Michael Huemer asks his students to imagine being a neighborhood
vigilante. Suppose, he says, you live in a crime-ridden neighborhood,
and nothing's being done about it. So you hunt down criminals and lock
them in your basement.
After awhile, you bill your neighbors for keeping the neighborhood
safe. You tell neighbors who balk that not paying means they'll land in
the basement brig with the criminals.
"Most people would recognize this as outrageous behavior," observes
Huemer, associate professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado
Yet in Huemer's thought experiment, the vigilante's behavior is that
of a rudimentary government, focused on preventing crime and collecting
This hypothetical scenario illustrates a question that Huemer argues
is difficult to answer: namely, what gives a government the legitimate
authority to act as it does?
"There is no satisfactory answer to this," Huemer says. "In fact, I conclude it's a moral illusion we're suffering from."