In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Political Obligation

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Natural Duty
  • Associative Theories
  • Mixed Theories
  • Relationship to Legitimate Authority
  • Philosophical Anarchism

Philosophy Political Obligation
Ned Dobos
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 December 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0078


There are good, prudential reasons to obey the law. The prospect of punishment, not to mention loss of reputation and social exclusion, is enough for most any citizen possessed of a suitably far-sighted self-interest to discharge his or her legal duties. But is there a moral obligation to do what the law requires, just because the law requires it? If the answer is yes and the mere illegality of an act renders its performance prima facie morally wrong, political obligation obtains. Political obligation thus refers to the moral duty of citizens to obey the laws of their state. In cases where an action or forbearance that is required by law is morally obligatory on independent grounds, political obligation simply gives the citizen an additional reason for acting accordingly. But law tends to extend beyond morality, forbidding otherwise morally innocent behavior and compelling acts and omissions that people tend to think of as morally discretionary. In such cases, the sole source of one’s moral duty to comply with the law is one’s political obligation.

General Overviews

Contemporary theories of political obligation can be roughly divided into three camps: transactional accounts, natural duty, and associative theories. Transactional accounts suggest that political obligation is acquired through some morally significant exchange between the citizen and his or her compatriots, or between the citizen and the state. Citizens are obliged to obey the law either because of what they have done, or because of what has been done for them by others. According to natural duty theories, political obligation is grounded not in any voluntary undertaking or transaction, but in the importance of advancing some impartial moral good (such as utility or justice), or in a general moral duty owed by all persons to all others regardless of their transactional history or relationships. Associative accounts posit that, just as being a neighbor, friend, or sibling comes with moral duties attached, so too does mere membership in a political community. The duty to obey the law is inherent in this particular social role, regardless of whether or not one occupies that role voluntarily. It is a misunderstanding of what it means to be a member of a political society to think that political obligation needs any further justification. Some proponents of political obligation rely on a single theory, while others endorse a “mixed” account that combines insights and arguments from two or more of the theories outlined here. Simmons 1979 remains the definitive full-length treatment of political obligation. Horton 1992 and Knowles 2010 critically examine all of the major theories and build on Simmons’s work.

  • Horton, John. Political Obligation. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave, 1992.

    Introduces and challenges each of the dominant theories, then offers an alternative “associative” account focusing on what it is to be a member of a political community.

  • Knowles, Dudley. Political Obligation: A Critical Introduction. London: Routledge, 2010.

    Explores the relationship between political obligation and state legitimacy, and provides a full-length treatment of all of the major theories.

  • Simmons, A. John. Moral Principles and Political Obligations. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1979.

    Systematically addresses every major theory.

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