The Haiti earthquake and the justification of political authority

The problem of political authority, as traditionally understood, asks the following questions: What justifies a state in governing its people? And what reason do citizens have for doing what their government tells them to do? The devastating earthquake in Haiti has given rise to conditions that bear on the answers we might give to these questions. For a graphic description of these conditions, please see “Looting Flares Where Authority Breaks Down,” in today’s New York Times.

In the aftermath of the earthquake, there has been a breakdown in both the supply of basic rations — food, water, etc. — and the presence of political order. The resulting despair and impunity has led to increasing incidents of looting and, in response, increasing incidents of vigilante lynching.

What, if anything, can the Haiti earthquake and its aftermath teach us about what justifies a state in governing its people? For instance, does it lend credence to the political theory long ago advanced by Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan, which holds that state power is justified by the fact that only it can prevent people from warring amongst themselves? I do not think that it does, but anyone interested in the problem of political authority would do well to consider why it does not.

For information on how to help Haiti recover, please visit

Related Articles:

The Duty to Obey the Law
By David Lefkowitz, University of North Carolina, Greensboro
(Vol. 1, October 2006)
Philosophy Compass

Citizenship and The State
By M. Victoria Costa , Florida State University
(Vol. 4, December 2009)
Philosophy Compass