December 7, 2011 columns

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Important Concepts in Political Obligation

My first post on political obligation provoked some terrific debate. So I’m now at work on a series of posts intended to introduce this fascinating branch of political philosophy.

To begin, it makes sense to clarify the concepts at play in the questions where political obligation comes from and who can claim it. In this post, I’ll discuss three: (1) what we mean by an obligation; (2) how to distinguish political obligations from general, non-political ones; and (3) the difference between political obligation and political authority.

Obligation vs. Prudence

There may be many reasons why we choose to obey laws or otherwise support a given state. We might be scared of what the state’s agents will do to us if we disobey. We might think our lives will go better if comply. We might feel the benefits we get from being the sort of person who complies with a particular state’s laws are worth the cost of giving up the freedom to do whatever those laws prohibit.

But none of these represent political obligations. An obligation is a moral duty. There’s nothing morally wrong with getting beaten up for something you believe in. Nor is it morally wrong to make choices that lower the overall quality of one’s life—or to decide that the costs of an action outweigh the benefits. So the above reasons answer the question of why it might be prudent to obey the state but not why we are obligated to do so.

Instead, if we are politically obligated to obey the laws of the state, then it is morally wrong for us to disobey them.

Most of us feel that we owe precisely this sort of obligation to the nation we live in. We may have a sense that the obligation can be obviated if the nation does certain things (becomes horrifically unjust, say), but, in general, most of us believe that government does, in fact, have (some degree of) authority over its constituents—authority we are obligated (in some degree) to obey.

The Law vs. Common Morality

It’s rather common to hear that we are obligated to obey the state because the state’s laws are just. (And, relatedly, that we are not obligated to obey acutely unjust laws, even if they come about through proper state procedures.)

But an important distinction must be drawn: We can have obligations to behave morally even without the state. If it is immoral to murder people, then I have an obligation not to murder people whether the state prohibits it or not.

In cases like this, it seems odd to talk of having a political obligation not to commit murder. Rather, I have a general (non-political) obligation to avoid killing. The state didn’t create that obligation and that obligation is not owed to the state.

Thus we don’t talk about a political obligation to refrain from murder, but we can explore the state’s authority to prevent murder.

Political Obligation and Political Authority

Frequently, the terms “political obligation” and “political authority” get used interchangeably. In most case, there’s nothing troubling about that. Where legitimate political authority exists, so too will political obligations.

But they can be distinguished, and the distinction can be important.

When a state has legitimate political authority, it has a right to compel whoever it has authority over to do its (just) bidding. Thus, if it is within a state’s authority to levy taxes, then the state is morally justified in forcing non-compliers to pay up. Note, however, that this remains independent of what the non-compliers are obligated to do. For that, we need to turn to political obligations.

We have political obligations to a state when we are morally bound to obey or support it. So, even if the state does not act to enforce its authority, we still have a moral duty (an obligation) to comply with its (just) laws.

Political obligations, then, pertain to what the subjects of state authority are morally required to do. Political authority pertains to what the state may do to us.

Where This All Leads

In my next post, I’ll discuss the value of exploring political obligation. We need not be anarchists to have deep concerns about what sorts of obligations a state may legitimately claim.

This is part of a series