictly understood, are appropriately made concerning the actions, intentions [and perhaps the characters] of persons.  Corporations are not persons [the United States Supreme Court to the contrary notwithstanding], armies are not persons, churches are not persons, fraternal organizations are not persons, animals are not persons [I exempt dogs from this judgment, of course], the environment is not a person, and most importantly for this discussion nation states are not persons.  Strictly speaking, no nation acts, and therefore it makes no sense, again strictly speaking, to judge that a nation’s acts have been moral or immoral, right or wrong, justified or unjustified.  People act, often claiming to act in the name of a nation, or by virtue of a position held in the government of a nation.  Almost impenetrable and unchallengeable mystifications conspire to make it seem as though nations or corporations or armies or churches are persons or possess personhood, that they, not the persons who occupy positions in them, act and can be judged to have acted rightly or wrongly.  But that appearance is always an illusion.

It makes perfectly good sense to make moral judgments about the actions of individuals, even those individuals who claim to have institutional authority by virtue of election, appointment, nomination and confirmation, divine election, or some other procedure supposedly conferring upon them rights not possessed by persons simpliciter, but those claim are always false.  Such persons may have what I called long ago de facto legitimate authority, but they never, ever have de jure legitimate authority.  That is to say, they may make those claims and succeed in getting them accepted by those against whom or with regard to whom they make the claims.  That can be described as conferring on them de facto legitimate authority.  But all such claims are always false, a fact which I try to express by the statement that no individual ever has de jure legitimate authority.

When a warplane belonging to the United States drops bombs on a battlefield area, destroying a field hospital, it is common to say that the United States has destroyed a field hospital.  People then argue about whether this act by the United States was morally justified or morally unjustified.  That is always a mystified and misleading way to speak.  The men and women flying the plane dropped the bombs, and they are morally responsible for doing so.  The men and women who ordered them to drop the bombs are morally responsible for issuing those orders.  The high command who ordered the bombing campaign are morally responsible for ordering that campaign.  The civilian individuals “in the chain of command” are morally responsible, as are all the individuals in the national administration who participated in the decision, including even the low level staffers who simply held the chairs for the big brass who sat at the table in the Situation Room.  The men and women who voted for the elected officials bear some moral responsibility.  And, most difficult of all to comprehend and acknowledge, so too do all the individual men and women who, by accepting the false claims of legitimate authority advanced by those claiming to possess authority by virtue of some process of election or appointment, strengthen those false claims and make it more likely that orders issued from on high will be obeyed all the way down to the men and women in the airplanes who actually press the buttons that cause the bombs to be dropped.

Almost four centuries ago, John Locke argued that the kings and queens of Europe were in a state of nature with one another because there was no social contract of nations analogous to the social contract of individuals about which he was writing.  This, and countless other writings over several millennia, have encouraged us to think of nations as super-persons, as it were, as unitary agents capable of making decisions and acting in ways that can be judged morally.  That is an illusion.  It was false when Locke wrote and it is false today.  America does not act, Google does not act, the Navy does not act, the Roman Catholic Church does not act, the NFL does not act, Ben and Jerry’s does not act [although of course Ben does and so does Jerry.]

If all this is true, as in fact it is, what then should each of us as an individual agent do?  Ah well, that is the real question, of course, but before we can address it, first we must clear away the illusions and mystifications of the state.  Then perhaps, as Portnoy’s analyst suggests in the very last line of the novel, we can begin.


s. wallerstein said...

A brilliant and radical solution to the issue we've been debating.

It will take me some time to assimilate it fully, but in general, I agree.

What's more, it seems that not only from an ethical point of view, but also from the point of view of political analysis (in order to achieve political change) it is more fruitful to analyze individual responsibilities.

Have a great trip to Paris.

howard b said...

If an army or corporation is not a person, then are they tools like inanimate objects?
They seem to share some features of people, like make decisions, that the Capitol Building does not.
They behave in many ways like people, so the whole idea of treating them like people was that it is a useful fiction.
I think that would be the counter argument, if there were one

Jerry Brown said...

Perhaps this discussion is too abstract for me. I find it reasonable to condemn organizations on moral grounds and the actions of countries also. Some organizations are set up specifically for certain purposes, for example the KKK, that I believe were morally wrong. It makes no sense to me to say there is nothing wrong with the KKK, it is just that their members behave unethically. No- there is something wrong with the entire organization, from start to finish. Likewise maybe, there was something wrong with the constitution of the US from the start when it established that a slave was 3/5ths of a person and that means there was something morally wrong about US policy for many years.

s. wallerstein said...

This way of thinking seems to help dissolve patriotic tribal loyalties that keep one from seeing the world clearly.

I recall a friend, with whom I used to run, who was a Viet Nam era peacenik, but after Reagan's election, got more and more aggressively patriotic. He would ask me indignantly why I didn't back my country's policies and at the time I lacked the arguments (which I now have) for explaining that the policies in question were not those of the United States, but of Ronald Reagan and his administration.

So too when I've been accused of being a "self-hating Jew" for not backing Israel. I now can answer that I don't back the policies of Netanyahu and his ilk. Israel per se has no policies nor is it a moral agent.

Thank you, Professor Wolff, for clearing this up for me.

Tom Cathcart said...

You do know, of course, that Trump's visit to Paris is your bad karma. You need to take a look at this. Meanwhile, have a great trio!

Tom Cathcart said...


Anonymous said...

I agree with Bob's position here. There are many objections, though, that List and Pettit (2011) forward that need attention here. I wouldn't be so quick to dismiss the agency of a group before considering their points.
Thanks for this post.

Regards, Fergus

Jerry Brown said...

Professor Wolff, It seems to me that most of your argument rests on your definition of what moral judgements refer to-"Moral judgments, strictly understood, are appropriately made concerning the actions, intentions [and perhaps the characters] of persons."

Why is that definition any more valid than one that includes 'groups of persons'? If five people get together and form a group for some goal they want to achieve, why is that goal suddenly beyond moral reproach? Or why would the actions of the group to move towards that goal be beyond reproach? I don't accept your definition. That every member of the group bears a moral responsibility for their own actions I can agree with, but I would tack on that every member also bears some proportion of responsibility for the actions of the entire group, even if it is a very small amount. Group membership therefore increases overall moral responsibility and therefore groups can be judged on moral terms.

Matt said...

It isn't an area where I have well worked out views myself, but I will note that the claim in the 2nd paragraph is, these days at least, very controversial in several different areas of study. It's challenged pretty strongly by people working in philosophy of social science, political philosophy, action theory, criminal law, business ethics, and probably some other areas, too. The work I know best and admire would include that of Philip Pettit (especially his _The Common Mind_, and also his new book with Christian List, _Group Agency_, though I haven't had the chance to read it yet); Margaret Gilbert's _Living Together_, and her new _Joint Commitment_, which again I haven't had the chance to read; Anna Stilz's _Liberal Loyalty_, articles and books by people like Jen Ohlin and Larry May on collective responsibility in international criminal law; Michael Bratman's _Shared Agency_ (and other earlier works), for action theory, work by people like (my former colleagues) Eric Orts and Amy Sepinwall on corporate (in the business sense) responsibility.

This isn't meant to give people a reading list, or to be an argument from authority. I really don't know where I come down on these issues myself. But, I wanted to point out that the claim in the 2nd paragraph is a contentious one that many very good philosophers, working in different fields, contest quite strongly.

Jerry Brown said...

Clint Eastwood movies aside, people get things done by forming groups. That's how it works and that's what you are trying to do when you encourage us to call our representatives to oppose Trump. I'm not familiar with the academic literature in this field, but I can tell you that is what labor unions are about, because I am familiar with that. If forming a group increases the ability to achieve goals, i.e. power, then responsibility is also increased beyond what any individual member formerly had before joining or creating the group. The group power is more than the sum of the individuals' power. The group has more power, and with power comes responsibility. Responsibility is generally the basis upon which we base moral judgement. Why would it be wrong to assess the ethics of a group action if we can assess the ethics of an individual action? What am I missing?

Ewan Maclean said...

I hesitate to ask after making a nuisance of myself last time. However, I would appreciate some clarification.

Here you say:

"Moral judgments, strictly understood, are appropriately made concerning the actions, intentions [and perhaps the characters] of persons...Strictly speaking, no nation acts, and therefore it makes no sense, again strictly speaking, to judge that a nation’s acts have been moral or immoral, right or wrong, justified or unjustified...People then argue about whether this act by the United States was morally justified or morally unjustified. That is always a mystified and misleading way to speak. The men and women flying the plane dropped the bombs, and they are morally responsible for doing so. The men and women who ordered them...etc."

In setting me straight a month or so ago, you said:

"There are just states [not individuals, remember] expanding their imperial reach until they come up against other states strong enough to oppose them successfully. The underlying purposes of these expansions vary. America’s motives are transparently those of international capital."

I said that Putin and Lavrov were the grown-ups in the negotiations between Russia and the US on Syria. Given their responsible behaviour and the reckless behaviour of top officials in the US, I am still not sure why you think me wrong.

As an aside: Russia has said that it has no intention of annexing Ukraine. It would make no sense to do so. There is no evidence that it has tried. If Russia did try, military analysts on all sides agree that it would succeed within a few days. What Russia says it wants is a stable and prosperous Ukraine where the rights of all citizens are guaranteed - but not a member of NATO and not locked into economic agreements with the EU that in effect renege on prior undertakings to others, including Russia. This seems both rational in the individuals seeking to implement this policy and in the interests of the state capitalism the claim to represent.

Tyger Ty said...

At the heart of this moral question is an ontological question: are groups real entities? In sociology the debate goes back to Max Weber and Emile Durkheim. Max thought not; Emile thought yes, and fought for this yes for the rest of his career.

If a group is a real entity, an entity sui generis, as Durkheim would have said, then surely, composed as it is of living beings, it is somehow an acting entity. But the notion of a group acting seems counter-intuitive. Individuals act, not groups. But then we must remember that individuals are themselves groups - groups of other organisms. We are not Leibnizian monads. We are the products of cooperation on a vast scale. We are the products of cooperation, but we too, as cooperating entities, cooperate to produce. In this sense we are, as many evolutionary biologists believe, super-organisms. We, alone among mammals, are able to do what ants and bees started doing long before we came on the scene: cooperate to such an extent that that which is produced by our union is another kind of reality. The reality of our groupishness is written into our evolutionary history: much of what we are is the product of our ancestors forming groups and out-competing other groups for resources.

But we cannot see these groups. We can see groups of people, yes, but not a group as such. Here it seems the analogy begins to fall apart: for although we can see the individual organisms that make up a human being, we can still see the human being as a separate acting entity. Not so for the group formed by a union of human beings.

But this is to ignore a vital point. The point is this: the belief that I am a member of a group affects my actions. Human beings are a tribal species, and evidence suggests that we are much more apt to extend ethical treatment to members of our own group (i.e. the group that is formed by its members believing that it exists) than we are to members of other groups. Rheinhold Niebuhr made this clear in his classic "Moral Man, Immoral Society". The evidence turned up by social psychologists seem to support Niebuhr's thesis. Indeed, it seems as though altruism at the level of individuals acting within groups leads to egoism at the level of groups and their treatment of other groups (meaning, of course, not that the groups act, but that individuals who are members of those groups are more apt to treat outsiders unethically precisely because they believe in the existence and moral superiority of their own group).

So while I agree that, strictly speaking, groups do not act, I would want to say that the belief IN groups, and all that goes along with believing that one is a member of a group, often has profound effects on moral decision-making and moral action, and we would do well to remember this.

-Tyler Jacques

Anonymous said...

What are we to make of collective social objects such as "the patriarchy" then? If you're a methodological individualist, whatever the patriarchy "does" would seem to devolve to the actions and intentions of individuals. Granted, the ontological status of such a social object is a separate question from that of assigning blame. You might not be a methodological individualist, and say that the patriarchy is its own social object, not necessarily supervening on the actions and intentions of individuals. In that case one has the situation of systemic sexism without individual sexists. I'm not certain that the status of nation states is that different. Marx wasn't a methodological individualist, incidentally.

I'll need to revisit Brian Epstein's "The Ant Trap" on the ontological status of groups...

LFC said...

Let's suppose one accepts the view that nation-states and other groups are not 'agents' and one can't make moral judgments about what they "do".

Then, for example, if warplanes of country X deliberately bomb civilians, one can't say "country X was wrong to have done this." One has to say "agents of country X were wrong to have done this." That degree of semantic precision is fine in an academic context, but it makes things awkward in the political arena which is where a lot of these debates occur.

I would suggest that in some ways the more pertinent question is not the ontological status of nation-states as agents, but the kinds of moral judgments and the sorts of moral principles that are appropriate in the context of international relations. To skirt those questions by saying "nation-states (countries) don't act, only people do; therefore moral judgments can't apply to countries" seems like something of an evasion.

In the context of day-to-day events, most people do see nation-states as actors and many people do make moral judgments about their behavior. There is also a fairly widespread intuition that the moral standards applicable to nation-states are not identical to those that apply to individuals. But to say that different moral standards may apply in the domestic and int'l realms is not to say that no moral standards apply in the int'l realm. As C. Beitz has (persuasively, I think) argued, "it is impossible to maintain [the latter] view as a matter of principle short of adopting a thoroughgoing skepticism about all morality." (Political Theory and International Relations, 1979, p.62)

Prof. Wolff's anarchism, at least as deployed in the post (I haven't read In Defense of Anarchism), complicates things (perhaps "complicates" is not the right verb, but I can't come up with a better one), because if states and governments are inherently illegitimate entities, and if the claims of authority of an elected leader that derive from his being elected are false claims, then everything that agents of the state do would seem to be immoral, at least in some sense. I'm not absolutely sure whether that position renders moot any debate about whether a particular act in a war zone, for example, is morally justified or unjustified, but it would seem to me at least to push in the direction of rendering it moot.

Anonymous said...

I hesitated for a long time about saying this, and I finally decided to take the plunge. I shall not comment further. I have not got the generous leisure time which further elaboration would require, so I apologize in advance to anyone who finds what I shall say intemperate and under-argued. It may well fall under the heading of philosophical chit-chat, and be properly censured; so be it.
Reading your post, I thought of my Ph.D. advisor's (Terry Penner's) reading of Plato's "Crito". He once debunked the popular and influential attempt to read that dialogue as an anticipation of contract theories by explain Socrates' refusal to flee, and his willingness to drink the hemlock by saying (something like): Socrates doesn't want to harm his mummy and daddy..
Hence, no abstract state, but only persons. That is, as an interpretation, difficult because the popular reaction to Socrates' personification of the state is to allow the state to be some sort of person.
I thought this would be interesting for you to hear. Of course, you might not agree, but it is an interpretation which has now appeared in print, in case anyone wanted to follow up on it.

Anonymous said...

It is unfortunate that none of the serious questions of macro-level versus individual level social objects have been defended. One would think also that eliding the ontological status of the state in favor of the moral judgments one makes about them--whatever they are. This is pulling a fast one unless there is some kind of ontological eliminativism argument, or your commitment to the is-ought gap is so strong that no fact of the matter about the state on the macro or micro level could ever "inform" any moral judgments about it. Moral judgments about the state and facts about them belong to two separate domains of discourse having nothing to do with each other -- think of the theorem on the union of signature disjoint first-order theories. A king has an economist and a general. The economist makes military recommendations and the general makes economic pronouncements. The King ignores the military recommendations of the economist and disregards the economic pronouncements of the general. Is that the line of argument? Or is there no argument?

Is the state a "macro-level" object that does not supervene on any obvious way on the attitudes and behaviors of certain individuals--said to have "power", as the realist John Meresheimer seems to hold, or are we Thatcher neoliberal methodological individualists who hold that there is no society, only individuals? These are genuine questions. They bear on questions of the legitimacy of the state--which is one of the fundamental problems of political philosophy. It's insufficient to make authoritative sounding pronouncements--although the more successful academics are able to inflect their assertions with non-epistemic emotional content to throw off the philosopher.

Anonymous said...

As far as the state being an illegitimate entity is concerned, there is Albert J. Nock, who wrote "Our Enemy the State." (He's not the only author--Nock relies on the Frankfurt school.) Nock contrasted the state with society. He called the state "the organization of the political means"--an expression that for a blog comment reduces to "theft"--and society, "the organization of the economic means." These distinctions appear to involve largely unanalyzed normative commitments on claims to ownership, access to natural resources and the just desert of land, labor and capital. [It is an industry to "derive" the ought of just desert from the is of the payoff functions of game theory.] I'm not at all satisfied with the analysis of these notions. Suppose that one class of individuals consistently wins an asymmetric zero-sum game. That class is represented by the row player, and it receives n. You, column player, always have the payoff -n. How do you distinguish this "trivial" situation from a gift, taxation, rents collected by a few well-positioned market players, oppression and outright theft? This model--perhaps in the absence of epistemic considerations-- isn't expressive enough to distinguish these cases. What I'm suggesting is that the discussion on questions of economic distribution, which I consider related to the legitimacy of the state, can't rise above ideological debate, or make even elementary use of some of the mathematics of social science that has been developed since WWII...