The moral obligation to obey the law, or as it is generally called, political obligation, is a moral requirement to obey the laws of one’s country. Traditionally, this has been viewed as a requirement of a certain kind, to obey the law because it is the law, as opposed to the content of particular laws. This conception of the “content independence” of obligations dates back at least to the time of Thomas Hobbes: “Command is where a man saith, Doe this or Doe not this, without expecting other reason than the Will of him that sayes it” (Hobbes 1991, cited under Major Historical Sources, p. 176). In characterizing this as a moral requirement, theorists distinguish political obligation from legal obligation. All legal systems demand obedience from those subject to them. Questions of political obligation concern the state’s justification for doing so. Unless citizens have moral requirements to obey the law, the state may be able to compel obedience but is acting unjustly and impinging on their freedom in doing so. Political obligations are also generally distinguished from what we may call prudential obligations. As H. L. A. Hart argues, if a gunman holds you up, you may be obliged to turn over your money, as the consequences of not obeying could be dire. In contrast, when the state demands that you pay your taxes, you may again be obliged to pay. But if you have political as well as prudential obligations, there is a sound moral basis for the state’s command. In other words, it is right that you comply (Hart 1961, cited under Formal Features of Obligations and Political Obligations, pp. 80–88). On this traditional view, the relationship between the state and the individual is expressed in terms of “authority.” If the state possesses authority, then individuals have moral requirements to obey its commands, and the state has “claim rights” to their obedience.
In recent years, political obligations have generally been conceptualized in a particular way, as applications of familiar moral principles. For instance, as commonly understood, an obligation of gratitude is generated by receipt of benefits from a benefactor, if certain other conditions are met. A gratitude theory of obligation results from taking a general principle of gratitude and applying it to the state, which, on this view, is interpreted as conferring significant benefits on citizens. Citizens have duties to make appropriate returns for benefits received, which they fulfill by obeying the law. Debate over a gratitude theory largely centers upon the necessary conditions for gratitude obligations and whether they are satisfied by state provision of benefits. Similar overall patterns are seen in regard to theories based on consent, fairness, natural duties of justice, and other moral principles. These are developed with great sophistication by numerous scholars, with no agreement on which approach is best.
With a number of competing theories of obligation in the literature, theorists generally criticize other views as part of the project of defending their own. Commonly, a theorist begins by arguing for a set of criteria that an adequate theory of political obligation must satisfy. Especially important, as argued by A. John Simmons (Simmons 1979, cited under Overviews), are “generality,” that the requisite moral requirements are held by all or most all citizens, and “particularity,” that they are owed to one’s own country. Having established standards of success, the scholar proceeds to demonstrate that her theory is alone in being able to satisfy them. However, perhaps the dominant trend in the literature in recent years is belief that no theory satisfies the criteria for a successful theory. Scholars who support this position typically examine the familiar accounts of political obligation one by one, rejecting each in turn. This strategy is followed by Smith 1973 and Raz 1979 (both cited under Birth of Skepticism), among others, while Simmons 1979 is probably the most prominent example. For convenience, I will refer to this strategy as the “knockdown” approach. In response to the criticisms of particular theories that have emerged, scholars have attempted to rework the different positions. There has been considerable progress on many different approaches, and much of the literature takes the form of debates about the strengths and weaknesses of particular approaches. But at the present time, no theory has been able to survive scrutiny. The apparent success of the knockdown approach has generated skepticism about both the existence and the possibility of a satisfactory theory of obligation.
So-called “philosophical anarchists” argue that this situation is not as counterintuitive as it may appear, as people are likely still to have moral reasons to obey important laws. For instance, it is clear that Alice has good moral reasons to refrain from killing other people and that these reasons hold whether or not she has a moral requirement to obey a law against murder. Thus it is not clear how much difference a law against murder makes. On this view, then, as long as there are moral reasons to behave in recognizably appropriate ways, disproving the existence of political obligations will not have unduly deleterious effects.
While the knockdown approach and its implications have received considerable attention, other scholars have criticized this strategy, while others have attempted other approaches to questions of political obligation. Not surprisingly, the conditions that a satisfactory theory of obligation must satisfy have attracted scholarly attention. For instance, the knockdown approach typically criticizes theories one by one. Having shown that, say, consent is not a satisfactory basis for political obligations, the scholar moves on to the next theory, and then the next. But in response, it is argued that just because a particular theory is not able to establish a complete set of political obligations does not mean it is unable to establish any at all. And so the possibility is raised of combining different approaches or theories in order to construct a new “multiple-principle” theory. Accordingly, one result of the prominence of the knockdown approach and other criticisms of traditional theories of political obligation has been to raise important wider issues concerning theories of obligation, the nature of political obligations themselves, and the implications if no account proves satisfactory.
Much of the literature discussed in this article is organized around particular approaches, both defenses and criticisms. I have distinguished what I view as the more prominent approaches from others that have been developed, but which seem to me less promising or which have received less scholarly notice. But one should recognize that this distinction is somewhat arbitrary, while there are also alternative ways contributions to the literature can be organized. In addition, I have attempted to include both important, recognized contributions and some more recent pieces that seem particularly interesting. Many important discussions of political obligation are chapters in books or articles in collections. These are listed separately, which means that some books appear more than once.
Among the many books on political obligation, Simmons 1979, Klosko 2005, Horton 2010, and Knowles 2010 provide overviews of the subject and are especially useful as introductions. Edmundson 1999 and Sanders and Narveson 1996 collect important article-length contributions to recent debates and, among the many article-length overviews of the subject, Green 2002 and Klosko 2011 are especially sophisticated and useful.
Green, Leslie. “Law and Obligations.” In The Oxford Handbook of Jurisprudence and Philosophy of Law. Edited by Jules Coleman and Scott Shapiro, 514–547. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Excellent overview, by important contributor to the literature.
Dagger, Richard, and David Lefkowitz. “Political Obligation.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 2014.
Excellent article in online encylopedia, by important contributors to the literature.
Klosko, George. “Political Obligation.” In The Oxford Handbook of the History of Political Philosophy. Edited by George Klosko, 712–724. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Brief survey of the history of debates about political obligation from ancient times through recent discussions.
Simmons, A. John. Moral Principles and Political Obligations. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1979.
The most important single discussion in the recent literature. Simmons criticizes approaches based on consent, fairness, gratitude, and natural duty of justice, and defends philosophical anarchism. His examinations of the different approaches are often the starting points for subsequent discussions in the literature.
Klosko, George. Political Obligations. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Defense of fairness view of political obligation, based on multi-principle approach. Also includes empirical evidence concerning both judicial bodies and citizens’ moral reasoning concerning their political obligations.
Horton, John. Political Obligation. 2d ed. London: Macmillan, 2010.
Excellent general treatment of the subject, most notable for defense of an association or membership position.
Knowles, Dudley. Political Obligation: A Critical Introduction. London: Routledge, 2010.
A highly competent overview of the entire subject. Most original is Knowles’s attention to gaps between philosophical formulation of the different positions and practical questions of obligation confronted in political life.
Edmundson, William, ed. The Duty to Obey the Law. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1999.
Collection of articles, previously published. Includes many of the most important recent discussions.
Sanders, John T., and Jan Narveson, eds. For and Against the State. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1996.
Collection of articles, mainly original contributions, by important contributors to current debates, although with a libertarian anarchist orientation.
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