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Christopher W. Morris on State (Polity) - Dictionary of Arguments

Gaus I 197
State/Morris: Morris thesis: (...) political theorists take states too much for granted. The world was not always organized as a system of states, and it is helpful to recall the ways the world was before the development of states. (...) it is a mistake to identify the Greek polis and the Roman civitas with our modern state as if nothing had changed.
Medieval Europe: 'Political' organization in medieval Europe, in summary, was complex, and 'political' power highly fragmented and decentralized. Allegiances were multiple and largely personal, and no clear hierarchy of political authority was discernible. Governance
was not territorial; it was largely rule over persons, qua individuals or qua Christians.
Modern state: In the modern world, governance is territorial. Modern polities for the most part have definite and distinct territories. The territorialization of governance is not compatible with the personal nature of political relations. And it is not compatible with power being understood as the personal possession of rulers. (...) the polity, that is, the state, comes to be understood as an order distinct from its agents and institutions (...).'government'. The modern use of 'state' to refer to a public order distinct from both ruled and ruler, with highly centralized institutions wielding power over inhabitants of a defined territory, seems to date back no earlier than the sixteenth century (see Skinner, 1978(1): vol. 2, 352ff; 1989(2): 90-131; Dyson, 1980(3): 25ff; Vincent, 1987(4): 16—19). >State/Skinner.
Gaus I 198
Government/rule: In the modern world rule comes to be direct; each and every subject is governed by the sovereign or the state, without mediation (see especially Tilly, 1990)(5). The development of direct rule in this sense is a late development, and it is related to the 'penetration' of society by the state stressed by Michael Mann and others: 'the modern state added routine, formalised,
rationalised institutions of wider scope over citizens and territories. It penetrates its territories with both law and administration as earlier states did not' (1986(6): vol. 11, 56-7). >Sovereignty/Morris, >Authority/Morris.
Gaus I 199
(...) we may think of the state in terms of a number of interrelated features (Morris, 1998(7): ch. 2):
1) Continuity in time and space: (a) The modern state is a form of political organization whose
institutions endure over time; in particular, they survive changes in leadership or government.
(b) It is the form of political organization of a definite and distinct territory.
2) Transcendence: the modern state is a particular form of political organization that constitutes a
unitary public order distinct from and superior to both ruled and rulers, one capable of agency.
3) Political organization: the institutions through which the state acts - in particular, the govemment, the judiciary, the bureaucracy, the police - are differentiated from other political organizations and associations; they are formally co-ordinated one with another, and they are relatively centralized. Relations of authority are hierarchical.
4) Authority: the state is sovereign, that is, the ultimate source of political authority in its territory,
and it claims a monopoly on the use of legitimate force within its territory.
Gaus I 200
5) Allegiance: the state expects and receives the loyalty of its members and of the permanent
inhabitants of its territory. >Authority/Morris, >Legitimacy/Morris, >Coercion/Morris, >Law/Morris, >Authority/Hart, >Sanctions/Morris.
Gaus I 203
State/Morris: What must a state do to be just? A just state presumably is first of all one that respects the constraints of justice. Justice imposes constraints on the behaviour (and intentions) of persons and, presumably, institutions. We may suppose that many of these constraints take the form of (moral) rights and duties. States, then, must respect the (moral) rights of individuals and fulfil duties owed to individuals.
Gaus I 204
States typically claim sovereignty and exclusive rights to use force. Individuals are not supposed to
use force without the state's permission. It is often argued that states have the particular task of ensuring that we do not individually need to use force (e.g. to protect ourselves). If this is true then states may consequently have the provision of justice as one of their main tasks. We may then require of states that they respect and provide justice. Suppose that we say that a state
is justified in so far as it is just (and efficient).
Problem: Now it may be that no state is, or could be, thereby justified. 'Individuals have rights So strong and farreaching are these rights that they raise the question of what, if anything, the state and its officials may do. How much room do individual rights leave for the states?' (Nozick, 1974(8): ix). It may be that the constraints of justice are such as to fill up all of moral space or at least leave no room for the state's exercise of its functions or even for its existence. >Natural justice.


1. Skinner, Quentin (1978) The Foundations of Modern Political Thought, 2 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
2. Skinner, Quentin (1989) 'The state'. In T. Ball, J. Farr and R. Hanson, eds, Political Innovation and Conceptual Change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 90_131.
3. Dyson, Kenneth H. F. (1980) The State Tradition in Western Eumpe. New York: Oxford University Press.
4. Vincent, Andrew (1987) Theories of the State. Oxford: Blackwell.
5. Tilly, Charles (1990) Coercion, Capital, and European states, AD 990-1990. Oxford: Blackwell.
6. Mann, Michael (1986) The Sources of Social Power, 2 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
7. Morris, Christopher W. (1998) An Essay on the Modern State. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
8. Nozick, Robert (1974) Anarchy, State, and Utopia. New York: Basic.

Morris, Christopher W. 2004. „The Modern State“. In: Gaus, Gerald F. & Kukathas, Chandran 2004. Handbook of Political Theory. SAGE Publications


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Explanation of symbols: Roman numerals indicate the source, arabic numerals indicate the page number. The corresponding books are indicated on the right hand side. ((s)…): Comment by the sender of the contribution.
The note [Author1]Vs[Author2] or [Author]Vs[term] is an addition from the Dictionary of Arguments. If a German edition is specified, the page numbers refer to this edition.
Morris, Christopher W.
Gaus I
Gerald F. Gaus
Chandran Kukathas
Handbook of Political Theory London 2004


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