Aaron Ross Powell
Director and Editor

Aaron Ross Powell is Director and Editor of Lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org, a project of the Cato Institute. Lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org presents introductory material as well as new scholarship related to libertarian philosophy, theory, and history. He is also co‐​host of Libertarianism.org’s popular podcast, Free Thoughts. His writing has appeared in Liberty and The Cato Journal. He earned a JD from the University of Denver.

We come at last to the final of the five major theories of political obligation. I’ve looked at consent, gratitude (in two parts), fair play (again in two parts), and associations. Last up is natural duty, which holds that certain (kinds of) people or institutions may rule us not because of anything we did or anything they did specifically for each of us but because of characteristics they happen to have. In other words, the ruler or state (assuming it possesses necessary traits) may demand our obedience and we simply have a duty to comply.

As was the case with the other theories, natural duty can take more than one form. In this post, I’ll look at whether we might have a duty to obey the law because doing so is the only way to fulfill another moral duty. For example, in an ideal utilitarian system we might find ourselves politically obligated because a legitimate state maximizes utility. The state has the characteristic of maximizing utility, in other words. We’re better off having a government we all obey than not–and each of us has a moral duty to do what best supports the better‐​off‐​ness of the world.

This initially seems pretty persuasive. If utilitarianism (or some other form of consequentialism) is right and if obeying the law leads to good consequences, then it necessarily follows that we’re morally bound to obey the law. Few of us feel it’s morally right to actively make things worse, after all.

I’ll leave the first if–whether consequentialism/​utilitarianism is right–alone. I’m not convinced it is, but we can proceed without getting into that because even if morality flows only from the outcome of actions, political obligation doesn’t necessarily follow.

Clearly having just any state doesn’t maximize utility. We can easily imagine downright awful states that, if they existed, would make us worse off than having no state at all. Likewise, it may well be the case that the state claiming authority over me right now, perhaps because I happen to live within its borders, is worse from a utilitarian standpoint than the state next door. So why should I obey the former and not the latter?

Also, clearly not everything even reasonably beneficent states do makes us better off. Utilitarianism might lead me to a duty to support publicly‐​funded education, but am I obligated to support the war on drugs, too?

This leads to two questions about the utilitarian account, neither of which has a clear answer. First, how do we know what laws, when obeyed, will create the best consequences? After all, that’s what much, if not most, political debate deals with. Maybe by obeying this law, whatever it happens to be, I’m making the world worse than if I disobeyed.

Second, in light of how fleeting certainty is on matters of utility, who gets to decide? Why does whoever happens to claim power right now get to override my judgment about utility maximization with his own? He might have been elected to that role by some political process, but what if I didn’t consent to that? Because if it turns out I’m right about what maximizes utility and the elected ruler isn’t, then following him won’t just harm me and others–it’ll also be morally wrong.

There’s an even bigger problem, however. Remember that what we’re looking for in this series is political obligation, not moral obligation. That we have moral obligations is, I hope, uncontroversial. A political obligation is something we’re duty bound to do not because doing so is morally right but because these state tells us to. Using my standard example, murder is a moral wrong, not because it’s against the law, but because it’s morally wrong to commit murder. Thus the prohibition on murder isn’t, strictly speaking, a political obligation–even if by following it I’m “obeying” the law.

Thus if the utilitarian account says that we should do certain things the state tells us to because doing them would maximize utility, then we have a moral duty to do those things even in the absence of the state. It’s not clear, then, how the utilitarian account is even, at its root, an argument for political obligation.

Next time I’ll turn to the other contemporary form of the argument from natural duty: the duty to support just institutions.