Are political obligations always moral? A Hobbesian rumination

Uncle Sam

Richard K Dagger opens his very good Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on political obligation with the following claim:

To have a political obligation is to have a moral duty to obey the laws of one’s country or state. On that point there is almost complete agreement among political philosophers.

There are two problems with this opening gambit.

Firstly, and of least importance, agreement in any amount—be it no agreement, little agreement, almost complete agreement or complete agreement—does not itself establish the truth of a proposition. One’s suspicion should always be roused by attempts to use claims of ‘near complete’ or ‘general agreement’ to establish a point.

Secondly, and more importantly, a political obligation is not always a moral duty. For a political obligation to always be a moral duty, one of two conditions must be met. The terms ‘obligation’ and ‘duty’ must be synonymous, thus rendering the proposition tautological or true by definition. If this condition is met then to have an obligation means the same thing as to have a duty. If this condition is not met, then for Dagger’s principal claim to hold all ‘political obligations’ have to fall within the set of what we consider to be ‘moral obligations’. To have a political obligation would then be to have a moral obligation because there would be no political obligations which were not also moral obligations. Let’s deal with these two conditions in turn.

Are the terms ‘obligation’ and ‘duty’ synonymous?
So, to the question of the equivalence of ‘obligation’ and ‘duty’. Compare the statement ‘I have a duty to obey the law’ with the statement ‘I am obliged to obey the law’. According to common usage at least, the former statement leaves room for discretion. If I am not inclined to fulfil my duties then I may ignore it. The statement is, at most, a prescription. However, the claim that I’m obliged to obey the law doesn’t permit such discretion. An obligation to obey the law implies that I should obey the law even if I think I shouldn’t. On common usage, therefore, to claim that I have a duty to obey the law is not the same as claiming that I have an obligation to obey the law. The obligation claim carries more weight—the possibility of enforcement, maybe. Nevertheless, the terms ‘obligation’ and ‘duty’ are not equivalent.

Framing the problem of political obligation as an answers to the question ‘When do I have a duty to obey the law?’ already assumes that questions of political obligation are really questions of duty and, therefore, moral questions. But given that the terms ‘obligation’ and ‘duty’ are not equivalent, in the absence of further argument the claim lacks sufficient justification. The first condition having failed, as Dagger has elsewhere recognised that it does (1977, p. 88), we can now revise his claim:

To have a political obligation is to have a moral obligation to obey the laws of one’s country or state.

With ‘obligation’ and ‘duty’ failing the common usage test of synonymity, all ‘political obligations’ must fall within the set of what we consider to be ‘moral obligations’. Only the fulfilment of this second condition will save Dagger’s opening gambit.

So, are there any political obligations that are not moral obligations? As an example, take punctuality. One may have an obligation to be punctual, but that obligation is hardly a question of morality. Set beside such moral questions as, say, ‘Is it ever right to kill a human being?’ we can see that only those prone to hyperbole would label the obligation to be punctual a moral problem. Punctuality is a question of common courtesy rather than morality.

Some people may claim that the question ‘Are there any political obligations that are not moral obligations?’ is based on a confusion between the morality of the acts we are obliged to fulfil and the morality of fulfilling obligations. When Dagger claims that ‘To have a political obligation is to have a moral duty to obey the laws of one’s country or state’ he is claiming that the obligation to obey the laws of one’s country is a moral obligation. He is not arguing that all of the laws of one’s country are moral, just that the question of political obligation is a moral question. According to Dagger’s claim, therefore, there are no amoral, immoral or non-moral political obligations. If this were true, it would only be true to the extent that obligations are duties and questions of duty are moral questions. That is, if we forget that the terms ‘obligation’ and ‘duty’ are not equivalent and allow the terminological leap from political obligation to moral duty then Dagger’s claim is true, but true by definition—it is tautological, vacuous, empty. Presented with a substantive case of a political obligation that is not a moral obligation, however, the claim is proven false.

What are the limits of political obligations?
The proper focus for the question of the morality or otherwise of political obligations is the morality of the act or acts one is obligated to fulfil. As J Peter Euben recognises, a political obligation cannot be separated from its content (1972, p. 450). A thought experiment will clarify what it means for a political obligation to be tied to its content. But before proceeding, here’s a précis.

What follows is not some attempt to emphasise the content of the meta-ethical ponderings of Dagger and the like in the hope of revealing the possible brutality that may follow from ‘morally’ abiding by one’s political obligation—for example, fulfilling one’s political (and, therefore, moral) obligation to uphold segregation laws or to carry out a head-of-state’s order to murder innocent civilians. While this could be the point of a shift in focus from conceptual considerations of political obligation to the concrete considerations of the morality of obligatory acts, that is not the intent here. Rather, the concern is to show the importance of the political obligation’s content and the limits of the political obligation that follows from that content. It’s a focus that does not stop amoral obligations following from amoral content or immoral obligations following from immoral content. As will be argued, both remain obligations despite the morality or otherwise of their content. One is obliged to carry out the associated action if one has such a political obligation. This last claim may trouble some people, but the trouble is caused by a false inference—the attempt to draw from an obligation with particular content a general principle of political obligation. What follows will clarify the false inference, so bear with me. To our thought experiment.

It may or may not be controversial to argue that you, as a citizen, have a political obligation to kill another person in inter-state warfare. Let’s assume for the sake of the example that it is not and that you are in fact a citizen of a state. let’s also assume that you think that killing (and not just murder) is always immoral. There are many levels of content here. They can be ordered from the general to the specific, as follows.

  • (1) You have a political obligation
  • (2) You have a political obligation, even if that obligation is immoral
  • (3) You have a political obligation to kill enemy combatants, even if that obligation is immoral

Now, if (3) is true and you are obliged to kill enemy combatants even though you think it is immoral, then propositions (1) and (2) are also true. (3) is a political obligation, rendering (1) true. You also think killing enemy combatants is wrong, rendering (2) true. However, despite the necessary truth of (1) and (2) when (3) is true, (1) and (2) cease to be true once you change the content specific to proposition (3)—the content referring specifically to the act in question, ‘to kill enemy combatants’. Proposition (3) is not a political obligation to act immorally towards non-combatants, just as it isn’t a political obligation to do anything other than kill enemy combatants. It is not grounds for inferring that you have any political obligation other than to kill enemy combatants. To claim otherwise would be to make the false inference referred to earlier.


From a more specific proposition (one down the list) you cannot move to a more general proposition (one up the list) and then back down. For example, from (3) you cannot claim

  • (2′) ‘You have a political obligation, even if that obligation is immoral’ is true;


  • (3′) You have a political obligation to kill civilians, even if that obligation is immoral.

From political obligation (3) and, consequently, the truth of (1) and (2), political obligation (3′) simply does not follow. If the political obligation is (3), then (1) and (2) are not true for cases other than (3). (3) is tied to its content. (3) stripped of its independent content renders (2) false. To then infer obligation (3′) from (2′) is fallacious. No general rule of political obligation follows from (3) upon which to extend political obligation to (3′).

A political obligation only extends so far as its particular content permits. This includes soundly inferring related yet more specific propositions from the content of a political obligation. For example, from (3) you can infer

  • (4) You have a political obligation to kill enemy combatant C, even if that obligation is immoral.

If you have a political obligation to kill enemy combatants then you have a political obligation to kill enemy combatant C. Why? Because enemy combatant C is an enemy combatant. You can move to a more specific proposition (down the list) from a more general proposition.

Are political obligations always moral obligations?
With these point in mind, the principal question for theorists of political obligation is, therefore, ‘What is the scope of political obligation?’, not ‘When do I have a duty to obey the law?’. Take the social contract tradition as an example of one school of political obligation theory. This principal question applied to the social contract tradition is ‘What’s the scope of the political obligation established by the social contract?’ Did the social contract establish universal political obligation, like (1)? Or was the initial political obligation only an obligation to abide by the law, like (2)? Or, further, was the initial political obligation an obligation to abide by a particular law, like (3)? The answer to this question is of foremost importance for the question of political obligation.

If the initial obligation had any specificity, and even general propositions contain some specificity, then the obligation only extends as far as that specific content. If the initial obligation is to abide by law only when it is moral, as the natural law tradition claims in the US Declaration of Independence, then one is not obliged to abide by immoral law; nor is one be obliged to follow political dictates which apply to areas other than moral laws (e.g. an order by a head-of-state to kill someone outside of the rules of war). If the initial obligation is a political obligation to abide by all law, as the legal positivist would claim, then it’s not an obligation to abide by political dictates that do not apply to law (i.e. extra-legal dictates); however, it is an obligation to abide by law even when that law is immoral. And if the initial obligation is limitless, as Divine Right and absolutist theorists claim, then it’s an obligation to abide by all political dictates issuing from on high.

To close, the answer to the question ‘What is the scope of political obligation?’ can only be answered by reference to the particular content of an obligation. If the particular content of that obligation includes immoral acts, then the political obligation is immoral. Nevertheless, it holds. We can, therefore, revise Dagger’s opening gambit:

To have a political obligation is to have an obligation that is political.

This definition is deliberately tautological or ‘true by definition’—vacuous, devoid of content—precisely because the content of the particular political obligation is important, not the definition. Thomas Hobbes understood this point; nevertheless, for him political obligations, although more akin to (1), only exist outside of the state of nature and cease when they run contrary to the natural obligation to preserve one’s life.


Dagger, RK 2010, ‘Political obligation’, in EN Zalta (ed.), The Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy, Stanford University Center for the Study of Language and Information, Stanford.

Dagger, RK 1977, ‘What is political obligation?’, The American Political Science Review, vol. 71, no. 1, pp. 86-94.

Euben, JP 1972, ‘Walzer’s Obligations’, Philosophy & Public Affairs, vol. 1, no. 4, pp. 438-459.

6 thoughts on “Are political obligations always moral? A Hobbesian rumination

  1. I might be wrong, I just had a quick read but weren’t you a bit rash in your definition of political obligation ? You mention that ‘obligations’ are discretionary. But you didn’t mention that obligations are also only intelligible within a specific context. I only have contractual obligations as written under a specific contract, BUT I have contractual (moral) rights and corresponding duties in general. Similarly, the phrase “a political obligation is to have a moral duty to obey the laws of ones country” means that you have (1) certain obligations between states and citizens. (2) to be a political obligation it must involve a moral duty to obey. (3) If an obligation gives rise to a moral duty to obey then it is a political obligation. Then the question really is under what political arrangement do we have obligations which to give rise to a moral duty to obey, and therefore become ‘political obligations’.

    • Fair questions. Okay, each in turn.
      1. Which definition? The move I make to a focus on the content of the obligation is meant to convey the idea that the context matters, not definition. I’ll see if I can clarify it.
      2. (1) agreed. (2) the link between political obligation and moral duty is exactly what’s in question. I hesitate to give that ground in the definition of political obligation because the attempt to make all political obligations moral is an argumentative sleight of hand. (3) is false in cases of obligation to oneself.
      3. I agree with your second comment if you drop moral. Is it a moral duty for someone to obey the command of and authoritarian head of state to kill civilians? The answer is no. Not because there are no moral duties under authoritarian governments (which would rule out political obligation in authoritarian regimes), but because the act is immoral.

  2. Hm.. I’m still confused. I don’t see how defining a political obligation as any obligation which carries a moral duty to obey is ‘rhetorical sleight of hand’. Isn’t the distinction between a sovereign/citizen and a large organization/individual made on the moral imperative under which the former is legitmatized and the other isn’t? So similarly, no matter what penalty a breach of an obligation may create, it will only be a political obligation if there is a moral duty to obey the law.

    It seems what you are trying to do is separate moral duties (and rights) from legal duties (and rights). But I don’t see how you can do that to the extent in your scenario- where grave moral rights are violated. This is because the legitimacy of the sovereign comes from a moral imperative, a sentiment of moral duty. The ‘heart’ of a political obligation comes from its political character (not just it’s ability to penalise) and this only works when a moral duty exists to obey the law.

    Your approach seems to be Government Authority -gives rise to- Moral duties to obey – gives rise to – Political obligations – are legitimate if- moral considerations.

    My approach is that moral considerations -give rise to- moral duties to obey – give rise to – political authority- give rise to- political obligations.

    • Great points.

      Your approach (moral considerations –> moral duties to obey –> political authority –> political obligations), which has been the dominant approach in the Anglo world since circa 1689, reduces all political obligations to moral obligations. The sleight of hand it commits is to reduce all politics to ethics.

      Historically, the sleight of hand formed part of the broader attempt justify governments. To test the legitimacy of a political obligation one asked if it was also a moral obligation. The test worked both ways, however. A de facto government could claim that it was underpinned by moral obligation and, therefore, not merely controlling the people by brute force (Divine Right theory). But, likewise, the subject of the de facto government could claim that his or her subjection was illegitimate unless there was some moral obligation justifying his subjection (and unless the law was in accordance with moral precepts, e.g. John Locke and the natural law tradition).

      As you’ve rightly pointed out, my Hobbesian rumination focuses on defending the idea of political obligation arising from simple submission to government. It’s a defence of de facto political obligation: the idea that the fact a political obligation exists is sufficient for that obligation to be legitimate. What I’ve attempted to do is separate completely questions of morality from questions of political obligation. Political obligations on my model are legitimate whether or not the acts one is obligated to fulfill are moral, and despite the fact that the obligation is itself amoral. The point is to try and circumvent the particularly modern tendency to reduce all questions of political obligation to moral questions.

      The modern liberal tradition rules out the possibility of amoral or immoral political obligations. For liberal political obligation theorists, there is no such thing as political obligation in authoritarian regimes led by potentates (in the proper sense of ‘ruler unconstrained by law’). For someone who wishes to study political obligation across regimes, however, this is THE weakness of the liberal tradition. Its model of political obligation can only accommodate liberal regimes. So I ditch it, and use a ‘de facto political obligation = legitimate political obligation’ model. However, I can also see the risks of using the ol’ de facto model, so I attempt to limit the scope of submission in that model to whatever was the specific obligation set up during submission. That is, I set a limit on political obligation in what could otherwise be absolute government.

  3. Oh I think I understand now. Interesting. I still wonder though how even on a narrow level words like obligation can retain their definition in an authoritarian relationship.

    • Even better question, and one I haven’t checked. Fortunately I have a dictionary beside me. Not the best place to sort out such things, but it defines ‘obligation’ as ‘The act of binding oneself by a social, legal, or moral tie’. I guess I’m emphasising the social tie. The entry goes on to list synonyms, including duty. Interestingly, it notes, ‘Obligation applies to a specific instance of constraint in which the constraining factors are immediate and objectively defined (as by terms of contract or treaty)’. The entry continues: ‘Duty involves continuing constraint deriving from moral or ethical considerations’. There seems to be scope for obligation in an authoritarian relationship, and more scope than there is for duty.

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