Political obligation is one of the oldest and most persistent problems of political philosophy. The Greek tragedian Sophocles raised it in Antigone, first performed around 440 BC, and Plato’s dialogue Crito recounts the philosopher Socrates’s response to the problem, in the face of his own death, some forty years later.
Philosophers who maintain that most citizens or subjects of a reasonably just state have an obligation to obey its laws have advanced several different theories of political obligation. Socrates hints at some of them in the Crito—consent, utility, fair play, and gratitude—but the first to become influential in Western political thought was divine command theory.
Divine command theory holds that people have an obligation to obey the law because God (or the gods) commands them to obey. In Christian political theory, this conviction is rooted in Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (13:1–2). Problems arose, however, when the political authorities were hostile to Christianity. One response was to insist on obedience, for God must have given power to hostile or vicious rulers as a sign of his displeasure with a wicked people. Another response was to distinguish political authority from the persons in authority. That is, God orders humans to respect the office, but the officer who occupies it may be disobeyed or even deposed if the individual is a tyrant.
Since the Protestant Reformation, the consent (or social contract) theory has been probably the most influential. As developed by Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) and John Locke (1632–1704), in particular, this theory grounds political obligation in the individual’s consent to be a part of a political society governed by laws. In response to the observation that few people have expressly consented to place themselves under a political obligation, consent theorists argue that most people have given tacit consent, perhaps by voting or, as Locke says, by traveling freely on the highways.
Dissatisfaction with this answer has prompted philosophers to devise other theories. According to the utilitarian view, one should obey the law because—or as long as—more good is likely to come from obedience than from disobedience. The other theories are less concerned with consequences, however, than with what the citizen owes to others. On the gratitude theory, someone is obligated to obey the law because this person owes a debt to the political society for the education, protection, and other benefits it has provided. The fair play (or fairness) theory rests on the claim that a reasonably just polity is a cooperative enterprise in which the participants receive benefits but must also bear burdens—especially the burden of obeying the law when one would rather disobey. Because the polity can produce its benefits only when most people cooperate, the person who receives the benefits owes a duty of fair play to the others to cooperate in turn by obeying the law. The membership (or associative) theory of obligation turns directly to considerations of belonging or identity. To be a member of a polity, and to think of oneself as a member, is to have an obligation of membership, much as being a member of a family entails an obligation to one’s parents and siblings. Finally, the natural duty theory begins with the claim that everyone has moral duties, including a duty to support just institutions, without regard to such considerations as consent, membership, or fair play. Someone who belongs to a just polity or state thus has a duty to obey its laws.
Most political philosophers seem to agree that there is a moral obligation to obey the law, at least in a reasonably just state. There have always been doubters, however, and they have become increasingly prominent in recent years. Some of them are outright anarchists, who deny the existence of political authority, and therefore of political obligation. Most doubters, though, either associate themselves or flirt with philosophical anarchism. According to this view, one may admit that political authority is justified and yet deny that there is any moral obligation to obey its laws. There are good reasons to obey
laws against murder and robbery, on this view, but there is no moral duty to obey a law simply because it is a law. Whether philosophical anarchism is persuasive, or whether there truly is a general obligation to obey the law, is now the subject of a lively debate.
- Edmundson,William, ed. The Duty to Obey the Law: Selected Philosophical Readings. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1999.
- Gilbert, Margaret. A Theory of Political Obligation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.
- Hobbes,Thomas. Leviathan. Edited by R.Tuck. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
- Horton, John. Political Obligation. London: Macmillan, 1992.
- Klosko, George. Political Obligations. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.
- Locke, John. Second Treatise of Government. Edited by C. B. Macpherson. Indianapolis, Ind.: Hackett, 1980.
- The Trial and Death of Socrates. 3rd ed.Translated by G. M. A. Grube. Indianapolis, Ind.: Hackett, 2000.
- Simmons, A. John. Moral Principles and Political Obligations. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1979.
- Wellman, Christopher H., and A. John Simmons. Is There a Duty to Obey the Law? Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
- Wolff, Robert P. In Defense of Anarchism. 3rd ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.
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