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.