Category Archives: Moral Principles and Political Obligations

Are there political obligations?

Meaning and Reference of “Government”

A. John Simmons considers an objection from Hanna Pitkin that "terms like 'authority,' 'law,' and 'government' are grammatically or conceptually tied to 'obligation,' in the same way that 'promise' is." As Pitkin writes, "it is part of the concept, the meaning of 'authority,' that those subject to it are required to obey, that it has a right to command." (39)

This is a confused mess. At the very most, the term "government" ceases to have a reference, when most people actually refuse to obey. In such a case, a government may indeed fall. Even that is not 100% certain, since such an unpopular government may be able to endure in the very short term through an attempt at repression.

There is no way to get from that to the idea that I personally right now have a duty to obey (which government?); nor that the term "government" ceases to have a meaning if I or whoever else decides to disobey some or another government.

The fact that today I may have exceeded the posted speed limit once or twice does not entail that I and Pitkin can suddenly not discuss problems of political philosophy without hopelessly equivocating on the word "government."

Utilitarianism Does Not Justify Political Obligations

Again, utilitarianism rightly understood is addressed to the lawgivers or to the people in their capacity as voters. For example, the criminal code should according to utilitarianism be so structured as to:

  1. Maximize the benefits to the citizens from deterrence of crime;
  2. Minimize the pain to the criminals from their punishment;
  3. Minimize the costs of enforcing the law.

These goals of course conflict, and an optimum should be properly calculated.

But once the law has been laid down, a citizen is told to seek his own happiness as he sees fit and pay no heed to general welfare or total utility.

This implies that utilitarianism voices no opinion as to whether a man should seek his happiness by obeying the law or by disobeying.

Thus, utilitarianism does not generate any political obligations.

“Consent” Theory of Government Is Senseless

Isn't it obvious that we can't say that a (good) government is legitimate if and only if I have consented to it, because of the nature of public goods?

I can withhold consent from Sweets, Inc.'s claim on my money by refusing to buy its donuts. However, I cannot say that I refuse to benefit from the government's deterrence of crimes and thereby avoid taxes, because I can't be excluded from enjoying this good.

Simmons points out:

How is the consent theorist to avoid the charge that if unanimous consent is required for legitimacy, no government will be legitimate?

The answer, for Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, is found in the notion of "tacit consent through residence." For if mere residence can be taken to be a sign of consent, then unanimous consent is guaranteed.

This, however, seems to show more than the consent theorist wanted, for it seems to show not just that some governments are after all legitimate, but rather that all governments are legitimate. (73)

If the legitimacy of Sweets, Inc. depended on everybody's in some area wanting its products, then neither it nor any other private business could ever get off the ground. If, on the other hand, Sweets had the right to collect money from anyone who happened to reside near its headquarters, then Sweets would cease to be a business and become a tyrannical state. Clearly, there is a fundamental difference between business and government.

If consent to being ruled by a state can be given by living on the territory controlled by the state or using its roads or some such, what would constitute refusing to consent? The world has been partitioned between multiple states, and I have to live somewhere. Again, I can't help using the roads. How can I withdraw consent, and what would that mean?

For example, is the government immediately to be dissolved if even one person refuses to consent to it? If the majority refuses to consent? If the social elite?

The consent of the governed tradition in this crude a form seems absurd. Some sense can be made of it is by distinguishing between the government's power and its might. My withdrawal of consent undermines the government's might but not straightaway its power.

Tacit Consent Through Residence

It can only be somewhat plausible on the local level, where the "choice situation" presents one with tens of thousands of cities to choose from as his home.

Socrates, therefore, in Crito, unbeknownst to himself, was right in linking consent to the "laws" with the fact that the city of Athens allowed free emigration.

Obscurity of Gratitude

Simmons wonders about the reasons why the phenomenon of gratitude has been neglected in modern philosophy. Mises had an explanation:

It is only the mentality of a capitalistic environment that makes people feel the indignity of giving and receiving alms. Outside of the field of the cash nexus and of deals transacted between buyers and sellers in a purely businesslike manner, all interhuman relations are tainted by the same failing. It is precisely the absence of this personal element in market transactions that all those deplore who blame capitalism for hard-heartedness and callousness. ...

Feudal society was founded on acts of grace and on the gratitude of those favored. The mighty overlord bestowed a benefit upon the vassal and the latter owed him personal fidelity. Conditions were human in so far as the subordinates had to kiss their superiors' hands and to show allegiance to them. In a feudal environment the element of grace inherent in charitable acts did not give offense. It agreed with the generally accepted ideology and practice.

Since our present society is "based entirely upon contractual bonds, ... to be an almsman is shameful and humiliating. It is an unbearable condition for a self-respecting man." (HA, 838-9)

The scope of grace and gratitude then has greatly diminished with the coming of capitalism. Gratitude has been relegated to etiquette.

Place for Gratitude Even Within Capitalism

There is an aspect of gratitude that remains even under robust capitalism, and that is personal love, such as between spouses, parents and children, or friends.

Now as I noted before, when one does good to someone he loves, the profit to the beloved is his profit, as well. But there is a complication. Personal relationships are complex, and one is rarely a mind reader. Therefore, there is a need for a somewhat ritualistic expressions of gratitude to assure the benefactor that his efforts have been enjoyed by the recipient of the benefits. That should be sufficient to satisfy the benefactor, as well.

Parents, too, need feedback as to whether their efforts are bearing fruit. The gratitude of children is precisely that. The children need not even necessarily repay the parental favors; their success and happiness in life are their own rewards to the parents who build their children up when they are young but ultimately leave them in command of their own counsel. But a sincere show of gratitude is still useful.

Gratitude in Political Obligations

Simmons points out nicely that it's hard to feel grateful to a faceless bureaucracy and have those feelings generate political obligations.

Another point is that in our interventionist society, the legislators are often bought by moneyed interests. The lawmakers run their own feudal fiefs. It is only in this sort of corruption or social de-evolution that gratitude may play a role.

Even if there are political obligations, on whatever ground, people differ as to how much government services are worth to them. Yet the tax system demands payments without discriminating properly. Grotesque taxation principles like "ability to pay" have been invented to loot the populace. However useful, even local taxes must still be condemned as unjust.