​#ToObeyOrNotToObey: The Problem of Political Obligation

Most people (and we here at Liberties too) believe that we ought to obey the laws of our respective countries, not only for practical reasons - like avoiding punishment - but for moral reasons too. But sometimes breaking laws can be justified.

Most of us feel that obeying the laws in reasonably just democracies is, in most cases, just the right thing to do. And if we don’t agree with the law, the thing to do is to go through the courts so they can check its legality, or to persuade the public and politicians that the law should be changed.

The right thing to do

This does not mean, however, that breaking the law is never justifiable. As we said in the first article of this series, in certain situations a person may qualify as a whistleblower, and should be entitled to protection from prosecution. When, for example, the only way to reveal to the public that your employer, which might be a government agency, has misused millions of euros, is to steal and leak confidential data. Whistleblowers find themselves in a situation where their moral reason to break the law outweighs their moral reason to generally obey the law so much, that they should be protected from prosecution.

When philosophers speak about the “problem of political obligation”, what they mean is that while there is more or less general agreement that there is a moral duty to obey the laws just because they are the laws - rather than because they are ethically right or fair-, philosophers just cannot agree on where that moral duty comes from.

Political obligation

Plato’s Crito (360 B.C.E.), the dialogue in which Plato presents us his master Socrates’s reasons for not fleeing Athens, was arguably the first philosophical enquiry about where our political obligations (our duty to obey the law) come from.

In 399 B.C.E. Socrates was found guilty of impiety and undermining the morals of the youth of Athens and he was condemned to death. As his student Plato reports in Crito, Socrates’ friends arranged his escape, but he chose to stay and drink the fatal hemlock. His arguments for staying and accepting his punishment still figure in contemporary discussions on the origin of political obligation today.

First, Socrates argued that his long residence in Athens shows that he has entered an agreement with the city’s laws and committed himself to obey them. This argument is very similar to the modern consent theories of political obligation. We will introduce these theories in the third article of this series.

Second, Socrates appealed to the idea of fair play. He argued that if he disobeyed the laws, this would amount to him mistreating his fellow citizens - he would be a free loader on their efforts in maintaining the rule of law. This argument is very similar to the fairness theories of political obligation we will explore in the fourth article of this series.

Third, Socrates argued that he owes a lot to the laws of Athens, for example, his upbringing and education, among other things. So it would be wrong of him to disobey its laws now that they do not happen to benefit him. This is similar to gratitude theories of political obligation we will look at in the fourth part of our series too.

Suggested theories

Plato’s Crito was not only the first philosophical work exploring the grounds of political obligations, it was also the last one that appeared for centuries. Philosophers only got back to discussing the issue in the Middle Ages. At that point the so-called divine command theories ruled the ideological field, according to which we are obliged to obey the ruler, because this is what God has commanded us to do. The seventeenth century gave birth to social contract theories. These theories argued that we (or our ancestors) agreed to certain rules to ensure a peaceful co-existence between all members of society. From then on, a number of different theories have been proposed. Membership theories, for example, argue that being born into a certain society brings obligations. It is just like being born in a certain family. Once that happened, like it or not, you do have obligations toward your family members. The same goes for the state you have been born in. Natural duty theories argue that simply because we have been born as humans we owe certain obligations to each other. Respecting the laws is one of those obligations. We will examine membership theories and natural duty theories in the fifth part of this series.

There are also theorists who argue that we simply do not have a general moral obligation to obey the laws. We will examine these theories, varieties of so-called philosophical anarchism, in our final article.