A useful technique in thinking about a philosophical issue is to try to identify what we "pre-theoretically" believe about the subject at hand and see if any theory can account for these beliefs.  If no theory can, then among our options are to discard one or more of these beliefs and see which theory survives, or to become "skeptics" about the subject at hand.

In teaching political philosophy recently, I found this technique valuable as a way of evaluating competing theories of political obligation, i.e., theories about why we ought to support the state by obeying its laws, etc. I’d be curious to know if the pre-theoretical beliefs enumerated below accurately capture our (your) pre-theoretical understanding of our obligations to the state, and if so, whether any theory could actually vindicate all these beliefs.

So an adequate theory of political obligation should explain

[1] how states of a certain kind (I’ll call these L-states from here on) are legitimate. I.e., L-states rightfully exercise  authority to make law and enforce it by means of coercion (with respect to certain people and not others obviously). This is where most of the philosophical debates about political obligation focus. Some theories invoke consent (whether explicit or tacit), others gratitude, a natural duty of justice, fair play, etc.

[2] how L-states give those individuals who are obligated to obey their laws moral (not just prudential) reasons to obey.  I.e., there exists a prima facie, but not necessarily all things considered, moral reason to obey the state, and those who disobey it are righly subject to moral criticism.

[3] that L-states’ authority is at least to some extent content-independent.  I.e., L-states are to be obeyed not because of what their laws require but because L-states are legitimate authorities.

[4] that obligation to L-states is exclusive: No one individual is (equally) obligated to obey two or more L-states simultaneously. (Some theories, such as Hobbes’, meet this requirement by arguing that for any individual, there is only one possible state that is an L-state for that individual.)

[5] that L-states’ authority roughly corresponds to their region of geographic sovereignty. So those who are obligated to a given state dwell (for the most part) within the boundaries of that state’s geographic territory. (There are complications here, for example, being obligated to pay taxes to the state one is a citizen of even when residing and working in another state.)

[6] that aliens (visitors, immigrants, etc.) within L-states are (at least to some extent) obligated to obey L-states. Aliens don’t have the same obligations to the state that citizens do, but they at least have the obligation to, say, obey that state’s criminal code.

[7] that political obligation is owed to L-states and not to particular governments of states. This is something like an identity condition through time: Even though particular governments (who the legislature, chief executive, etc. are) come and go, so long as a successor government of an L-state comes to power through just means, then the obligations owed to the earlier government transfer to the latter, since the latter is a successor to a legitimate state.

In pondering this list, I’m increasingly inclined toward skepticism, thinking that no state can explain all seven features of political obligation. Am I right?

31 Replies to “What a theory of political obligation should explain

  1. What about the divine right theory? The only item on your list that maybe falls outside of divine right theory is #7, but even that is accommodated because under the DRT, particular monarchs come and go, but provided the (hereditary) succession is observed, obligations transfer to the new monarch. But DRT has an account for all of the others.
    Similarly, it seems to me that a theory of political obligation holding that a state’s legitimacy originates only from the unanimous consent of the governed satisfies all 7 of your conditions, because in that case, all political obligations are essentially promises (hence failing to obey the laws becomes equivalent to promise-breaking, which is typically considered not just prudentially but morally bad, thus satisfying #2, which is probably the hardest one on your list). Such a view might fail #4, but not necessarily. I am not sure whether Hobbes’ view counts as one of these.

  2. Michael,
    Depending of course on how I’m supposed to read it, it’s hard to see how (3) might meet anyone’s pre-theoretical intuitions on political obligation. Here’s your (3),
    [3] that L-states’ authority is at least to some extent content-independent. I.e., L-states are to be obeyed not because of what their laws require but because L-states are legitimate authorities.
    Almost everyone will insist (no?) that legal rules must be morally acceptable in order to qualify as laws. Everyone, that is, except legal positivists. And legal positivism does not seem especially intuitive and so not a position that anyone would pre-theoretically hold. But (I don’t know) maybe you’ve run across students whose intuitions are positivist in this way.

  3. On DRT: Well, I think many would have serious doubts about DRT meeting [1], [2] and [3]: With respect to [1], the worries are epistemological (how do we know a given ruler enjoys divine right?). The worry about [2] would likely be that if the reason not to disobey the sovereign is because you fear the wrath of the God who designated him the sovereign, you don’t have a *moral* reason to obey that sovereign. [3] might be vulnerable to Euthyphro dilemma-type arguments. And in general, DRT violates what I call the ‘frying pan’ principle: Appeals to divine right require you to defend a whole bunch of controversial stuff (that God exists, etc.), stuff that’s more controversial than what you’re invoking it in order to defend (that you should obey the state.)
    Mike: A couple of points on [3]. I don’t think [3] affirms positivism, since positivism is a view about the nature of law (namely, that a norm is a law if certain social facts are true about that norm), not its justness. Some (notably Dworkin) think that a norm is disqualified to be a law if it does not have morally appropriate content, but one can affirm the positivist view of the nature of law while holding that the law is still subject to moral appraisal.
    I don’t have any hard data to support [3] as a criterion, but I suspect that many people do think that if there’s a duty to obey the law, it’s grounded in the idea that the state is an *authority*, and it’s the state’s authority that gives an independent moral reason (independent of the merits of the state’s laws) to obey the law.
    In some cases, this might be a weak or redundant reason: I have good moral reasons not to murder, and the state’s making it illegal doesn’t seem to add much to my reasons not to murder. But it is a common claim in the literature on political obligation that in order for the obligation to be “political,” the obligation must stem from the fact that the state forbids a certain behavior. Now I doubt many people think that the state’s authority requires you to obey every law a state might promulgate, but that raises questions as to where to draw the line between the ones that should and the ones that should not be obeyed. If it’s a matter of their content, then we’re giving up on [3] (which might then raise problems in connection with [4]).

  4. Mike,
    But surely most people’s pre-theoretical intuitions do hold that, as Michael writes, L-states’ authority is at least to some extent content-independent. The “at least to some extent” is important for the reason you suggest: a legal rule may have to meet the condition of not being morally unacceptable in order to qualify as a valid, reason-generating law. But most people will think that, so long as a legal rule does meet this condition, it will generate reasons for people to obey it even if the behavior it dictates is not otherwise required by morality. In this case, the ‘it must meet conditions of moral acceptability’ criterion functions as a background qualifying condition, so that it is not incorrect to say that laws ought to be followed because they are endorsed by legitimate authorities (just as it is not incorrect to say that the match lit because it was struck, even though it would not have lit had the background condition ‘there must be oxygen in the room’ not been met).

  5. Re: whether DRT is ruled out by the first 3 conditions…
    I don’t think DRT suffers from [1] any more than competing theories would. As the 2000 U.S. election showed, when sufficiently large numbers of voters are involved and the election is close, there are epistemological concerns that really can’t be dealt with regarding who won. I definitely don’t see the same problem with DRT — the answer to your question is “We know the sovereign rules by divine right because the Pope said so.” How is this more problematic than “We know the state is legitimate because a bunch of people signed a document to that effect a couple of hundred years ago”?
    With regard to [2], are you saying that any theory of obligation that includes penalties for violating laws necessarily fails [2]? Surely not?
    In regards to a DRT’s #3 being vulnerable to Euthyphro-style arguments, I would say more or less the same thing you said to Mike Almeida. If we take the “God loves what is good because it is good” horn of the dilemma, then we give up on #3.
    Finally, are you really sure that most people’s pre-theoretical beliefs hold that God’s existence is more controversial than the obligation to obey the state? I would have thought precisely the opposite.

  6. Before addressing whether I think 1-7 are intuitive, I want to distinguish two understandings of items 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, and 7. All of these speak of one’s obligation to obey states or the right of states to make and enforce law.
    On the first interpretation, item 3 is taken as restricting the interpretation of all the other items: that is, when one speaks of obligation to obey the state in the other items, one means something like an obligation to act in a certain way *because* the L-state said so, rather than, say, because the action in question is independently right. I think this is what you (M Cholbi) intend. If that’s right, then all of the items strike me as false. No doubt I’m idiosyncratic. Still, I think this is a pretheoretical intuition on my part. I don’t think I was ever inclined to think that anyone had an obligation to do something merely because the government told them to (even before I was philosophically trained). Nor (apropos of #1) does it seem to me that the government has some special right to tell other people what to do. I can’t imagine why either of those things would be the case.
    On the other hand, if the obligation discussed in items 2 and 4-7 is not restricted by #3, then it’s easy to see that we are obligated to obey almost all of the salient, paradigmatic laws (laws against theft, murder, assault, fraud; but I don’t include more recherche things like insider trading, whose status I find non-obvious).
    I believe an error theory of political obligation is best. A good error theory may cite a number of factors to explain the false appearance that political obligation (as understood in item 3) exists. Here are some possible factors:
    a. People in general have a strong instinctive drive to obey and even identify with those who have power. It is easy to see why this would have evolutionary survival value. And there is plenty of psychological evidence that people have this drive even in cases in which it is entirely uncontroversial that obedience to the person in power is wrong. (I’m thinking of things like the Milgram experiment, and the Stockholm syndrome.)
    b. Also, most of the laws that people readily think of prohibit things that are really wrong (murder, rape, etc.) So it’s easy for people to acquire an association between morality and law.
    c. There are also strong prudential reasons for obeying most laws, most of the time, and people may sometimes confuse prudential with moral reasons. Apropos of this, parents teach children what is wrong by punishing them for doing the wrong things.
    Now, items a-c may seem too intellectually unsophisticated to explain the beliefs of intelligent, sophisticated political theorists. But they aren’t too unsophisticated to explain how children might form their attitudes, and it is during childhood that many of our intuitions are formed. When we grow older, rather than changing these intuitions, we may decide that good philosophical methodology is to devise some clever, sophisticated theories to rationalize these intuitions whose source we can’t directly apprehend.

  7. Thanks MikeC/Troy,
    There seem to be a few ways to read (3) and I was probably reading it as implying (L).
    L. If an L-state promulgates legal rule R, then R is a law.
    Since (L) is entirely content-independent and it is somewhat content-independent. But that is probably too strong a reading (maybe way too strong). For instance, maybe promulgation plus moral acceptability are sufficient for law, but not promulgation alone.
    But it is an interesting question why the legitimate authority of the state (granting that a state might acquire that authority, say, through consent) would not confer *some* moral force on the rules they promulgate. Denying the moral force of promulgated rules entirely seems close to denying the legitimacy of state authority. But could that authority confer some moral force on a rule that is, by content, fully immoral? I’m not sure that idea is incoherent.

  8. I’m actually inclined to be quite sympathetic to the sort of error theory of political obligation that Michael Huemer describes. At the very least, I think, that authority-based reasons to obey laws are almost always weak and fairly easy to override.
    Still, many will find it plausible to think a consequentialist account can justify the claim that there is at least some such reason. Consider the law that says ‘drive on the right hand side.’ It’s obvious that the law might just as well have told us to drive on the left – right-driving isn’t inherently any more moral than left-driving. But as a group we need to coordinate, and coordinating (by dictating laws, even partially arbitrary laws like this one) is one of the main functions of government.
    On the other hand, the error theorist could reply as follows: If you drive on the left, you are far more likely to hurt someone (since others will be driving on the right); and that is the source of the reason to drive on the right, not the authority of the government. (The fact that others will be driving on the right is itself explained, of course, by the fact that the government has commanded such behavior; but its being the explanation in this sense does not make it the source of the reason – indeed, it is the government’s being perceived as a legitimate authority, rather than its actually being a legitimate authority, that plays the explanatory role.) But I’m not sure that this reply is successful, since it seems ill-equipped to explain how we as a group have any reason to drive right rather than left. Given that other members of the group decide to obey the law, I also have reason to do so; but I seem to have no such reason unless the other members of my group do so decide – and they, of course, are in the same position as I am. (If we all decided to do the opposite of what the law says, we’d be just as well off.)
    Assuming the error theorist’s objection is not successful, this consequentialist account can, I think, meet all 7 of Michael C’s suggested criteria. Of course, the account it provides of legitimacy is a fairly thin one. In murder-type cases, legitimacy derives from the fact that the law forbids us to do what is forbidden by morality anyway. In driving-on-the-right-type cases, calling the government ‘legitimate’ simply means that we have decided to follow the practice it suggests rather than some other (since what really matters is simply that we all choose the same way). And there will surely be many cases where our ‘obligations’ to obey the rules of our own political community will be outweighed by competing moral considerations (so that condition [4], for instance, should not be taken to imply any strong claims regarding loyalty—that there is always reason for me to obey my government when it tells me to go off and kill citizens of some other country, for instance). Thus, it will surely not capture the strength of political obligations as perceived by the majority of the public. But it shouldn’t: in this respect, I think that Michael H’s error theory is correct.

  9. Troy,
    I’m not sure that one needs to explain why we as a group have reason to drive on the right rather than on the left.
    – I’m not sure I understand the idea, given that it would be just as good if we as a group drove on the left. Imagine a case in which everyone drove on the left side, even though the law said to drive on the right. In that case, an individual would have no obligation to obey the law. Furthermore, it doesn’t strike me that there would be a reason for the whole group to switch to driving on the right. (There would be a reason for lawmakers to change the law, though.)
    – Also, it seems that you are positing group obligations over and above individual obligations. I don’t believe in group obligations (or even practical reasons), because I think obligations and reasons only apply to agents. I don’t think a group is literally an agent: it doesn’t have beliefs, desires, or intentions, in the sense in which a person has these things. We talk about groups having beliefs and desires, but this involves a sort of extended, perhaps even metaphorical sense of “believe” and “desire”–“the department wanted to hire an ethicist” really says something about the desires of the people who were members of the department. The department itself didn’t literally have its own mental states.

  10. Michael,
    that last point is interesting. I’m quite torn about the issue. Philip Pettit at least is seriously arguing that groups can be agents in some non-derivative sense and that they can be even responsible for their actions in way that does not just mean that this responsibility is reducible to the responsibility the individuals have in the group.
    I guess the standard way for arguing for this is to think of the mental states you mention not as phenomenological states but rather as psychological states (in Chalmers’ terms) for which functionalistic accounts can be given. In this sense a complicated groups, institutions or states, can have beliefs, desires, values, and intentions no individual in the group has, and these states can be used in ‘the program explanations’ for the ‘acts’ of the group.
    If this is right, then there in principle could be also obligations and reasons for the groups and groups could also have reason-responsive mechanisms which are not reducible to individual reflection. Pettit makes a lot use of different kinds of voting procedures here.
    Anyway, I’m still unsure about what to make of this and it doesn’t look like a good way to argue for political obligations anyway.

  11. I think the way I put my point, when I talked about our obligations as a group, was a bit misleading – I’m not really interested in group obligations here.
    Let me try to explain more precisely. Suppose my street constitutes a political community, that 20 people live on it, that all of us are consequentialists, and that all of us are rational. Each of us has reason to prefer a state of affairs in which all of us drive on the same side of the road (whether left or right), and so has some reason to bring such a state of affairs about. So we hold a meeting and appoint a governor and the governor decides that we will henceforth all drive on the left. Now, do I have reason to drive on the left? I do, if I think that the others will. But since the others are rational, they only will if they think they have reason to. But if I can’t answer the question of whether I have reason to (without knowing whether the others will, which depends on whether they think they have reason to) how can they answer the question of whether they have reason to?
    So if we are rational, and don’t believe in the reason-generating power of authority (i.e. don’t believe that the fact that the governor has directed us to drive on the right gives us reason to do so), we are trapped in an impasse: we have no reason to drive on the right. And perhaps (I’m not at all certain about this, but what the hell) this gives us an argument that it is (prudentially) rational to believe in the reason-generating power of authority – or at least to act as if one does.
    Again, this is hardly a defense of political obligations as traditionally conceived (it seems to have nothing to do with loyalty, for instance). But it might give a person a way to argue that there is at least a sense in which people have some reason to obey the (morally permissible) dictates of legitimate authorities – a reason that does not reduce (not directly, anyway) to a consequentialist one.

  12. Troy, you tentatively suggest this,
    “And perhaps . . . this gives us an argument that it is (prudentially) rational to believe in the reason-generating power of authority – or at least to act as if one does.”
    Actually, I have on balance good prudential reason to believe in the reason-generating power of authority only if I have on balance good reason to believe that all (or most) others will adhere to the dictates of the governor. So we’ve got the same problem we began with.
    Think of it this way. Suppose I have a compliance medication that will cause me to comply with the dictates of the governor regarding whether I should drive on the left or right side. (Make all the needed stipulations on the drug, it has no other side effects, etc.). Should I take it and comply? Assuming I will not comply unless I take it, I should take it and comply only if I know others will be taking their vials too. But of course each should take theirs (assuming again that they otherwise won’t comply) only if they know that all others will be taking theirs. So we have the same problem as the one we started with.
    One way you can make it rational to comply is by electing a governor that has the authority to coerce compliance: viz., some heavy Hobbesian hands.

  13. Never shocked at how quickly the comments accumulate …
    Mike (Almeida): I think you’re raising the basic question of how to reconcile [2] and [3]. As you note, once we impose some sort of criterion of minimal moral acceptability on the laws we are obligated to obey, we do seem to be denying the state’s authority (or at least placing limits on the scope of its authority). Traditional theories of political obligation expend so much effort on the legitimacy question because it seems that only if the state is a legitimate authority can we make sense of the state’s promulgating laws that we have (some) moral reason to obey regardless of their content. (Compare the parent who answers complaints from her children with “because I said so.” Does this reflect her authority to make and enforce these rules or the independent wisdom or justice of those rules?)
    Michael H: Thanks for the interpretive clarification. I suspect that [3] is usually put forth as a constraint on the other six. As for your own intuitions, I suspect that philosophers have a much more sophisticated sense of justification than others do. An error theory is an intriguing suggestion. I’m struck by how similar it is to philosophical anarchism, which denies the existence of political obligation. Like you, they are glad to admit that there are moral (and prudential) reasons for obeying particular laws, just no reason derving from the fact that the law was promulgated by the state. (Many philosophical anarchists arrive at their position by denying that any state meets [1].) What’s funny is that much of the dialectic about error theories in ethics gets replicated in discussions of philosophical anarchism. For example, some anarchists believe that the widespread acceptance of political obligation is an artifact of false consciousness and should be exposed as such and discarded. Other anarchists believe there’s value in the widespread (false) belief in political obligation and that it would be better if philosophical anarchism remained an esoteric intellectual doctrine. Sound familiar?
    Troy: In a way, your consequentialist position sounds like a version of consent theory, since the block’s occupants appoint an authority. Do they invest that governor with authority? If it’s not a version of a consent theory, then it seems to me weak enough not to give us a robust account of political candidate. You seem to concede that it doesn’t meet [2], since the reasons to obey the authorities are only prudential. And I think more would need to be said to see how such a position would satsify [4]-[7].
    ASG: I don’t see DRT as a having many advantages over its theoretical rivals. Again, you’d have to defend some awfully controversial things, most notably, theism and (probably) the metaphysical non-naturalism needed to make sense of theism. I’m not aiming to defend consent theory, but pieces of paper, human beings, ink, etc. uncontroversially exist. God’s existence, along with claims about God’s decrees, wishes, etc. are a good deal more controversial.
    And no, I don’t mean that any theory that establishes punishments for unlawful behavior violates [2]. But DRT owes an explanation of what *moral* reason we have to obey the soevereign (allegedly) designated by God to rule us. It can’t just be self-interest that counts as a reason (I’m distinguishing reasons from motives here). In general, I’d say DRT’s answer is a non-answer, an answer that simply backs us up a step: Why are we obligated to obey God? Or, what makes God an authority? (That’s really the main claim, isn’t it — that the sovereign’s authority derives from divine authority?) If that’s due to, say, God’s wisdom, then Euthyphro-type problems beckon. Other accounts (for example, that we owe obedience in gratitude for God’s having created us) may turn out to be other theories of political obligation in disguise — and those theories are hardly without their problems!

  14. I’ve been puzzled with this challenge since the original post, and tried to go through the political philosophy lessons in my mind. Call me naive, but I really do want to defend that there are at least some prima facie polical obligations to follow the law, even though many of the arguments that try to establish such have well-known gaps. I do not actually think that the issue of not obligating evil laws is a problem for thinking that there are political obligations. One could try to think of the evil content of such laws as disabling conditions for the obligations.
    First, I think the driving on the left/right case can be pushed further along familiar social contract/fairness lines. We enjoy the public goods provided by the general obidience of the law, we take part in genereting the law by voting, and sometimes we even choose to live in the given country (and would have alternatives to do otherwise). Maybe this goes towards our tacit consent for the law, and this consent can generate (moral) reasons for obeying the law that go beyond the first-order moral reasons we already in many cases would have.
    Second, I think there is even more ambitious argument to be made in the same direction. This may be old-fashioned wishful thinking but I would at least like to believe that there are some good arguments in the direction that the fact that laws are created by a fair, and free democratic process can confer authority to them. We value freedom and autonomy highly (and for good reason), and we value being recognised as beings capable of taking part in shared decisions in our community. Under any other scheme than democracy our freedoms and autonomy would be threatened (including anarchy), and we would not be granted such recognition. So, we do want democracy. I find it hard to fit to this idea not taking the results of the democratic process to be reason-giving and obligating for us. It’s like wanting to have an equal share of the power to rule ourselves without recognising the results. There just is something inconsistant in this. Of course, all of this requires very idealised democratic processes which may not be actually instantiated anywhere, but still… I think I want to go back reading Rousseau.

  15. Jesse,
    You write:
    “Under any other scheme than democracy our freedoms and autonomy would be threatened (including anarchy), and we would not be granted such recognition. So, we do want democracy.”
    But your first claim is not necessarily true: it depends on how people behave. My freedoms and autonomy might be threatened in an anarchic system, if other people choose not to respect them . . . but this is true of any system, of course, including democratic ones. (And democracy, of course, brings along the additional worry that my freedoms and autonomy can be infringed by a majority acting through “legitimate” legislative means.)
    I guess I do “want democracy,” but only because it’s less likely to lead to disaster than other systems – honestly, I can see why one might prefer the well-behaved anarchy, or even the benevolent dictatorship if there were some way to guarantee that the dictator would remain benevolent. But I will strongly deny – as Thoreau denies in his essay on civil disobedience – that the mere fact that a majority has endorsed some rule gives the minority any reason whatsoever (beyond the prudential) to regard it as binding – no matter how ‘democratic’ the endorsement process might have been.

  16. Troy, once you put ‘democractic’ in scare quotes, what you say is a lot more persuasive… But seriously, if the decision-making process merits to be called democractic sans phrase, then it is not the “mere fact that the majority has endorsed the decision” that gives it some normative force. Rather, it is facts like the following: everyone, the minority included, has had a fair chance to present proposals and arguments for them; the deliberators haven’t made their choice in advance of the discussion and for reasons that haven’t been brought up to scrutiny; everyone has understood such rules and undertaken a commitment to respect them and the resulting decision, and so on – plug in your favourite theory of democracy here. Once the process is of such nature, it’s as hard for me as it is for Jussi to see why the view that has come out on top doesn’t have normative force for the minority as well. As long as I’m convinced that my views have received a fair hearing, and the point of the process has been to produce a commitment binding on everybody, I have some reason to go along (though I may of course have a yet stronger reason not to do so, depending on the issue). Granted, this is more likely to be realized in a discussion about which movie to see with a bunch of friends than in a discussion about sanctions for Iran, but that’s to say that democractic institutions – and participants within them! – could use some reform.
    As to what you say about the benevolent dictator – well, providing those guarantees is the point of the rule of law and separation of powers, a doctrine sadly being undermined by the current American administration. (Why haven’t I read any op-eds by political philosophers on why the legislative and executive powers should be separated?) While your freedoms and autonomy might, naturally, be threatened in a constitutional democracy “if other people choose not to respect them”, that’s the sort of system that’s rigged so as to make it as difficult as possible for other people, particularly those in political power, to disrespect your freedoms.
    As an aside, everyone from Locke to Kant and Hegel thought that constitutional monarchy could be just as good in this respect, as long as the role of the executive is just to apply general laws to particular cases. Of course, once the monarch usurps authority to disregard the laws and uses his arbitrary will to decide who is tortured, for example, that’s no longer constitutional monarchy but despotism, the worst enemy of republican freedom. In such a condition justice is not possible, according to Kant, and the relationship between the ruler and the ruled is that between the master and the slave, according to Rousseau. But why am I talking about such ancient history, it’s not like this is an issue in our enlightened times…

  17. So here’s a test case (I don’t know where this originates):
    You’re on a deserted road somewhere, and you come to a stop sign. You know for certain that there are no other people or cars around. However, the vehicle code says that you have to come to a complete stop at all stop signs. Should you come to a complete stop at the sign before proceeding?
    The idea of political obligation implies “yes”, but that strikes me as silly.

  18. Michael, your case bears a resemblance to Prichard’s well-known example – is that what you’re thinking about? In any case, here’s a couple of things a defender of political obligation might say. First, suppose you don’t stop, but there’s a policeman hidden in the bushes and he catches you in the act. Is it morally wrong if he fines you? I doubt that, and that supports the existence of an obligation in the case.
    Second, one might say that there are degrees of strength of political obligation. We’d need some plausible principle for assessing that, but let’s assume one could be found. Intuitively, there’s a whole lot of difference between violating a political obligation by a traffic violation and by aiding a foreign terrorist group to assassinate the president. With such a distinction, we could say that the obligation to obey traffic regulations can be outweighed by other considerations that need not be very weighty. You would still have some reason to stop at the stop sign, but it could be that other things would give more reason not to stop (for example, the purpose of having a stop sign there would manifestly not be frustrated by your driving on), so that all things considered, you still shouldn’t stop. (And I’ve been to places in the States where they just love to drop stop signs all around without any discernible reason for it, apart from controlling speed, for which there are less annoying ways!) And of course, even though killing a legitimately elected president would be a gross violation of political obligation by any standard, it could still be a moral obligation in an exceptional case.

  19. “. . . Should you come to a complete stop at the sign before proceeding?
    The idea of political obligation implies “yes”, but that strikes me as silly”
    Well, take any obligation that has a deontological basis and any situation in which no other people who are going to be negatively affected by your action. Smith makes a promise of fidelity to his wife, say. Let the situation now be one in which infidelity has no negative consequences for anyone. Fulfilling that obligation doesn’t seem so silly and it doesn’t seem (to me in any case) that, in this test case, Smith has no obligation of fidelity.

  20. Come to think of it the stopping sign case is actually pretty good one. But my intuition is that it nicely shows that there are political obligations – not always over-riding but pro tanto.
    Say the situation is that you are coming to an empty crossing, middle of nowhere and on an open plane, and you see that there is no-one anywhere. You see that there is the stop sign. It’s hard to think of any other reasons you would have in the situation to stop except the political obligation to play by the rules. No-one is in risk, no potential punishments for you, you’d save time, money and gas. Now, say that you stop because you thought you’d have reason to do so because of the stop sign and the reason it gives. If there were no political obligations we would have to conclude that you stopped for no reason at all. You would be as silly and irrational as those eating mud. I know that people look me funny when I stand there waiting for the green light when crossing the street, but I still think they wouldn’t say that I’m standing there for no reason at all. I assume that most people would understand the reason I don’t cross. Of course this would be just an intuition for there being political obligations, and we need to spell out what those are, if any.
    The Prichard case is about turning to a street when you cannot see whether there’s anyone coming. If there is no-one coming, should we say that you have no obligation to stop? No stop signs unfortunately.
    On the volume of Prichard’s papers there is however an interesting paper on our very topic here: ‘Green: Political Obligation’. Mainly a critical paper against Green who thought political obligations are reducible to instrumental reasons. Prichard seems to defend other views against Green’s criticism – being surprisingly symphatetic to social contract views as well. Prichard ends up going for pluralism. There won’t be a unified answer why we ought to obey laws. We need to ask the question law by law. And, in many cases we are going to get lists of many answers: moral obligations, self-interests, the origins of the law, our relationhip to the government, and so on. Sounds like a sensible view.

  21. Jussi,
    It’s pretty clear that there are no absolute political obligations; so I’m sure they can all be overridden. In the no-stopping case, the reasons for not stopping are not moral reasons. So if political obligations are overridden in that case, then the overriding reasons are prudential, or self-interested or reasons of convenience. But it would be strange if political obligations–which I take it are a species of moral obligations–could be overridden by reasons of convenience.

  22. Mike,
    that’s true. But as I’m in Reading at the moment, I have to say that no reasons have an uniform strength in all contexts as there can always be intensifiers and attenuators lurking about. In the stop-sign case, there seems to be many of the latter. For one, my overlooking the reason would not in this situation express to others that I don’t care about our shared decisions (because there is no-one around). But that’s not to say that there is no reason at all or that no such reasons that can become stronger in other contexts.

  23. The invocation of Prichard (and Reading-style particulariam) strikes me as apt, since one question raised by political obligation is what general picture of obligation one needs in order to make sense of political obligation qua political obligation. If you hold that political obligation is a species of moral obligation though not absolute, and in particular, that it could be overridden by other categories of duty on some occasions, then an intuitionist or particularist variety of deontologism is the natural candidate to make sense of that kind of view. On that kind of view, that the state forbids an action would be a defeasible reason not to perform it. It’s not clear though whether that view of obligations is fully adequate though. For one thing, you’d need to give an argument for why there is a prima facie duty of political obligation and that it is a genuinely independent duty, not reducible to some other class of duties. (It’s of course one of Hume’s infamous criticisms of consent theory that in trying to supplant the duty to obey the state with the duty to keep one’s promises it doesn’t appeal to a more fundamental or more stringent duty.) I.e., our prima facie duties (benevolence, fidelity, etc.) are not freestanding and need a rationale. So even with a Ross/Prichard/particularist sort of position, I suspect you still need a theory of political obligation as it’s traditionally understood.

  24. Mike: I am not convinced by your fidelity example. Assuming that Smith’s wife cares about whether Smith is faithful, it can’t possibly be the case that his infidelity would have “no negative consequences for anyone.” (It might have negative consequences that Smith’s wife doesn’t know about, but that is something else.) And if she genuinely doesn’t care, then perhaps there really are no negative consequences for anyone; but in this case, it’s not clear to me that Smith actually has an obligation of fidelity.
    Jussi: I disagree with your claim that the person who, believing he has a political obligation to stop at the stop sign, stops, is stopping for no reason. The fact that a person thinks he has a reason to x is surely a reason to x, isn’t it? (It’s not the reason he thinks he has, and it may be a much less powerful reason than he thinks he has, but it’s a reason all the same.) More often than not, claims of irrationality are directed toward people who act against reasons they think they have; so I don’t feel any temptation either to deny that this agent has any reason, or to claim that he is irrational; but I am not yet convinced that he has a reason arising from a political obligation.

  25. Michael,
    I agree with you completely. Even with holism about practical reasons you need an independent theory of political obligations. But above I tried to suggest that traditional theories referring to social contracts, fairness, and democracy just may still have something to be said for them.
    I have to disagree with you. You just cannot get reasons from beliefs about reasons. At least I don’t see how you could. Otherwise you wouldn’t even be able to fail to have reasons for your actions – you would get them just by believing them. You would have reasons to eat mud, beat your wife, commit genocide, and so on, just by believing that you had a reason to do so. That just cannot be right. There are no reasons to do such things.

  26. “I am not convinced by your fidelity example. Assuming that Smith’s wife cares about whether Smith is faithful, it can’t possibly be the case that his infidelity would have “no negative consequences for anyone.”
    Quick distinctions (as Mike Cholbi has been getting at). First there is the question of having an obligation to do something. Second there is having the motivation to do what you’re knowingly obligated to do. Third there is the basis of the obligation.
    In the simple promising example I described, it appears to me that the act of promising puts Smith under an obligation to fulfill the promise. And further that the basis of the obligation is independent of the value (or disvalue) associated with the consequences of fulfilling (or failing to fulfill) the promise. It is then conceivable, I claim, that failing to fulfill that obligation has no negative consequences *in the sense that* there is no disvalue associated with the actual outcome of that action. How is this possible? It’s conceivable that some mental-state theory of value turns out to be true. And Smith’ wife never learns of the incident, and so on and on.
    My point was that even stipulating that no disvalue follows from the violation of the obligation, it is not silly or irrational to fulfill the obligation anyway. Further, it doesn’t follow that the obligation has no basis or that it is not a genuine obligation. What does follow, perhaps, is that the motivation to fulfill the obligation is diminished.
    The point relevant to this thread is that the same goes for political obligations. I might be unmoved to stop at 2am, but it doesn’t follow from that that my political obligation to obey the law is weaker in the morning, or that there is no basis for my political obligation to stop. But it might well mean that my motivation to stop is diminished at 2am.

  27. Jussi,
    The claim isn’t that my believing that I have reason to x gives me sufficient or all-things-considered reason to x, but only that it gives me some reason to x. Plenty of philosophers think that merely desiring to x gives me some reason to x; is the claim that believing that I have reason to x any less plausible on its face? Assuming we take the claim to be that one must believe that one has independent reason to x (i.e. reason that does not arise simply from the fact that one believes that one has reason to x), I think that the belief claim is, if anything, more plausible. After all, belief, unlike desire, must be responsive to evidence: not only can I not believe at will, I do not seem to be able to form a belief for something I know to be unsupported by the available evidence.
    So in fact it’s false to claim that on this view, one wouldn’t ever fail to have reasons for one’s actions. One could fail to have any reason to do x if there were no independent reason to do x, and one did not believe that there was any independent reason to do x. And of course, one could fail to have sufficient reason to do x even if one did believe that one had independent reason to do x, if in fact one’s belief was false.
    There is another option here as well. Remember that your original claim, to which I was responding, was that there must be a political obligation to stop at the sign, since a person who did so would not be acting irrationally (which you took to indicate that he must have some reason). So I could also say this: while the belief that one has a reason to do x does not in itself provide one with a reason to do x, it does make it rational (or at least, not irrational in the strongest sense) for one to do x. This position is committed to the somewhat odd view that it can be rational to do something one has no reason to do (which is why I prefer my version). But I think that if we don’t accept the view I have suggested, then we need to accept this; otherwise we are committed to holding that a person who, say, falsely believes that he must take a certain pill to save his life, and so takes it, is being irrational (since he has no independent reason for his action – he doesn’t actually need to take the pill – and, by hypothesis, the belief that one does have a reason cannot make an action rational). And this surely can’t be right.
    Mike (Almeida),
    As my comments to Jussi above suggest, I’ll grant you that it is not silly or irrational for a person who (reasonably?) believes that he has an obligation to do x to do x, even if in fact his belief that he is so obligated is false. But I still find it implausible to think that my promise to A continues to hold moral force even when it turns out that whether I keep it makes no difference whatsoever to A, or to A’s well-being.
    Suppose I am picking Henry up at the airport, and Henry, who is scheduled to arrive at 3:00 on Tuesday and who has been left stranded before, makes me utter the following words: “I promise that I will be at the airport on Tuesday not one minute past 3:00.” As I am about to leave for the airport I receive a message that Henry has missed his flight; now he will not be arriving until 8:00. Am I still obligated to be at the airport at 3:00? I promised to, after all; and since I haven’t spoken with Henry, he has not released me from that promise. Perhaps (as per your suggestion) I am still obligated to, but no longer motivated to? But this seems deeply counter-intuitive: at this point, surely, I no longer have the obligation or the motivation.
    A couple responses suggest themselves. One might say: what I really promised to do was to be at the airport when Henry arrived. But this is not what I said, of course, and Henry was very insistent in having me say those very words (he didn’t want to leave up to my judgment when a reasonable arrival time was); and we are rightly suspicious of agents who tend to over-interpret such things (‘What I really meant when I promised that was …’). One might also say: I’m pretty sure that given the circumstances, Henry would release me from my obligation if only he could. But suppose this turns out to be false, and that Henry, who arrives at the airport at 8:00, is upset when he discovers that I was not there at 3:00. Surely this would be an unreasonable response on his part; but on your account, he would be perfectly entitled to respond in this way, since after all I did promise to be there at 3:00.

  28. Troy,
    I agree about the last bit. I think that you can satisfy requirements of rationality by doing things you have no reason to do. I quite like the Broome view of requirement of rationality as wide scope oughts that can be satisfied in many ways.
    But, still I don’t quite feel that you given an argument to the effect that beliefs about reasons provide reasons to act. In the case where there are independent reasons for doing something, then of course believing that you have a reason to act in the situation is accompanied by a reason (it’s another question whether you have *more* reason as a result of the belief). But the cases we are now interested in are such that there are initially no reasons at all to act in certain way. The question then is, do you get one by believing that you have a reason. I don’t think you do even if your belief is justified epistemically. Beliefs just are not right kinds of beasts to confer normativity to the facts in the world. This is also because otherwise you just would get reasons to do things that there cannot be reasons to do, even contributory reasons. Unless I’m given a good argument that there can be some reasons for someone to do the weird and repulsive stuff I’m not convinced.

  29. Troy,
    In the example I discuss, I say that the basis of the obligation to fulfill the promise is independent of the value associated with the outcome. I don’t say that promises generate indefeasible obligations. There are many ways in which the obligation might be defeated (or undermined) by other moral and factual considerations. Your case presents one way in which the obligation is undermined. No problem there for what I had in mind.
    But then you say,
    “…I still find it implausible to think that my promise to A continues to hold moral force even when it turns out that whether I keep it makes no difference whatsoever to A, or to A’s well-being.”
    In the example I discuss I don’t assume that it makes no difference to anyone whether Smith fulfills the obligation. It does make a difference, presumably, to his wife. But I did say that fulfilling (or not) the obligation does not affect her well-being: it does not, in general, produce any disvalue. This seems to me perfectly plausible.
    If I promise Henry that I will write him a recommendation and, because I’m negligent and irresponsible, I just don’t do it, I have clearly violated an obligation. I have done something wrong even if Henry never learns what I failed to do and finds himself at the school he most prefers.
    I just can’t imagine that you would regard my behavior as anything close to permissible despite the fact that it does not negatively affect Henry’s well-being.

  30. I find Troy’s case of the airport promise independently interesting.
    – I think that if you’re justified in believing that Henry would not mind your failing to be there at 3:00, then you’re no longer obligated to be there at 3:00.
    – However, if (a) you’re justified in believing that Henry would mind, and (b) you would have been justified in believing that at the time you made the promise, then it’s not clear to me that you don’t have a prima facie obligation to be there at 3:00. However, the disutility of the five hours’ wait in the airport might outweigh this prima facie duty.
    – The intuitive reaction that one doesn’t have reason to be there at 3:00, I think, depends on normal background assumptions, such as that it would generally be understood in our society that one can’t reasonably ask someone else to wait for one in an airport for five hours, and that if, at the time Henry asked you to make the promise, he had specifically said, “And I want you to promise that you’ll be there at 3:00 even if you subsequently learn that I won’t be arriving until 8:00,” you would have refused. Furthermore, it’s something like common knowledge that you would have refused such a request, so that, if it had occurred to Henry at the time, he would have known that you would not have agreed to such a condition.

  31. Where would the obligation to obey the law fall with regard too driving through a red light in fear of being hi jacked? One clearly is disobeying the law but at the same time protecting themselves from a possible harsher crime

Comments are closed.