#ToObeyOrNotToObey: The Gratitude and the Fairness Theories

Is it a duty of gratitude that prescribes you to obey the law? Or does your duty of obedience follow from your obligation to be fair to your fellow citizens?

As you may have read in our previous article, many of philosophers doubt that your staying in a country, owning property there, or even participating in the electoral processes would constitute a genuine act of consent and could as such confer an obligation to obey upon you. But this does not mean that you could not have acquired an obligation to obey the laws by living in a certain country. You will not be bound by your consent - but perhaps you will indeed be bound by something else.


What could this other thing be? Some propose that it is the duty of gratitude. The most known version of the gratitude theory of political obligation holds that since we receive benefits from the state, such as public roads, police, courts, the state should be regarded as our benefactor. We all have a general duty of gratitude not to act in ways that are contrary to our benefactor’s interests. Breaking the laws is contrary to the state’s interest. Therefore, we are bound by a duty of gratitude to obey the laws.

How convincing is this? At first, the idea seems to be appealing. After all, your life would probably be rather unpleasant if the authorities didn’t provide public roads, police or a justice system. Surely, you should be grateful for the opportunity to live in a safe country with public services.

The gratitude theory seems to accommodate whistleblowing (even when some law-breaking is involved) easily. It is, for example, definitely against the state’s interest to play along with corrupt public servants. You may be justified in doing that, even when you need to break some laws – your breaking the laws in such a case is simply not contrary to the state’s interest.


However, many philosophers disagree with the gratitude theory. They say that in order for you to owe gratitude to your benefactor, that benefactor should intentionally and at significant cost to themselves provide you with benefits. Imagine the following situation. Completely out of my control, once in awhile I sweat diamonds. I do not care about the ever-changing fashions of the world, so I just let them fall where they happen to fall. I cross your property. This thing with the diamonds happens to me just in front of your door. I do not even notice, I just go on my way. You find the diamonds. Do you now owe me now a debt of gratitude for making you rich?

You probably have the impression that people who would not feel any sort of gratitude in such a situation are somehow strange and mean spirited. I grant you this intuition. But would you really feel that gratitude toward me, and not toward life, fate, providence or something similar? And if you really feel that gratitude toward me, then how far does it go? Do you have to do everything I tell you to? Most philosophers agree that even if the state could be regarded as your benefactor the obligation you owe it just would not be strong enough to ground our general obligation to obey the laws.

Fair play and whistleblowing

What else could then ground our obligation to obey the law? Some philosophers say that receiving benefits that came about as a result of the cooperation of your fellow citizens creates an obligation to obey. But this obligation is not grounded in a duty of gratitude, but in a duty of fair play. That is, you ought to obey the laws not because morality requires you to be grateful to the state, but because morality requires you to be fair to others and not to be a free-loader taking advantage of the work of others while giving nothing in return. Since the rule of law is necessary to the maintaining cooperation in a society, you must practice obedience. Put otherwise, we all have to play by the same rules - if one person is allowed to get away with cutting corners, then no one else has an incentive to keep playing by the rules.

How can the fairness theory accommodate whistleblowing? The fairness theory (similarly to all the other theories we discuss in this series) acknowledges that there may be moral reasons for breaking the law that are, in exceptional cases, stronger than the duty that normally grounds our obedience. You may be justified, for example, in breaking traffic regulations when it is the only way you can take your dying mother to the nearby hospital and the chances that you could hurt someone through such disobedience are negligible - even when consent, fair play or gratitude would prescribe that you normally follow the traffic rules. Similarly, when your whistleblowing may save lives, but you need to break some rules to, say, reveal that safety regulations are not abided by in a newly built airport, your disobedience may be justified even when consent, fair play or gratitude would prescribe that you normally obey.

Is there an obligation of fair play?

However, before you subscribe to the fairness theory of political obligation, we suggest that you consider the following thought experiment: a group of your neighbours decide to run a public entertainment system. They list all of the people in the neighbourhood, numbering 365 in total including you, and they assign a day for everyone. On her/his assigned day a person is to play records, tell jokes, comment on the news, and so on. At some point your day arrives. Up until that day, nobody refused to contribute. Are you now morally obligated to take your turn?

Some say no. You did not want to be involved in this project, you would have never agreed to work a day in return for some fun. By sometimes occasionally enjoying the program you may have received the benefits of your neighbours’ efforts, but you neveraccepted them. And the mere receipt of benefits cannot establish any obligations. Obligations arise only when you voluntarily accept them.

Do you now need to abandon the idea of fair play too and look for some other principle that could explain why we ought to obey the laws? Not necessarily. Some argue that the mere receipt of certain goods, goods without which you could not live a normal, peaceful, civilized life, can indeed establish an obligation of fair play, and thereby the duty to obey. If you are sympathetic to this idea, we suggest that you read this article.

If you think that probably the answer lies elsewhere, look out for our next article, where we discuss non-transactional explanations for political obligations.