Political Obligations: Are We Morally Obligated To Obey Our Governments?

A man without a government is like a fish without a bicycle

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Imagine you live in a town, and there is a problem.

Perhaps the problem is crime – some people do bad things like steal, murder, and rape. Or maybe you think that the moral fabric of your town is being corrupted by homosexuals, drug users, prostitutes, payday lenders, unscrupulous merchants, or people who look at you funny.

One day, you decide to do something about it. Sick of all the criminals in town, you begin to investigate crimes yourself, apprehend the criminals, and then lock them up in your basement. Then you walk over to your neighbor’s house and say “Hey there! I’ve been locking away the criminals in our town, and this is a mighty costly endeavor. Since I’ve provided this service to you, it’s time for you to pay your fair share. Please provide me with a check for $500.”

How do you think people would react to you? I’d venture a guess and say that people would slam the door in your face and laugh.

Having just been rejected, you knock on their door again. When they answer, you say “Hey now. I’m locking up the criminals in our town, and if you don’t pay up, I will consider you a criminal. Give me my money, or you’ll spend the next five years living in a cage in my basement.”

Morally speaking, is this justified? Of course not! What you are doing is robbing someone and threatening to kidnap them – actions that we can agree are morally wrong.

Nearly anyone would recognize this. And yet, when the government does exactly the same thing, it is almost universally considered “taxation” and “criminal justice,” things that most believe are morally legitimate actions for a government to take. And that very well may be true – but since our moral intuitions about the actions a private individual can do and what the government can do reveal a double-standard, it is necessary for the state to have some kind of moral authority that enables it to legitimately do things that you and I cannot. To justify a law, one must justify the use of physical coercion against those who violate the law. Causing harm to others is prima facie wrong, so some account must be given to why governments are allowed to violate our common sense moral intuitions.

This is the problem of political obligation, which is the moral property that gives governments the right to coerce people in a way that these people cannot themselves, and in which the subjects of a government are obligated to obey its dictates despite individuals not normally being required to obey other people. In other words, what makes a state morally unique and differentiated from the individuals who comprise it (and everyone else)?

For centuries, political philosophers have discussed this problem and have proposed theories justifying political obligations. My intention in this essay is to show why the most prominent of these theories of political obligation fail. The arguments presented here are drawn from two wonderful books, and if you are curious to see them fleshed out in more detail, you can do no better than to check them out:

Alright, let’s get started!


The Problem of Political Obligation

When you have an obligation to do something, that obligation is not an absolute moral claim on your actions. If you have an obligation or duty to do something, that is a very good reason for acting in a particular way, but not a conclusive reason for doing so. In other words, obligations don’t override other moral considerations for acting.

Let’s say we agree to meet for lunch. I now have an obligation to go to lunch at the agreed upon time and location. But if on my way to lunch I come across a child drowning in a pond, my obligation does not mean that I ought to let the child die and continue to lunch. Clearly, other moral considerations dominate the obligation to meet for lunch.

What this means is that even if it can be established that political obligations exist and bind us to our governments, that does not mean that we are morally required to obey the government in all cases. It would provide a very strong prima facie reason to do so – but if obeying the law meant that some significantly greater harm would occur, the morally correct action is to disobey. This is an important bound to what I am attempting to prove in this article: the existence of political obligations does not automatically entail counterintuitive results such as “supporting the Nazis was morally correct for Germans.” What it would mean is that there was a good reason to support the Nazis (or any government), but it was (heavily) outweighed by other moral considerations.

With that out of the way, let’s define obligations with more precision. An obligation is a moral requirement satisfying the following conditions:

  1. An obligation is a requirement generated by the performance of some voluntary act or omission. This is contrasted with duties, which can exist without performing some special action.
  2. An obligation is owed by a specific person to a specific person or persons. Duties, by contrast, are owed by all people to everyone else. That’s why you can “fulfill” your obligations, but cannot ever discharge of a moral duty.
  3. Every obligation that is generated establishes a corresponding right that is generated at the same time. If person A has an obligation to do X for person B, then person B has a right to the performance of X by A.
  4. It is not the nature of the required act that generates the obligation, but rather the nature of the relationship between the obligor and the obligee. Just because an act is moral or praiseworthy does not make the act obligatory.

These conditions help separate the concept of “obligations” from the very similar concept of “duties”. Most of this post will focus on obligations, but John Rawls proposed a “natural duty of justice” which will also be discussed in a later section.

An important concept is that of a “positional duty” – a duty that arises due to the nature of a position itself. For instance, a part of a soldier’s positional duties would be to shoot at an advancing enemy when the commander says so. Positional duties of this sort do not have moral weight. To say that someone has a positional duty is to say that, because of some position that the agent is in, the agent is required to do something specified by that position. But this says nothing about the nature of that position, which could be a Nazi guard who has a positional duty to aid in the extermination of Jews. If a positional duty is in fact morally binding, it is because of some other grounds for morality that is not related to the position. Therefore, we do not have a duty to obey the government simply in virtue of the fact that we are citizens of that government; something else must explain this duty. What most people would call “legal obligations” are thus morally neutral. Just because the legal obligation of a Nazi guard is to help exterminate Jews, this does not make murdering Jews morally justified.

slavery and government

Similarly, just because a particular institution exists and its rules apply to someone does not mean that they are morally bound to that institution. Tyrannical governments are not morally entitled to the support of those who live under them.

In this essay, I will not assume any particular moral theories are correct. But before moving on, let’s consider utilitarianism, which offers a different approach to generating obligations than that outlined in this article. Utilitarianism, very roughly, is the doctrine that the morally correct action is always the one that maximizes “utility” or “happiness”. Utilitarian deliberations can at times lead us to conclude that we are obligated to obey the government, but just as easily in other cases that we are not obligated to obey. As such, there is no utilitarian approach to creating a moral requirement to support or comply with a given political institution. Since utilitarianism bases the moral rightness of something on a single condition, it doesn’t seem that it is capable of leading to a theory of obligation in general. Any potential obligation is immediately superseded by concerns about utility. Any obligations generated from utilitarian calculations is due to the amount of utility that results from one’s actions, not due to the nature of political institutions themselves.

A common concern that many people have with this result can be phrased as the question: what if everyone disobeyed the law? This brings us to rule-utilitarianism, which stipulates that we ought to act in accordance with rules that, if generally adopted, would lead to the greatest utility. But our decisions are somewhat independent of each other. For instance, if I decide to become a math teacher, this seems fine. But what if everyone became a math teacher? Everyone would starve. That doesn’t make becoming a math teacher morally wrong. To phrase it all as a rule: “I can break the law when the content of the law isn’t independently morally required (don’t murder, for example), provided that there are not too many people breaking the law.” Therefore, rule-utilitarianism, like act-utilitarianism, is unable to generate an account of political obligation.

Furthermore, as Huemer points out,

“Presumably, if individuals are obligated to maintain social order, the state is similarly obligated. If disobedience to any law risks causing a collapse of social order, then the state, in making laws that are not necessary to maintaining social order and that are likely to be widely disobeyed, is itself threatening social order far more than a single individual who disobeys one of these laws. Furthermore, asking the state to renounce its desire to make such unnecessary laws is more reasonable and less onerous than asking an individual to renounce his personal liberties.”

So, what would a successful account of political obligations look like? According to Huemer, it must satisfy the following five conditions:

  1. The state’s authority applies to citizens generally. The great majority of individuals should have political obligations, and the state must be justified in using coercion against the majority of its citizens.
  2. The state’s authority is limited to those citizens and residents within its territory.
  3. The state’s authority is not tied to the content of its laws or other commands. Even if a law is “bad”, citizens must have obligations to obey. An account of political obligation should explain why citizens ought not to jaywalk because the state says so. Of course, as discussed earlier, citizens might be morally required not to act in accordance with this law, if other moral considerations outweigh it.
  4. The state is entitled to regulate a broad range of human activities, and individuals must obey the state’s directives within this range.
  5. Within the sphere of action that the state is entitled to regulate, it is the final and highest human authority.

Let’s explore condition (2) for a moment. This is what Simmons dubbed the “particularity requirement”. We are only interested in moral requirements that make an individual bound to a particular political community or institution in order to create obligations based upon citizenship. Let’s say we had an obligation to support just governments (however defined). While living under a just government, I would be obliged to support it. I would be equally obliged to support every other just government to the same degree. But political authority is supposed to explain why we are bound to “our” particular government, not governments in general.

With this in mind, let’s tackle the most important theories of political obligation.


Consent Theories And The Social Contract

Consent theories of political obligation are those that argue that no man is obligated to support or comply with any political power unless he has personally consented to its authority over him. In other words, political obligations are grounded in the citizen performing some voluntary act in order to deliberately undertake the obligation.

This is a very popular theory, and is supported by philosophical heavyweights such as John Locke. Consent theory is attractive because it prevents man from being bound to a government which he does not choose. It respects our belief that men should determine the course of their own life as much as possible. It protects an individual’s freedom to determine which particular institution will get his political allegiance.

The major assumptions behind consent theories are:

  1. Man is naturally free. The “state of nature”, therefore, is discussing men during a time prior to them having voluntarily acted in a way that morally binds them.
  2. Man gives up his natural freedom only by voluntarily providing a clear sign that he intends to do so.
  3. The method of consent protects man from injury by the state. Only a government which has been “chosen” by the individual has any legitimate power over them.
  4. The state is an instrument for serving the interests of its citizens. Neither the state nor another individual can determine what is in the interests of another; one must provide consent that would indicate that the individual considers his interests served by the government.

Prior to the existence of governments, man lives in the state of nature, where he can do whatever he wants. But then he performs some kind of act which binds him to a government by signaling his consent. If he does not consent to the government, than that government does not have legitimate authority over him. However, he may choose to become bound to a state if he believes it would serve his interests.

A consent theory would hold that only unanimous consent by the citizens would make that government a legitimate political authority. This is clearly implausible. The solution to this problem that many political philosophers have provided is “tacit consent”, primarily via residence. This seems problematic as well, since it would suggest that all governments are legitimate. Consent theorists need to find some kind of “sign of consent” that we can reasonably assume most men have undertaken.

This sign of consent must be given knowingly, intentionally, and voluntarily. If “consent” is given because of a direct threat or while under duress, it isn’t really consent now, is it? Nor is it consent if the actor didn’t know that he was providing “consent”. The fact is, most of us have never been in a position to express consent to a government authority, let alone actually performed such an act. Here’s where the importance of tacit consent comes into play, where the consent is signaled by remaining silent or inactive.

Under what conditions can silence be taken as a sign of consent, and thus justify political obligations for the consent theorist?

  1. It must be clear in the situation that consenting is appropriate and the individual is aware of this.
  2. There must be a definite period of reasonable duration where objecting is appropriate, and the methods to object must be known to a potential dissenter. The method to object must pertain to goods that people have rights over.
  3. The point at which dissent is no longer possible must be made obvious.
  4. The means acceptable for signaling dissent must be reasonable.
  5. The consequences to a potential dissenter mustn’t be extremely detrimental to the dissenter.

Consider a board meeting, where the chairman says that he will change the time of the meeting unless anyone has any objection. If the meeting attendees remain silent, then they have tacitly consented to the time change. If the chairman does not make clear that he is seeking consent, then this violates condition (1); since the attendees don’t realize that this is a situation where they can provide consent (or not), then they have not even had the opportunity to tacitly consent. Clearly, there is no deliberate and voluntary aspect to this “consent”.

By changing the example slightly, we can show why the above conditions are necessary. Let’s say the chairman says “If you do not support the time change, you can let us know by paying $5.” Because the chairman does not have a preexisting right to this money, then failing to pay cannot signal genuine tacit consent, because it violates condition (2).

Condition (3) guarantees that the attendees’ silence is not simply a reflection of a misunderstanding regarding how much time they have to dissent. The chairman cannot consider the attendees to have consented by claiming that whatever dissent that has occurred past the deadline doesn’t count, when no explicit deadline was provided.

Now, let’s say that the chairman says “If you don’t accept the time change, you can let me know by playing a round of Russian roulette.” This violates condition (4) – clearly, one cannot be considered to have provided tacit consent when the means to do would be so unreasonable. The vagueness in the term “unreasonable” should not impact the strength of the arguments in this section.

Finally, the chairman might say “If you do not accept the time change, I will lock you in a cage in my office.” This violates condition (5). “Consent” that is given due to coercion isn’t really consent, and cannot generate obligations.

Huemer adds several other conditions that must be satisfied for an agreement, or contract, to be considered valid. Explicitly dissenting from an agreement trumps any implicit acceptance. If I go into a restaurant and tell the waitress that I will not pay for my meal but want it anyways (and then she brings it to me), I am not obligated to pay. Normally, ordering at a restaurant would make you obligated to pay, but by explicitly stating that you will not, the waitress could (and should) have simply not served you. Additionally, an action can only be taken to signal consent if the actor can assume that, without performing that act, the scheme would not be forced upon them anyways. If the chairman says “I want to switch the meeting time, and will do so regardless of whether you disagree or not,” then it is not a valid agreement. Finally, a contractual obligation is mutual and conditional; if one side fails to live up to the agreement, then the obligations stemming from it are considered void.

Any possible “social contract” must fulfill these conditions, but it appears to fail on all of them. Explicit dissent doesn’t seem to trump implicit consent, as every anarchist knows. As Huemer puts it:

“…the state’s well-known refusal to recognize explicit dissent calls into question the validity of any tacit consent allegedly given by even those who have not explicitly expressed dissent. Even for those who would not in fact wish to dissent, it remains true that they were not given the option of explicitly turning down the social contract.”

The state will apply the same laws and taxes to you even if you object to government, use its roads, vote, etc. Therefore, failing to object, or agreeing to take part in the political process or accept benefits from government cannot be said to signal consent.

Social contract

A social contract would imply that the state has some obligations toward its citizens (or else the contract isn’t mutual). Presumably, one of these is that the state protects citizens from crime. Suppose you are the victim of a crime that the state could have prevented had it made a reasonable effort to do so. In this case, isn’t the state failing in its mutual obligation? This is exactly the situation we have in the US, where police have no obligation to protect citizens from crime.

Clearly, the social contract would violate our common sense intuitions about contracts and agreements in general.

But let’s return to the idea of tacit consent. Can we even say that most individuals have tacitly consented to their government’s rule? For Locke and many others, tacit consent can be signaled by voting, residing in a state, using public roads, etc. But this means that living within a tyrannical society would still result in individuals being bound to that government. North Koreans perform these actions just as readily as Americans do, but we don’t consider North Koreans to be morally bound to their government.

Here it is important to draw a distinction between an act being a “sign of consent” and an act “implying consent.” When an act “implies consent” it does not necessarily mean that the actor intended to consent or that the act would normally be taken as an attempt to signal consent. Here are ways to imply consent:

  1. An act can lead us to conclude that the actor would consent if the right conditions arose. If he had been asked to, he would have consented.
  2. An act might commit an actor to consenting. Spending hours going on a rant about how anyone who doesn’t consent to their government is an idiot would under normal conditions imply that this individual consents to be governed.
  3. An act might morally bind the actor to the same performance to which he would be bound if he in fact did consent. Joining a baseball game would imply consent to abide by the rules and dictates of the umpires.

These kinds of acts were not necessarily performed as deliberate or intentional acts of consent, and thus we cannot merely assume that they were intended as acts of consent. Remember: an act of consent must be a deliberate undertaking, otherwise any benefits that consent theory has for political obligations no longer exist.

People like Locke would argue that things like using public roads or voting, which imply consent, can be grounds for political obligations. But these instances of implied consent are not typically deliberate undertakings. Although participating in the political process might imply consent, under current arrangements, it is not a sign of consent. The average man votes with minimal awareness and no intention of having it be an act of consent to anything. If these types of actions could ground political obligations, then this would be within the realm of some other theory, not consent theory.

Let’s also note that an attitude of approval does not signal consent and is irrelevant to political obligations. Merely approving or having a positive attitude towards government is not a sign of consent; again, a sign of consent must be a deliberate undertaking. When a man consents to something, he is morally bound, regardless of his attitudes.

It is clear that very few individuals today have signaled (tacit) consent to governmental authority (even if that is only because most people have not had the opportunity to do so), which makes it unsuitable as a general grounds for political obligations. It would show that in most modern states, a trivial fraction of the citizens of any state would be morally bound.

Finally, let’s turn our attention to the argument that continued residence within a specific territory qualifies as providing consent. “Love it or leave it,” as they say. For continued residence to qualify as consent, there would need to be some kind of choice presented which allowed people to voice their dissent, otherwise conditions (1)-(3) above would be violated. For instance, at a particular age, every citizen can be asked whether they agree to be bound by political obligations, and would be allowed to leave without punishment if they do not. In general, residence as a potential signal of consent violates condition (5), that the consequences of dissent must not be too extreme. Man’s most valuable possessions, such as family and friends, would need to be left behind to leave a state, placing a very significant weight in favor of continued residence. As Simmons asks:

“Does a man choose freely to remain in prison because he has a knife with which he can wound himself seriously enough to be removed to a hospital?”

Surely not! The choice procedure specified in order to make continued residence a signal of consent may never be able to overcome condition (5), though theoretically there is room for it to do so. But the onus is on the consent theorist to propose a choice procedure that can be designed to fulfill the above conditions. In addition, the “love it or leave it” argument presupposes that the government has a valid property right over the property within its borders, or else the request to leave involves demanding of someone to sacrifice something they have rights over (like the chairman who insists people pay $5 to dissent).

At this point, we can see that consent theories ultimately come up short.


Hypothetical Social Contracts

Another strand of justifications for political obligation would be appealing to a hypothetical social contract. Proponents of these theories argue that people would consent to the state’s authority under certain hypothetical conditions.

In order for this line of argument to succeed, these theorists must show that not only would people consent, but that the hypothetical consent has moral significance that generates obligations. For instance, an unconscious patient is rushed to the hospital and cannot give explicit consent to treatment, but it is reasonable to believe that the patient would consent if he were conscious. Is our consenting to be bound to our governments analogous to this situation?

For hypothetical consent to apply, obtaining actual consent must be infeasible (for reasons other than peoples’ unwillingness to consent in the first place). If a patient is conscious, then the doctors must get their actual (not assumed) consent. Also, the parties’ hypothetical consent must be consistent with their relevant pre-existing values and beliefs. If an unconscious patient had a religious objection to some kind of surgery (that the doctor knew about), we cannot say they have hypothetically consented to surgery just because they are unconscious and cannot make it explicit.

It is possible for the state to get explicit consent to its rule, since (most) of the people that it rules over are not unconscious or otherwise incapable. In addition, there are individuals who have values that are against certain types of government (or government in general), so hypothetical consent cannot be assumed for these individuals. For instance, some people might only consent to a government that is a direct democracy, but if living in a representative democracy, they would not.

One might argue that a hypothetical social contract is valid if all “reasonable” people would consent to it. This consent need not apply to every detail of the state, but it should at least include consent to the basic forms and structures of that government. But there is no reason to think that all reasonable people will reach agreement on the basic principles of government any more than all reasonable people agreeing to the same religion or ethical theory.

The hypothetical social contract theorist must hold that one may coercively impose an arrangement on individuals when they would be “unreasonable” to reject the arrangement. If someone offered you a job that was better in every way than your current job, you might be “unreasonable” to reject it; nevertheless, most people wouldn’t say that this gives the employer the right to coerce you into accepting the job. The unreasonableness of rejecting an offer in the private sphere clearly does not generate a license to coerce, and yet the unreasonableness of rejecting the social contract is enough for many theorists to (inconsistently and incorrectly) claim that the terms of a social contract can be forced on its citizens.

Rawls’s Natural Duty of Justice

John Rawls is without question the most influential political philosopher of the 20th century, so it is worth investigating his arguments more explicitly.

Rawls imagines a hypothetical “original position,” where individuals select the basic social structure that they would like to live under. They do this from behind the “veil of ignorance” – nobody in the original position is aware of their characteristics in the real world. The parties negotiating the principles are unaware of their race, sex, religion, social status, talents, and so on. Rawls says that all reasonable people behind the veil of ignorance would agree to certain principles of government. The cause of disagreements, according to Rawls, are the influence of irrationality, personal biases, and ignorance – all factors that disappear under the veil of ignorance.

anarchy frightens people

But given that reasonable people disagree over many philosophical issues for intellectual reasons, why should we assume that disagreements would be explained away in political philosophy? There is no reason to think that (reasonable and rational) anarchists disagree with Rawls’s principles because of their knowledge of their position in society. While Rawls may have identified certain necessary conditions (people should be rational, free from personal biases, etc.), it is not clear that these conditions are sufficient. But even if one could identify all of the conditions necessary for persuasive moral reasoning, it is possible that the conclusions that Rawls draws are not accurate. For that to be the case, it would be necessary for everyone in the original position to have the complete and correct values – but the correct moral values are highly contentious in philosophy. Therefore, it becomes difficult or impossible for Rawls or any other theorist to determine what principles people would actually agree to.

That is enough to render Rawls’s theory inadequate, but let’s assume away those problems for a moment. Rawls claims that the natural duty of justice binds each member “irrespective of his voluntary acts, performative or otherwise.” (Note that it is this factor that makes it a duty rather than an obligation, but I digress).This duty of justice has two parts:

“First, we are to comply with and do our share in just institutions when they exist and apply to us; and second, we are to assist in the establishment of just arrangements when they do not exist, at least when this can be done at little cost to ourselves.”

But what does it mean for an institution to “apply to us”? We shouldn’t be required to go along with just any institution that forces itself upon us, or which applies to us because of descriptions that we happen to meet. The NAACP doesn’t “apply to” all black people. The Writer’s Guild doesn’t “apply to” me merely because I am a writer. Birth is not an act that I perform or am responsible for, so being born in an area shouldn’t make that institution “apply to” me in a morally significant way.

One must consent or accept benefits or something along those lines in order for the institution to “apply to” me in a morally significant way. The acts that a citizen must perform in order to have the institution “apply” to him in this stronger sense are ones which would generate obligations anyways (under consent or fair play theories, coming up next). What if we tried to get rid of the “application” clause in Rawls’s natural duty of justice? Then we would be obligated to comply with and support every just institution, wherever it exists – an implausible demand, to be sure, and one which violates the particularity principle.


The Principle of Fair Play

The principle of fair play suggests that the beneficiary of some kind of scheme has a moral obligation to do his “fair share” to shoulder the burden of the scheme. Others who have cooperated in this scheme have a right to the beneficiary’s submission to the rules.

Obligations stemming from this principle can arise when the following conditions hold (Simmons):

  1. There must be an active scheme of social cooperation.
  2. Cooperation under the scheme involves at least a restriction of one’s liberty.
  3. The benefits yielded from the scheme can be, at least in some cases, enjoyed by someone who does not cooperate (related to public goods/free rider problem).

Under this conception of obligations, citizens are considered to stand in a cooperative relationship with their fellow citizens rather than in an adversarial relationship with their government (as consent theories seem to suggest). This sentiment might be reflected in some common statements that people will make, such as “we are the government.”

In order to assess this argument, we must draw a distinction between merely receiving benefits and accepting benefits. To accept a benefit, one must have wanted it when it was received, or have made an effort to get the benefit, or at least not have actively attempted to avoid getting it. This is the difference between you sneaking onto my lawn while I’m away and mowing it (I receive a benefit), or asking me if you could come by to mow my lawn (I accept a benefit). It would be silly to claim that I “accept” the benefit of you mowing my lawn if you did it while I was completely unaware. And it would also fly against our intuitions to say that we owe this phantom lawn-mower for their services provided. What if I were growing it out for some reason?

With this distinction in mind, we have the choice of saying that the principle of fair play applies to either all beneficiaries of a scheme, or merely all of those who have accepted the benefits of that scheme. Is it enough for someone to have merely received the benefit? Robert Nozick, in “Anarchy, State, and Utopia” provides a thought experiment that convincingly demonstrates that receiving a benefit is not sufficient to bind someone under considerations of fair play.

“Suppose some of the people in your neighborhood (there are 364 other adults) have found a public address system and decide to institute a system of public entertainment. They post a list of names, one for each day, yours among them. On his assigned day (one can easily switch days) a person is to run the public address system, play records over it, give news bulletins, tell amusing stories he has heard, and so on. After 138 days on which each person has done his part, your day arrives. Are you obligated to take your turn? You have benefited from it, occasionally opening your window to listen, enjoying some music or chuckling at someone’s funny story. The other people have put themselves out. But must you answer the call when it is your turn to do so? As it stands, surely not. Though you benefit from the arrangement, you may know all along that 364 days of entertainment supplied by others will not be worth your giving up one day. You would rather not have any of it and not give up a day than have it all and spend one of your days at it. Given these preferences, how can it be that you are required to participate when your scheduled time comes? It would be nice to have philosophy readings on the radio to which one could tune in at any time, perhaps late at night when tired. But it may not be nice enough for you to want to give up one whole day of your own as a reader on the program. Whatever you want, can others create an obligation for you to do so by going ahead and starting the program themselves? In this case you can choose to forgo the benefit by not turning on the radio; in other cases the benefits may be unavoidable. If each day a different person on your street sweeps the entire street, must you do so when your time comes? Even if you don’t care that much about a clean street? Must you imagine dirt as you traverse the street, so as not to benefit as a free rider? Must you refrain from turning on the radio to hear the philosophy readings? Must you mow your front lawn as often as your neighbors mow theirs?”

We conclude that in order to have obligations derived from fair play, one must accept the benefits of the scheme, and not merely receive the benefits. I’ll come back to this in a moment.

It also appears that considerations of fair play would only arise if the beneficiary is also a participant in the cooperative scheme (for instance, Canadians benefit from the rule of law that the American government provides, but they are not obligated to pay US taxes). To be a participant, one must a) pledge support or tacitly agree to be governed by the scheme’s rules, or b) play an active role in the scheme after it is instituted.

In other words, fair play would only bind “insiders” of the scheme. This means that it would only bind those who have already become bound to do their part as “insiders,” leading the principle of fair play to collapse into a theory of consent. But this critique no longer holds once we define a participant as someone who has agreed to accept benefits. One can accept benefits from a scheme without signaling consent, and this would still make that person a participant (“Yes, I’m accepting the benefits of government, but I will NOT pay for it! It is a terrible idea!”). Thus, the theory no longer collapses into consent theory. Bummer.

Let’s return to the idea of accepting benefits. Benefits that we actively resist getting, we get unknowingly, or in ways in which we had no control, appear to be benefits that we did not accept. To accept the benefit, we must have tried (and succeeded) to get the benefit or taken the benefit willingly and knowingly. We cannot regard the benefits as having been forced upon us against our will or think that they were not worth the price we must pay for them. Let us define an “open” benefit as one that cannot be avoided without a change in lifestyle, such as the PA system example that Nozick provides (we can contrast this with “readily available” benefits that can be obtained easily, but require some kind of action to benefit from). In the case of open benefits in a cooperative scheme, in order to be considered to have “accepted” the benefits, one must have understood that the benefits were provided by the scheme itself (as opposed to just being free for the taking, entitlements, etc.).

Most benefits of government are “open,” and thus it is difficult to see how anyone has really accepted them. Many citizens likely don’t believe that the benefits that they receive are worth the price they must pay. Most people don’t think it is worth it to buy loads of bombs and get involved in wars, to pay for police to fight the “drug war,” or otherwise spend money interfering in peoples’ personal lives. And most people regard these benefits not as something arising from the cooperative effort of their fellow citizens, but rather as something that they have “purchased” from the government with their taxes. As Simmons says,

“Even among the thoughtful and “morally aware”, it must be a rare individual who regards himself as engaged in an ongoing cooperative venture, obeying the law because fair play demands it, and with all of the citizens of his state as fellow participants.”

As such, the principle of fair play cannot generate political obligations for the majority of individuals, and is thus not a sufficiently general principle of political obligation. But before moving on to the next theory, we should take a moment to reflect on our intuitions regarding fair play.

As a thought experiment (Simmons provides this example), imagine that homeowners in a given area create a scheme to have everyone maintain their own yards during the week and do some yard work in the communal areas on weekends. Two individuals, Oscar and Willie, refuse to partake in this scheme. Oscar hates clean yards, so he isn’t really benefiting from the scheme. The residents in that area don’t feel like he is freeloading (though they would prefer he leave the community), because he is not benefitting from the arrangement at all.

Willie, on the other hand, does like well-kept yards. But he would prefer to live in an ugly neighborhood than to spend his weekend cleaning. The rest of the residents feel that Willie is obligated to help and that he is not fulfilling these obligations.

scared of those who believe in authority

But then there is Sam, a businessman who comes into the neighborhood for much of the week and benefits just as much from the scheme as Willie does, but also does not contribute. Anyone who would accuse Sam of avoiding obligations would be laughed at. But neither Willie nor Sam has accepted the benefits or made any sort of commitment to the yard-cleaning scheme – they appear to be in largely the same position relative to the scheme. So why is Willie accused of failing to discharge his obligations while Sam is not?

The answer is that peoples’ intuitions about Willie are wrong. Sorry guys. We are born into our political communities (or schemes, as I’ve been calling them), which seems qualitatively the same as having the scheme built up around you, as in the examples of Willie and the PA system.


The Principle of Gratitude

Perhaps political obligations are generated from the receipt (and not necessarily acceptance) of benefits of government due to the principle of gratitude, which stipulates that we repay our benefactors. This principle might apply, for instance, to say that we owe our parents because of the benefits they have provided us.

For starters, it is an open question whether or not considerations of gratitude are relevant to moral theory at all. The triviality of most potential debts of gratitude makes it seem as though it would fall under etiquette rather than morality. Nevertheless, let us consider the possibility that debts of gratitude could be morally significant.

There are at least five necessary conditions for an obligation of gratitude to be generated. These conditions are necessary, but likely not sufficient.

  1. The benefit must be granted by means of some effort or sacrifice. If someone benefits us by merely going about their business-as-usual, it is difficult to see how any kind of special debt would be generated.
  2. The benefit must not be given unintentionally, involuntarily, or for any other disqualifying reasons (selfishness, for instance).
  3. The benefit must not be forced (unjustifiably) against the beneficiary’s will.
  4. The beneficiary must want the benefit, or the beneficiary would want the benefit if certain impairing conditions were corrected (for instance, if the person were not drunk).
  5. The beneficiary must not want the benefit not to be provided by the benefactor (they would want the benefits to come from someone else), or the beneficiary wouldn’t feel this way if impairing conditions were corrected.

Let’s say that all of these conditions (and any other necessary conditions) were satisfied with respect to the benefits we receive from government. Even in the case where we are bound by a debt of gratitude to our government, this would not imply that we ought to obey the government, since other countervailing considerations could predominate in that moral deliberation.

Darth Vader not guilty

But political obligation requires a very specific kind of “payment” to the government. Namely, it requires obedience. But while obedience to the law and support for government institutions are one way of discharging a debt of gratitude, they are not the only way. And even if a debt of gratitude required fulfilling a particular need of the benefactor (obedience is something the state needs to exist), this does not mean we must do everything in our power to fulfill this need. Obeying the law most of the time would fulfill this need, so we don’t need to obey the law all the time. But it also isn’t clear why a benefactor having a particular need implies that the beneficiary must fulfill this need in the first place. Therefore, the best that the principle of gratitude can do is to require that citizens do something for their governments, but that something is not the same as a political obligation. It could just mean that we are morally required to say “thank you” to politicians.

But it is also clear that the necessary conditions above are not met by our relationship with our government. For starters, a citizen who honestly claims that he did not want the benefits that government provided, or that he didn’t want to receive them from his government, would have no political obligations under the gratitude account.

Furthermore, condition (1) fails because the government is hardly making any sacrifice or effort on my behalf. The marginal cost of providing me benefits must be negligible. And the state’s money comes from tax revenue (other citizens), so it is not really sacrificing at all. Additionally, condition (2) fails because government rarely if ever has the proper motivations that a debt of gratitude would require. Even in the best states, so much of the benefit that is received is about vote-buying, dispensing political favors, and so on.

We are forced to conclude that the principle of gratitude is unable to generate political obligations.



The arguments presented in this essay demonstrate that the most significant accounts of political obligations ultimately fail to accomplish what their proponents want. How can we reconcile this with the clear empirical fact that the majority of people seem to believe that political obligations do in fact exist? Popular opinion would seem to provide at least prima facie evidence that political obligations exist. For the majority of people to be wrong, a cognitive malfunction with the same end result must occur in a large percentage of people. Can we identify a systemic bias that would lead to the vast majority of individuals to draw the wrong conclusions about political obligations?

It seems to me that we can. Numerous psychological principles would tend to steer many individuals in this direction. For instance, the Milgram experiment showed that people are far more likely to obey perceived authority figures than they would have thought, and certainly more than could be thought justified. Obedient subjects rationalized their behavior as “just following orders.” In this experiment, psychologically healthy individuals administered fake electric shocks to someone, despite that person complaining of a heart condition, crying out in pain, and eventually becoming nonresponsive. All it took was for someone in a lab coat to tell them that they should continue administering shocks. Despite showing signs of anxiety and resistance, a full 65% of subjects completed the experiment, thinking they were sending 450 volts of electricity through a presumably lifeless or unconscious body.

People also tend to adjust their beliefs and values in order to make their own choices appear better and deal with the “cognitive dissonance” that arises from acting in ways that are inconsistent with their beliefs. And since we generally obey governments, pay taxes, etc., we may rationalize this action by appealing to political authority. It is nicer to imagine that we are caring and conscientious people who are just doing our duty in society than it is to imagine we are authorizing coercion on our behalf.

There is also the “status quo bias”, where individuals tend to consider any change from a baseline state (the status quo) to be a loss. This creates a tendency to imagine that what our society practices must be true and good.

Finally, a citizen’s relationship with his state fulfills the conditions that psychologists have shown to cause Stockholm Syndrome, where captives develop an attachment or even love for their captors. This is a defensive mechanism that may have survival value in extreme situations, and it might partly explain our acceptance of state power or even generate a certain love and attachment to the state. This issue deserves further exploration, but as I have written about it before, I will leave it at that for now.

Your confidence in your beliefs is too damn high!

Together, these systemic biases can explain the popular support for the idea of political authority, and this support does not provide additional evidence that political authority exists. Even if all governments are illegitimate and political obligations don’t exist, it is quite likely that we would still feel as though they were and do.

A lack of political authority means that we are not obligated to obey the law merely because it is the law (we have other moral reasons not to murder or steal, though), and that agents of the state are not morally entitled to coerce citizens in ways that private citizens are morally prohibited from doing. I’ll close with a great summary from Huemer:

“For any coercive act by the state, we should first ask what reason the state has for exercising coercion in this way. We should then consider whether a private individual or organization would be justified in exercising a similar kind and degree of coercion, with similar effects on the victims, for similar reasons. If the answer is no, then coercion by the state is not justified either.”


  1. Samuel Spade says:

    First, I’m truly happy to see you once again editing at STR.

    Second — and as usual — this treatise on “political philosophy” is exceeding long. So much so that I can’t get through it in one sitting. But I’ll make one glaring observation regarding Huemer: he has the bad habit of interchanging “citizens” with “individuals” — which rather negates his presentation before he gets it underway. Citizen(s) [to me] is a collectivist term. Individual(s) is not.

    Third: Throughout, Huemer uses reification, which nullifies critical thinking. “The State” cannot “exercise coercion” — the state IS coercion. Only individuals (psychopaths hiding under the mantle of “state”) can exercise coercion.

    Once again, it’s nice to see you again! I’m old (81), inundated with information overload; and tend not to go to various sites not heavy in discussion forums. Sam

    • Thanks Sam! I was just filling in for a day on STR. I just started grad school a few months ago, and sadly I’ve had to push just about everything besides thoughts of cybersecurity out of my life. Hopefully I can edit more frequently, but there are only so many hours in a week…

      That’s an interesting observation regarding citizens vs individuals – I didn’t notice that while reading, but good point. As for reification – I haven’t really thought much of it, and should probably be more careful not to fall into that in my own thinking.

  2. Absoluterights@gmail.com says:

    American governments are organizations that conquer and control territory&people.
    They have given themselves the power to take whatever they want, and have no duty to provide anything in return.
    You have no moral duty to obey them, only a legal duty to obey them.
    Learn civics.

  3. Thanks for this well written piece. That so few U.K. citizens care about the ensuing horrors about to be unleashed by the fracking industry suggests that they feel that opposers are merely scaremongers – that the government wouldn’t allow it if it was as bad. The public never seem to learn that governments are their greatest abusers. Most people refuse to waste their time Googling the issue.
    Again, in the UK, the government responsible for the impending Brexit catastrophe is still in power. In fact its ratings are high. Not even the recently passed Snoopers’ Charter seems to have troubled most people.
    I think we have a moral obligation to resist governments. Their incompetence and greed are a constant source of misery and destruction.

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