Political Obligation, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Rousseau Social Contract

Question: The concept of political obligation means that a citizen has a duty to obey certain laws and regulations or perform certain tasks (military service, for example). There are a number of theories and explanations for where this political obligation comes from. Briefly summarize and critique the main theories and explanations of political obligation and use your own reasoning to determine which if any of these theories can justify citizens’ political obligations, and also pay note to how far such obligations extend.

Political Obligation refers to the moral duty of citizens to obey the laws of their state. In cases where an act that is required by law is morally obligatory on independent grounds, political obligation simply gives the citizen an additional reason for acting accordingly.

Political legitimacy: is the popular acceptance of an authority, usually a governing law or a régime. Whereas “authority” denotes a specific position in an established government, the term “legitimacy” denotes a system of government — wherein “government” denotes “sphere of influence”.

Political legitimacy is considered a basic condition for governing, without which a government will suffer legislative deadlock(s) and collapse. In political systems where this is not the case, unpopular régimes survive because they are considered legitimate by a small, influential élite.

Gratitude (Socrates and Crito). 

  1. By escaping and thereby disobeying the law, Socrates would be contributing to the destruction of the government of Athens.
  2. Socrates has benefited from living in Athenian society, under Athenian laws.

-> The laws made it possible for his parents to marry and therefore made possible his existence.

-> The laws were responsible for his upbringing and education.

  1. Therefore, he owes to Athens a debt of gratitude.
  1. The state confers benefits upon its citizens.
  2. When one is benefited by another party, one acquires an obligation to manifest gratitude toward that party.
  3. Therefore, citizens have an obligation to manifest gratitude toward the state.
  4. The state dictates what is expected in return for the benefits it provides,namely obedience.
  5. Therefore, citizens should manifest their gratitude toward the state by obeying its commands.
  6. -“Alternative supply” objection

already purchased objection

radical consequentialist objection

do you ONLY owe obligation to your state/fellow citizens 

Fair Play 

Basically everyone who takes part in a mutually beneficial cooperative practice has an obligation to bear a “fair share” of the practice. The obligation is owed to the others that are cooperating in the enterprise because cooperation is what makes it possible for any individual to enjoy the benefits of the practice. One who acts as a free rider is acting wrongly, even if his/her shirking (avoiding duty) doesn’t threaten the existence or success of the enterprise.

The principle of fair play works if the goods are:

1) worth the recipient’s effort in providing them

2) presumptively beneficial (i.e. necessary for a minimally acceptable life)    

3)seems absolutely reasonable, but can’t explain content-independent political obligation perhaps. 

Presumptively beneficial goods. It’s contestable but perhaps they are

  • Military/national defense
  • A public set of social rules that can apply uniformly across society
  • Protection from crimes by individuals against other individuals

The “fair play” account would hold that we have political obligations to cooperate in an enterprise (the state) to provide such goods, through taxation or the military draft, etc

But what about content-independent political obligations?

 As most philosophers see it, fair play can at best justify political obligation to a minimal state with some social safety nets.  

 Internet censorship – don’t try to circumvent these laws

Don’t smoke a plant

Don’t tell the truth about someone if they wronged you – defamation

Don’t set up a private post office – you may only compete on express mail and parcel delivery

Don’t pay for sex (ever) – marriage is okay though

Don’t give medical advice, legal advice, etc. unless you are a licensed doctor, lawyer, etc. etc.

Is there a content-independent obligation to obey such laws based on the idea of fair play, that the state is a cooperative enterprise?  


2-step argument:

  1. There are great benefits that government (and only government) can secure.
  2. Therefore this imposes on individuals an obligation to obey the government because a) we have a duty to promote the values that lead to the benefits in the first part of the argument and b) obedience to the law is the best way of promoting those values and achieving those benefits, and disobedience undermines those values and leads to those benefits not being secured.

Social Contract – Consent (Tacit, Explicit)

Tacit – you were born here, so you should obey.

Their claim, instead, is that too few people have either expressly or tacitly given the kind of actual consent that can ground a general obligation to obey the law, and hypothetical consent cannot supply the defect, for reasons already noted.

Only express consent can generate a political obligation, but calls for political societies to establish formal procedures for evoking such consent. (beran 1987)


Assets that are taxible.

So, instead, it depends on (Lockean) “tacit consent” or implied consent – you were born here, you should obey. ‘Consent by presence’.

Can we seriously say, that a poor peasant or artisan has a free choice to leave his country, when he knows no foreign language or manners, and lives, from day to day, by the small wages which he acquires? We may as well assert that a man, by remaining in a vessel, freely consents to the dominion of the master; though he was carried on board while asleep, and must leap into the ocean and perish, the moment he leaves her

Foreigners – they may tacitly consent as they had a free choice to come to a host country, but still they owe obedience to their prince

Political obligation (duty to obey) is based therefore on a kind of utilitarian ethic – we are obliged to obey because of the need to maintain society (Problem with utilitarianism? Obviously, there may be times when utility could be increased by not obeying and it benefits society overall).

  1. consent through one’s behavior or actions, no explicit statement of agreement (passive consent) – do you consent when you go to a restaurant? How about when your professor reschedules a class to a very inconvenient time?
  2. accepting benefits to which there are demands (obligations) attached (consent through acceptance of benefits)
  3. (Consent through presence) – Hume
  4. Consent through voting (Consent through participation in elections).

Can a pacifist who is opposed to violence in any way opt out of the ‘public good’ of national defence? No. So therefore, he or she is politically obligated

Can people who believe there should be no government be exempted from taxes, for example? And there are these people everywhere in the world

Basically, the ‘implicit social contract’ is imposed on you regardless of what you do. Even if you could somehow not take any of the benefits and you emailed the tax revenue service and asked “Hey, I didn’t take any benefits so will you refund my taxes?” – they would still keep your tax money. Whether or not you take any of the benefits provided by the state, you are forced to pay for them. Thus this could not be taken to be a valid agreement

The social contract theory cannot account for political authority

Most accounts of implicit consent fail, because nearly all citizens know that the government’s laws would be imposed on them regardless of whether they performed the particular acts by which they allegedly communicate consent.

Human interaction should be carried out, as far as possible, on a voluntary basis.

Voting as Tacit Consent

What would make a valid social contract?

Requires a reasonable way of opting out

Explicit dissent trumps alleged implicit consent

Contractual obligation

Unconditional imposition

Social Contract theory fails to justify political obligation?

The problem – almost all states refuse to recognize explicit dissent which makes their relationships with their citizens nonvoluntary. Accounts of tacit consent fail because almost all citizens know the laws will be enforced on them whether or not they performed the acts through which they supposedly communicate consent (unconditional imposition). Sometimes states deny or fail to live up to obligations to protect and defend individual citizens and therefore, if ever there was a social contract, the government has repudiated its central obligation under the contract, thereby releasing its citizens from the obligations (mutual and conditional obligation).

Human interaction should be carried out, as far as possible, on a voluntary basis. But, again, there’s a problem. You grew up in a society, you never actually consented to having this form of government, etc.

Locke’s solution? “Tacit Consent”

“every man, that hath any Possession, or Enjoyment, of any part of the Dominions

of any Government, doth thereby give his tacit Consent, and is as far forth obliged

to Obedience to the laws of that government, during such enjoyment, as any one

under it.” (Very important – we will consider criticisms of this idea of tacit consent

from Hume on Thursday).

Question: John Locke and Thomas Hobbes are considered the two most important social contract theorists. There are a lot of similarities between the two theorists’ work, but there are also some striking differences. Outline some of the most important differences and highlight what the implications of these differences are.

Locke and Hobbes were both social contract theorists, and both natural law theorists. Chart:

Human Nature

L: A human being is by nature a social animal.

H: HB are selfish animals, only interested in survival and its own good. Man is not a social animal, so, society is impossible without the coercive power of the state

The State of Nature

L: Believed that people were by nature good and that they could learn from their experiences. It is not necessarily good or bad, but it is chaotic. So man do give it up to secure the advantages of civilized society. Locke thinks man is (becomes) a social animal

H: Believed that people were wicked, selfish, and cruel and would act on behalf of their best interests. “Every man for every man”. It would be a constant state of war. No morality exists. Constant fear, and with this fear, no one is really free.

Social Contract 

L: All people are born with certain inalienable rights. They are life, liberty, and the the right to own property. We retain the right to life and liberty, and gain the right to just, impartial protection of our property. Avoid inevitable inconveniences of the state of nature. Consent of the governed is what makes government legitimate. A way to channel some of those passions of “human nature” (for example, competition) in a more peaceful way – that is, it’s a more intelligent way to  preserve oneself and safely acquire good,property. 

H: People are born with rights that they relinquish to the monarch in return for protection. This is known as social contract.

Violation of the Social Contract

L: The people had the right to revolt against an abusive government. If a ruler seeks absolute power, if he acts both as judge and participant in disputes, he puts himself in a state of war with his subjects and we have the right and the duty to kill such rulers and their servants.

H: Because people had no say in their government, they could do nothing if the monarch were abusive. No right to rebel. “there can happen no breach of covenant on the part of the sovereign; and consequently none of his subjects,


L: Men have rights by their nature

H: You conceded your rights to the government, in return for your life

 Purpose of Government (Role of the State)

L: The purpose of the government is to protect individual liberties and rights. Natural rights should be secure.

H: The purpose of the government was to keep law and order, protecting the people from themselves.


L: Yes, people could be trusted to govern themselves. Locke believed that if provided with the right information would make good decisions. Government to represent people as a safeguard against oppression

H: Governments are design to control, not represent. No, people could be trusted to govern themselves and an absolute monarch would demand obedience in to maintain order.

Ideal form of government

L: Democracy

H: Absolute Monarch

Locke considered the social contract to arise from natural rights that were inalienable, meaning they could not be given up or taken away without the consent of the governed.  Hobbes took a view that was more aligned with monarchy, that people gave up rights to a protective state which then allocated rights.  That is a very short hand version, but that is the core of the differences.  Hobbes supported the monarchy and Locke was an early advocate for something along the lines of the democratic republic that is now the United States.


Question: Critique* Rousseau’s social contract theory. Pay attention to the ‘state of nature,’ the ambiguity of the ‘general will’ and its discovery, the notion that dissenters who go against the general will are going against their true selves and may be ‘forced to be free.’

*attack or defend

Natural freedom X Civil freedom

 The absence of impediments to pursuing one’s ends in cases where the law is silent” (52), and he does an effective job in arguing that whilst the sovereign decides what is or isn’t to be regulated by law this doesn’t evacuate the idea, nor the actuality, of civil liberty of any content.

There is no contradiction… recall Rousseau’s definition of freedom in which he means obedience to laws one has prescribed to oneself. When people enter the social contract, they agree to comply with the general will which is manifested by the making of laws in society. These laws (ideally) created by democratic vote (probably, in reality, something akin to majority rule).
Those who go against these laws will then be ‘forced to be free’ when they are compelled to obey them. It makes sense (in a Rousseauian way) that because the original law that people gave themselves is the social contract, they are now being forced to keep this commitment (to the social contract) by being forced to obey the social laws made through democratic means. Civil freedom is more important than mere desire-satisfaction in the state of nature.

*Possible objections – ‘tyranny of the majority’ along with argumentum ad populum, gay rights, death penalty.
*Let’s quickly think through an example – ignoring the question of the rights of the third party (dogs) and how your moral philosophy guides you on the merit of dog eating, how about a ban on the consumption of dog meat in Korea. Use Rousseau’s ideas and think it through… .

General will (will of all) vs the individual will – high taxes may be good for the state (general will) but not be good for the individual; but the individual should have the good of the state in mind – because you, the individual, are part of the state, you MUST at some level will high taxes, or else you’re kind of going against yourself.

How can we discover the general will?? Rousseau suggests that if we vote without consulting each other, the majority vote would be in the direction of the general will – but that ignores a fundamental human problem of factionalism (20th or 22nd for midterm exam?). Essentially, without a way of discovering the general will theory crumbles.

General Will is is the will of the people as a whole. All citizens have the right to contribute personally, or through their representatives, to its formation. (Rule of law). The notion of the general will is wholly central to Rousseau’s theory of political legitimacy.

Rousseau distinguishes the general will from the particular and often contradictory wills of individuals and groups. In The Social Contract (1762), Rousseau argues that freedom and authority are not contradictory, since legitimate laws are founded on the general will of the citizens. In obeying the law, the individual citizen is thus only obeying himself as a member of the society.

As Rousseau explains, the general will is the will of the sovereign, or all the people together, that aims at the common good—what is best for the state as a whole. Although each individual may have his or her own particular will that expresses what is good for him or her, in a healthy state, where people correctly value the collective good of all over their own personal good, the amalgamation of all particular wills, the “will of all,” is equivalent to the general will.

The first is, how can we know that the will of all is really equivalent with the common good? The second is, assuming that the general will is existent and can be expressed in laws, what are the institutions that can accurately gauge and codify the general will at any given time?

You are forced to be free. Is there a contradiction?

Forced to obey. Since you are part of the body of law, you helped created these laws. Therefore, if you go against these laws, you are going against your true self. You have to be educated (by the Jurist???)

Rousseau’s striking phrase that man must “be forced to be free”[9] should be understood this way: since the indivisible and inalienable popular sovereignty decides what is good for the whole, then if an individual lapses back into his ordinary egoism and disobeys the leadership, he will be forced to listen to what they decided as a member of the collectivity (i.e. as citizens). Thus, the law, in as much as it is created by the people acting as a body, is not a limitation of individual freedom, but its expression.

Thus, enforcement of law, including criminal law, is not a restriction on individual liberty, as the individual, as a citizen, explicitly agreed to be constrained if, as a private individual, he did not respect his own will as formulated in the general will. Because laws represent the restraints of civil freedom, they represent the leap made from humans in the state of nature into civil society. In this sense, the law is a civilizing force, and therefore Rousseau believed that the laws that govern a people helped to mold their character.

Natural Freedom

Civil Freedom and property freedom in everything it possess.

Moral Freedom

By entering into civil society people gain civil freedom, which is unavailable to them in the state of nature. This freedom is characterized by an ability to be rational and moral. According to Rousseau, this freedom is only possible by agreeing to the social contract, becoming a part of the sovereign, and obeying the general will as expressed in the laws. People who break the law or violate the social contract are violating the very institution that has made their freedom possible. By forcing people to obey the social contract and the laws, the state would only be forcing people to be hold on to the civil freedom that makes them fully human. In other words, the state would be “forcing” criminals to be “free.”

The social contract involves a total and unconditional surrender by each individual of his own natural rights in order to gain the rights of citizenship.2 There is no need for the sovereign authority to guarantee the civil liberty and legal rights of its subjects, because its interests are identical to those of the people as a whole.3 If anyone refuses to comply with the general will, then he or she may be forced to comply by the whole body politic (and may be “forced to be free”).

Evaluate some arguments of Political Obligation?

Thus refers to the moral duty of citizens to obey the laws of their state. In cases where an act or forbearance that is required by law is morally obligatory on independent grounds, political obligation simply gives the citizen an additional reason for acting accordingly.

Transactional Accounts

Fairness= Fair play

A political community is a cooperative scheme that is geared towards the production of benefits for its members: security, transport, clean water, and so forth. The venture is fruitful in producing these benefits because those participating observe certain restrictions and pay their taxes. To enjoy the benefits of the scheme without submitting to its restrictions is to free-ride on the sacrifices of others, which is unfair. The demands of fairness thus yield political obligation.

What the principle of fair play holds, then, is that everyone who participates in a reasonably just, mutually beneficial cooperative practice — Hart’s “joint enterprise according to rules” — has an obligation to bear a fair share of the burdens of the practice. This obligation is owed to the others who cooperate in the enterprise, for cooperation is what makes it possible for any individual to enjoy the benefits of the practice. Anyone who acts as a free rider is acting wrongly, then, even if his or her shirking does not directly threaten the existence or success of the endeavor. Those who participate in the practice thus have rights against as well as obligations to one another: a right to require others to bear their share of the burdens and an obligation to bear one’s share in turn.


According to this account, a citizen owes a debt of gratitude to the government for the benefits that it provides. This debt is owed regardless of whether these benefits are accepted or merely received, and the debt is repaid through obedience to law.

There are a number of obvious difficulties with this account. First, only a benefactor who makes a special effort or sacrifice is owed a debt of gratitude (Simmons 1979: 170). But public benefits are taxpayer-funded and members of government are paid handsomely for their work. As such, no sacrifice by the government is present. Our fellow citizens collectively do make sacrifices from which we benefit, but insofar as they are compelled to do so, they cannot be the objects of a debt of gratitude. Voluntary benefaction is necessary for any such debt to arise. Furthermore, gratitude is not owed for benefaction that is motivated by malice or self-interest, which means that a government is not owed obedience for services that it provides only to win votes, to improve its reputation in international circles, or for other such disqualifying reasons.


Transactional accounts suggest that political obligation is acquired through some morally significant transaction between the citizen and his compatriots or between the citizen and his state.” Three such theories can be distinguished.

The critics’ claim is not that consent cannot be a source of obligations, for they typically believe it can. Their claim, instead, is that too few people have either expressly or tacitly given the kind of actual consent that can ground a general obligation to obey the law, and hypothetical consent cannot supply the defect, for reasons already noted.

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