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.

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Political obligation: of subjects and men

Leviathan

Simon Bogojevic-Narath's (2006) 'Leviathan'

The distinction between man and subject, and the positions that follow from it, make it possible to understand as consistent Hobbes’ claims (1) that no man is bound by the civil covenant to kill himself, or any other man and (2) that a sovereign may not unjustly kill an innocent subject.

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