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Obligation, political

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-S042-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2019
Retrieved June 22, 2024, from

Article Summary

The problem of political obligation has been one of the central concerns of political philosophy throughout the history of the subject. Political obligations are the moral obligations of citizens to support and comply with the requirements of their political authorities; and the problem of political obligation is that of understanding why (or if) citizens in various kinds of states are bound by such obligations. Most theorists conservatively assume that typical citizens in reasonably just states are in fact bound by these obligations. They take the problem to be that of advancing an account of the ground(s) or justification(s) of political obligation that is consistent with affirming widespread obligations. Other theorists, however, anarchists prominent among them, do not accept the conservative assumption, leaving open the possibility that the best theory of political obligation may entail that few, if any, citizens in actual states have political obligations.

Much of the modern debate about political obligation consists of attempts either to defend or to move beyond the alleged defects of voluntarist theories. Voluntarists maintain that only our own voluntary acts (such as freely consenting to the authority of our governments) can bind us to obedience. Because actual political societies appear not to be voluntary associations, however, voluntarism seems unable to satisfy conservative theoretical ambitions. Many theorists turn as a result to nonvoluntarist theories of political obligation, attempting to ground obligations in the receipt by citizens of the benefits governments supply, in the communal or associative obligations involved in citizens’ social and political roles or identities, or in the moral quality of their political institutions. Anarchists and other sceptics reject instead the conservative ambitions of such theories, defending positions that entail that all or most citizens even in just or decent states simply have no political obligations.

Citing this article:
Simmons, A. John. Obligation, political, 2019, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-S042-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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