A Limited Political Obligation

Frank, Nicolas, Philosophy - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Simmons, A. John, Department of Philosophy, University of Virginia

This work is about political obligation. More accurately, it is about the duty to obey the law along with its implications for and relations to other rights and duties that exist between states and their subjects. I begin with the observation that the question whether we have said enough about political obligation is equally as likely followed by one of two further questions. Some may ask, “Hasn’t it been shown that all our traditional moral bases fail to support any actual political obligation to one’s own state?” While others will complain, “Shouldn’t we at some point look to those bases that have survived decades (or millennia!) of scrutiny as at least plausible supports for political obligation and ignore lingering skeptical doubts about it?” The fact that such questions may be asked is of merely empirical significance, but the labyrinth of philosophical concepts and arguments from which they are born offers us a source for renewed, continuing and revisionary discussion about political obligation.
I pick out two threads in traditional discussions of political obligation—consent and natural duty, which offer versions of voluntaristic and nonvoluntaristic sources of obligation respectively. I do this for two reasons. First, these moral sources of obligation have shaped and inspired defense and criticism that influences a great number of political theories. The incredibly influential social contract tradition utilizes these features in ways that have brought them to the forefront of discussions of political obligation. They are easily among the most important types of purported moral sources of political authority. Second, the focus of my project is an attempt to understand the ways in which we might navigate our way past the biggest problems for theories based on these two moral sources. As such, it is inescapably focused on the reasons why consent and natural duty have been seen to fail as sources of political obligation.
It is no surprise that in the face of incorrigible problems for accounts that rely on traditional moral sources of political obligation, there have arisen new and creative uses of them as well as interesting alternatives that stand in some relation to them. The first half of my dissertation is devoted to addressing some of these new or evolving accounts of political obligation—normative consent, fair play and some recent Kantian accounts. My goal is two-fold—to criticize these accounts as susceptible to new or enduring problems and to glean from them lessons about how and to what extent we are capable of using the tools they use. Perhaps we need to rethink our conceptions of authority and examine to what extent traditional bases can give us something in the way of political obligation. With the tools gained from a look at recent accounts of political obligation, I develop my own account.
I describe and defend what I call a natural duty fairness account of limited political obligation. It combines natural duty and fairness in a novel way that is born out of problems for traditional fair play accounts. One development of fair play emphasizes the importance of goods produced by cooperative schemes, but we are left wondering whether the importance of goods entails that we ought to contribute to producing them (they are morally important) or whether we should participate in the scheme just because we are presumed to want them (they are important to us). Either case requires greater explanation. I explore the ways in which morally important goods might create a duty to obey the law, even if limited.
Two purported essential features of authority are that it entails an obligation to obey the law (within the constraints of justice) because it is the law and regardless of what the law says (content-independence) and the authority of the state covers a wide range of human activities (comprehensiveness). Though the limited political obligation that results requires us to abandon traditional ideas of comprehensiveness, those ideas are not as important as we might have thought. In addition, my view retains an important sense of content-independence. It also escapes the most damaging criticisms that have been leveled at other natural duty accounts, such as the “particularity” and “boundary” problems. In short, natural duty fairness provides a basis for a limited political obligation that is strong enough to capture our considered judgments about the rights of the state without granting it too much.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
political obligation, duty to obey the law, normative consent, consent, natural duty, provisional right, fair play, fairness, particularity problem, boundary problem, political authority, Kant, Locke
All rights reserved (no additional license for public reuse)
Issued Date: