On Philosophy

March 24, 2008

Paper: The Relative Strength of Political Obligations

Filed under: Papers,Political Philosophy — Peter @ 12:00 am

A Theory of Political Obligation develops a theory that purports not just to be correct, but intuitive as well. Indeed there are certain intuitions that it does respect, but, problematically, people are of divided opinion as to whether political obligations exist at all. Thus a theory claiming that membership in society produces such obligations will be unintuitive to those who deny that political obligations exist, and denials of their existence will be unintuitive to those who think that they do exist. It may be that the intuitions of one of these two groups of people are simply in error, but this situation cries out for an explanation of who is wrong and why. Another, seemingly unrelated, open question facing the theory is how the obligations described by it fit with the other moral and prudential obligations we recognize. How do we determine which obligation takes precedence in cases where they conflict? While this technical issue might appear to have nothing whatsoever to do with conflicts of intuitions regarding the existence of political obligations I maintain, contrary to initial appearances, that a theory concerning how the political obligations described by the theory fit with our other obligations can be used to explain why intuitions concerning the existence of those obligations vary as widely as they do.

But before I get into those issues allow me to first describe the theory, since it is not the comparative strength of political obligations in general that I am concerned with here, only the strength of the political obligations as described in A Theory of Political Obligation. The reconstruction I will provide of that theory here deviates in two substantial ways from the original version, for reasons I will explain later, but I think that it is faithful to its essence. To understand the theory precisely, and to explore its foundational assumptions, perhaps it is best to start with a situation simpler than a full blown society. Consider then a single individual who has various inclinations and desires. Naturally we expect that their desires and inclinations will change, even over the course of a single day, as their mood changes and their attention directs them towards different things. If they straightforwardly tried to follow their inclinations and desires as they occurred to them no good would come of it; as soon as they were pursuing one course of action other ideas would strike them, motivating them to drop what they were doing for something else. Thus to manage themselves effectively individuals must have a way to manage their behavior in a way that overrules such transient mental fluctuations. One way that might be accomplished is through commitments; individuals commit themselves to a course of action via a decision which they then stick to unless there is an appropriate reason to set aside that commitment, something more than a change in attitude (as explained in A Theory of Political Obligation, henceforward abbreviated as TPO, pg. 127). Thus it seems appropriate to speak of such commitments as generating obligations to act as we have committed ourselves, since it seems that rationality, or at least practical rationality, would require us to do so, all else being equal (a claim which we can back up, if necessary, by appeal to the fact that without a habit of sticking to our commitments we would be unable to effectively manage our lives).

Such individual commitments have nothing to do with political obligations directly. But, just as there are individual subjects, so there are so-called plural subjects, collections of people that might be described as constituting a single body, and they too might have commitments that serve the purpose of self-regulation, and which generate obligations to obey them. But before I discuss those joint commitments a few words must be said about the plural subjects.[1] Obviously the goal of this reconstruction is to illuminate a theory that says something about political obligations, specifically about how political obligations can stem from membership. And so plural subjects, whatever they are, must include among their number the large bodies of people that in fact constitute societies that we live in. This rules out certain natural characterizations of what a plural subject might be, such as a group of people that acts as one, because while certain groups do fall under that description, such as a well-trained covert ops team, actual societies are large and fragmented. Their members often act in ways contrary to each others’ interests, and even who is a member is subject to constant change. A better characterization of the kind of plural subject we are after is, perhaps, a group of people whose well-being is interdependent, and who think of themselves as a single group. Thus nation states constitute plural subjects because of their economic and social structures, such that the fortunes of everyone tend to rise and fall together. But the set of blue eyed people does not constitute such a plural subject; they don’t consider themselves to be a single group, and even if they did their well-being wouldn’t be appropriately connected. And this characterization admits of smaller groups within the nation state which are tied together more closely, such as family groups, which surely counts in its favor (just as the original definition of plural subjects found in TPO does, see pg. 166, 173).

A joint commitment then is like an ordinary commitment in the following ways: it binds the group to a particular course of action (TPO pg. 134), we say that the members of the group are obligated to abide by the joint commitment (TPO pg. 156), and we might defend that claim by appeal to the necessity of such efficacious joint commitments in order for the group to manage itself[2]. The major difference between the two is, naturally, that the joint commitment is a product of a plurality of wills while individual commitments stem from the will of a single person. That difference will be quite significant when it comes to the details of how joint commitments come about; for example, in determining whether every member of the joint commitment has to actively will it into existence or whether it is possible for some of the members to just passively go along with it (TPO pg. 178 discusses this issue). Such questions are interesting, but are irrelevant to the current paper; here we will just assume that joint commitments do exist and are as described in the book. And given this account I assume that how such joint commitments can be said to give rise to political obligations is obvious and uncontentious; to manage itself the plural subject jointly commits to various political structures. It is thus obligated to obey the rules produced by those structures because of its joint commitment to them.

I mentioned earlier that this reconstruction differs from the original theory it is based on and inspired by in two substantial ways; now that I have provided my reconstruction it is time to point out and defend those differences. One substantial difference is that in this reconstruction plural subjects are described in advance of, and independently from, joint commitments, while in the original version they are simply a way of referring to the people who are jointly committed (TPO pg. 145). This alteration exists to avoid the possible objection that the theory falls short of describing political obligation as we actually conceive of them, and that it instead describes only a similar notion mistakenly taken to be the real thing. Such a claim might be made because there are many people who are ordinarily taken to be members of political societies, such as infants, the mentally infirm, the apathetic, etc, but who are not members in terms of the original theory; given that they cannot be or are not part of the joint commitment they are not part of the plural subject. Under the reconstruction described here, in contrast, such people are part of the plural subject, so long as they don’t actively rebel against it, because they are still connected to other people in the right ways, and are thus obligated by the joint commitments made by those willing and able to commit and which are imposed on them[3]. This, I think, brings the theory much closer in line with an ordinary understanding of what constitutes membership in a political society and thus of who is subject to political obligations[4]. The second substantial difference is that to justify the claim that commitments in general, and joint commitments specifically, give rise to obligations the fact that they were necessary for effective self-regulation was appealed to, while in the original version of the theory the fact that joint commitments create entitlement to and ownership of future actions was appealed to (TPO pg. 154). Again, the alteration exists to avoid a problem, this time the problem that there is disagreement regarding whether joint commitments do actually create ownership of future actions (and whether ownership of actions, especially future actions, even makes sense, or whether it is more like claiming ownership of the number four, i.e. something that can’t properly be owned). Some may have different intuitions or demand an explanation for why joint commitments give rise to relationships of ownership and owing, or why ownership constitutes a motivating reason to act, that appeals to more than intuition. By providing an explanation of why such commitments should be honored as a matter of practical rationality such issues are avoided completely. Naturally I don’t want to categorically deny that the original theory may have the resources to address the problems raised here, but, even if it does, there are two advantages to this reconstruction for the purposes of this paper. First it leaves the claims of the theory about joint commitments and their obligations essentially unchanged; the same claims about the standing to rebuke and demand, the attitudes associated with joint commitment, etc all hold for the reconstruction since joint commitments are still taken to be essentially the same kind of a product of a plurality of wills as they were in the original account, it is only how they are linked to obligations that is substantially changed. Secondly, and equally importantly, issues concerning who is obligated and whether they are obligated arising for the original theory are effectively bracketed by the reconstruction, which allows us to focus solely on the strength of those obligations, the real purpose of this paper.[5]

But, however compelling this reconstruction is, it must be granted that the obligations stemming from joint commitments may sometimes obligate us to act immorally. Since we have a moral reason to reject any theory that tells us to do something immoral (perhaps by claiming that we are obligated to obey such immoral rules, all things considered) it is natural to assume that moral obligations outweigh political obligations. It is equally problematic to assume that political obligations are weaker than the obligations that stem from personal commitments; since personal commitments are so ubiquitous it would mean that there would rarely be a role for considerations concerning political obligation to play. Such difficulties open up a new kind of problem, namely how to determine when one obligation is more important than another. Some remarks are made concerning these issues (TPO 11.4 especially pg. 279), but they lean heavily on our personal intuitions. There it is argued that conformity to the joint commitment seems to be of great importance (perhaps because of its connection to the existence of social order), and thus that it trumps lesser matters. But this appeals to our personal judgment concerning how important the joint commitment and conformity to it is. And I’m not sure that this actually does reflect our natural judgments: speeding violates the joint commitment, but few take flaunting it in that way as particularly momentous or dangerous to the preservation to social order. Of course I certainly wouldn’t deny that we have intuitions about which obligations are more important, such as our intuition that ethical obligations are more important than political obligations, but I claim that these intuitions are not, by themselves, sufficient to settle this matter. Intuitions on these issues vary greatly from person to person, in all likelihood more so than intuitions regarding the existence of political obligations, since there is far more conceptual space in which they might diverge. Furthermore, these intuitions seem quite complicated: different kinds of obligations may be thought to have precedence depending on facts about the situation. And so intuitions do not clearly suggest a theory about the relative strength of obligations. In such a situation, where we lack a systematic theory to back up our intuitions, it seems to me that an appeal to them to settle a matter of such import may be in danger of reducing philosophy to opinion. I also grant that this may be a problem that can only be settled with a complete theory of obligations, which I don’t have the resources here to develop from scratch or to reconstruct from the writings of some other philosopher. Instead the strategy I will pursue to answer this question is a tentative one; I will pick out two different aspects of obligations, roughly understood, that suggest themselves as a basis for ordering obligations. I will pursue each of these possibilities independently, simply assuming that it is the right way, and the only way, to rank obligations. If both of these ways roughly correspond with the intuitive ordering we give obligations and with each other then I will take that as a non-conclusive reason to believe their pronouncements about the relative strength of political obligations.

One component of our rough understanding of obligations is that ideally it would be best to satisfy every obligation. Let us call a strategy that satisfies all of our obligations the ideal path. Since the ideal path is a goal we can assume then that it is best to be as close to the ideal path as we can, and so that when obligations conflict we should break our obligations in such a way that we stray from the ideal path as little as possible. But how to determine when one course of action brings us farther from the path than another is still up for debate. So let us consider for a moment agreements to engage in some action under specific circumstances. Such agreements would be of the form: “if circumstances C obtain then you must do action X”. And let us further consider a set of such agreements where circumstances C are all relatively trivial. One agreement might be to speak in iambic pentameter whenever we are on the second floor of a building, another might be never to sit down while wearing something red. To one extent or another these circumstances are all under our control; if I need to sit down, for example, then I can always remove whatever red item I am wearing. Now suppose that we find ourselves in a situation were these conditional agreements conflict. To stick to the ideal path in such circumstances we must act so as to ensure that one or the other of the conditions that brings the conflicting obligations into play stops obtaining, which would end the contradiction between them. To free ourselves from those circumstances will require a certain amount of energy or sacrifice on our part, which will vary from agreement to agreement and situation to situation. Thus when we find ourselves in a situation where the obligations stemming from such agreements conflict in this way we can say that we are K distance from the ideal path, where K is a measure of the difficulty in freeing ourselves from the easiest condition. And this kind of talk strongly suggests that when we fail to fulfill one of our obligations that the distance we are from the ideal path is equal to the difficulty that we would have had in freeing ourselves from that obligation. This gives us the rule that we originally set out to find; when we find ourselves in situations where our obligations conflict, and where we must break at least one of them, we should break the obligation that, in normal circumstances, it would have been easiest to legitimately release ourselves from.

But, while this may seem unproblematic for the special kinds of agreements that I have been talking about, it may seem less plausible for other kinds of obligations, which don’t seem to have clear exit conditions. I agree that when it comes to ethical obligations that it doesn’t seem that they are escapable. But ethical obligations may be a special class of obligations, and, as inescapable, the difficulty of freeing ourselves from them is infinite, providing a justification for the intuitive claim that ethical obligations trump all other kinds of obligations. But when it comes to other kinds of obligations it does seem like there are ways of freeing ourselves from them. Consider, for example, the obligations generated by our individual commitments. It was already noted that a special act of will could overturn those commitments, and thus that the difficulty in freeing ourselves from such commitments is roughly proportional to the difficulty in making that particular act of the will. Similarly, agreements between two parties seem escapable as well, with the difficulty being equal to how hard it is to convince the other party to prematurely lift that agreement. (If you agree with someone to take certain actions it seems legitimate to say that you are no longer obligated to take those actions if you make them some offer such that the other party now agrees that you are no longer obligated by the terms of the original agreement.) Even the obligations to satisfy our own desires that stem from prudence/self-interest (or commitments we make to satisfy such desires, if such desires aren’t taken to intrinsically generate obligations) seem escapable, with the difficulty being how hard it is to change what we desire. It is no surprise then that there are ways to escape the obligations stemming from joint commitments, namely by leaving the plural subject, since the joint commitment applies only to that plural subject.

According to this theory making a judgment about how strong political obligations are requires a position on what it takes to leave a joint commitment, a claim that may itself be contentious. So let me begin with another thought experiment. Consider then a large plural subject, made of members who don’t all know each other. This plural subject is jointly committed to a number of different rules, one of which being that all the members must wear a particular kind of black hat. Because of this the members recognize each other by those black hats, since they don’t all know each other personally, and some of their rules exist to make sure that people wearing the black hats are honoring their commitments. Now suppose that a stranger arrives on the scene, who has no knowledge of this group, but who coincidentally happens to be wearing one of their peculiar black hats. The members of this plural subject may take this person to be another member and thus subject to their obligations, as well as outsiders who are familiar with the custom. However, it is quite clear that the outsider wearing the hat is not actually obligated, despite these perceptions, because they do not consider themselves part of the group or to be so obligated, even though everyone else takes them as publicly signaling their participation in that joint commitment, since this is the only thing that currently distinguishes them from the members[6]. What I claim this situation shows is this: whatever it takes to be a member of a plural subject it is at least partially dependant on the individual’s thinking of themselves as a member. This implies that all it takes to stop being a member of a plural subject is to stop considering oneself to be a member, which may be somewhat difficult because of habit, but not impossible.

I grant that some will disagree with this claim, and may think that the existing structure of the plural subject prevents such easy egress. Before I address such arguments let me first point out that they don’t win much in this context; one can physically leave actual plural subjects quite simply by making it to a border and renouncing ones citizenship[7]. In any case, one argument against this position might rest on the claim that, as someone who currently accepts the joint commitment, that they cannot so easily leave the plural subject through something as trivial as a change of attitude towards their own status as a member because they have accepted that they won’t (and are thus obligated not to), or that by not physically leaving it is understood that they agree to be part of the plural subject. But the problem with such rules is that they are predicated on the person’s being a member, and give them reason not to stop being a member. However, if they stop being a member obviously such rules cease to have any force. So while they are a member they aren’t breaking those rules, and when they aren’t a member they aren’t breaking those rules (because they apply only to members). Thus I conclude that such rules don’t have any real force since it is impossible to actually be in violation of them, no matter what you do[8].

Alternatively, the idea that cutting ones self off from a plural subject can be done via an act of will alone might also be argued against by appealing to the claim that the historical fact that we were once jointly committed still generates obligations for us, regardless of our current feelings about it. However, to hold that an obligation can depend on historical facts contradicts certain fundamental assumptions about obligations. Specifically, I take it as given that an obligation necessarily comes along with a motivating reason to act, even if that reason is not absolutely conclusive. Consider then a possible universe which is exactly like ours except that time in that universe began at a point equivalent to last Tuesday in the actual universe. Obviously there is no way to tell from the perspective of an inhabitant of this unusual universe whether it began on Tuesday or not, since after Tuesday events in that universe will proceed in exactly the same way as they do in the real universe. However, in this fictional universe there are no historical facts before that Tuesday, for obvious reasons, which is a substantial difference between the two, even if the inhabitants can’t be aware of that fact. Now if obligations could depend on historical facts then it would be the case that in this universe some such obligations would be thought to exist but would not, in actuality, since the historical facts they are thought to depend on, such as past commitments, are missing. But, as already observed, events in the two universes will proceed in exactly the same fashion; at least they will if our best scientific theories are right. Consequently, obligations dependant on historical facts must be epiphenomenal, i.e. without causal significance, since their presence, of lack thereof, has no impact on how events unfold. But if such obligations are epiphenomenal they can hardly be relevant to our reasons for action since their existence, and hence whether we act in accordance with them, has no observable consequences. This I take to be a reductio of the claim that obligations of any sort, and thus those stemming from joint commitment in particular, can depend on historical facts. Of course it is possible to bite the bullet and admit that obligations dependant on historical facts are independent of our reasons for action, but would be to make such obligations much weaker than supposed, not stronger.

In any case, to return to primary concern of this section, such an analysis of the strength of obligations makes political obligations seem relatively weak. Since freeing ourselves of our political obligations is relatively easy they rank among the other obligations that we are able to free ourselves of by what amounts to an act of will. Of course some acts of will are harder to make than others, and so I wouldn’t claim that every desire and personal commitment can trump political obligations. But it does seem that certain desires and commitments, which we hold to more firmly than our desire to be part of the plural subject, such as close personal attachments, may.

This brings us to the other strategy for evaluating the relative strength of obligations. The method discussed previously is very abstract; although the difficulty of freeing ourselves from particular obligations is obviously something that depends partially on the empirical world there is a sense in which it depends more on the abstract structure of that obligation itself, which brings with it the conditions that may free us of it. Such an abstract perspective on obligations is not to everyone’s liking. It is also possible to examine them from a naturalistic or empirical standpoint, focusing on the fact that obligations constitute a motivating reason to act. And it is easy to see the giving of reasons to individuals as the core of the obligation, and thus that which obligation is stronger ultimately comes down to which obligation constitutes a more psychologically compelling reason to act. Obviously few would embrace the idea that how people do act and decide which reason seems more compelling is necessarily how they should act. However, the idea that how people would act if they were exposed to all the facts and had reasoned correctly about them is how they should act does have some plausibility.

Under such an assumption it is also natural to assume that people usually have access to the pertinent facts and that they usually reason successfully, so that, unless special circumstances are involved, general patterns in human behavior reflect how people should act (modulo any widespread defects in human reasoning). According to this view then obligations stemming from certain kinds of prudence/self-interest and ethics are relatively strong. It should be obvious why obligations to oneself are strong under this view, so let me just say a few words about ethics. There are many people who would claim that ethics is a weak kind of obligation under this view, or that there isn’t any reason for them to be ethical, except for the fear of punishment. However, simply looking at the majority of human behavior indicates that when it comes to face to face interactions ethics usually has a strong say in the matter, especially with respect to core ethical principles such as not killing each other. Naturally there are occasional exceptions to this rule, such as anti-social personalities, circumstances of extreme desperation, and impersonal cruelty. But in such cases we can attribute actions that seem contrary to what is ethical to defects in reasoning, overshadowing by stronger obligations to survive, and a lack of awareness concerning all the facts about the suffering of other people, respectively. Thus it seems justifiable to claim under this method for comparing obligations that the reasons ethics provides are fairly strong ones.

The obligations generated by joint commitments seem much weaker in comparison. Obviously some joint commitments, such as the commitment to drive according to certain conventions, we will have to set aside, since obeying them accords with prudence, and so it is hard to say which of the two is really giving us reason to act in accordance with them or which is responsible for the strength of that reason. Instead I would like to turn our attention towards rules that seem contrary to ethics or to prudence, such as tax law. A simple inspection of such rules reveals an interesting fact; not only do the rules exist, but punishments for breaking them are enforced as well. But why do such punishments exist? Clearly there is no need to threaten to punish people who act against their own commitments or own self interest; people have reason to act in accordance with those obligations and so they generally tend to. And while there may be punishments for acting unethically the considerations discussed above reveal that such punishments exist to influence the behavior of the minority who act irrationally rather than the majority who will rarely consider actually acting unethically. But, when it comes to the rules stemming from joint commitment alone, punishment seems necessary, since many would conclude that it was rational for them to break unenforced laws when it would be to their substantial advantage. It would be absurd to think that many would pay their taxes if the associated punishments were never actually doled out. This doesn’t mean that joint commitments don’t constitute reason to act, but it does imply that, in general, those reasons are weaker than those that substantial self-interest generates, such that punishments need to be enforced so as to give people additional prudential reasons to conform to the joint commitment. Indeed there is data to support this claim: crime statistics suggest that roughly 1% of the population will engage in substantially unethical behavior (either acts of violence, theft, or fraud). In contrast NIDA (the National Institute on Drug Abuse) estimates that over 40% of the population has illegally used controlled substances on at least one occasion[9], which seems like a serious breach of the joint commitment given that simple possession for a first time offender can result in jail time. This implies, in terms of the general analysis of the relative strength of obligations introduced at the beginning of this section, that the obligations created by joint commitments are weaker than those generated by people’s persistent desires (or personal commitments associated with such), given that most people are swayed by those desires over the joint commitment in many circumstances.

Now this is not to say that the obligations generated by joint commitments are absolutely the weakest possible. It does seem likely that when it comes to our inclinations or fleeting desires that people in general would favor the joint commitment over them (although obviously this is an empirical claim, subject to confirmation). This seems to give the obligations of joint commitment roughly the same strength as they had under the previous strategy considered, namely that they are somewhere between commitments associated with our strongest and weakest desires. Since these two substantially different approaches to evaluating the strength of political obligations agree, at least roughly, if not on every detail, it seems to me that this gives us reason to believe these assessments, as mentioned earlier.

This might seem unintuitive to some, but, even if it is, this analysis has other virtues, namely that it can explain why people disagree as to whether political obligations exist at all. I postulate that people have different expectations as to how strong an obligation has to be to really count as an obligation. Some have a high standard for what counts as an obligations, and this explains why they feel that obligations should be substantially recalcitrant to the will[10], a somewhat strong kind of obligation, and may be disposed to deny that our individual commitments generate obligations, since those obligations are very weak by any measure. People with such intuitions may therefore be led to believe that political obligations don’t exist, since they are a weak sort of obligation. But others have a lower threshold when it comes to obligations, such that they consider almost everything that generates reasons to act, including personal commitments, to be obligations. They are thus led to believe that political obligations exist, since they are stronger than that threshold. In this way the theory of political obligation can be reconciled with a range of intuitions concerning the existence of those obligations without denying that anyone is substantially wrong or confused, so long as we are willing to grant what the two strategies for analyzing the strength of obligations developed in this paper concluded, that political obligations are a relatively weak sort of obligation, which at least I find intuitive.


[1] This is the first major divergence from the theory presented in TPO. There plural subjects are defined just as the people who are involved in a joint commitment (TPO pg. 145).

[2] This is the second major divergence from the theory presented in TPO. In the original version obligations are argued to exist because of considerations of owing and ownership of actions (TPO pg. 157).

[3] Obviously the original theory can describe these people as having imputed obligations (pg. 41), but that is quite clearly not the kind of obligation that we are interested in. A satisfactory solution of the membership problem, I maintain, must demonstrate that members of society, which includes people such as the apathetic, the mentally infirm, etc, have real obligations. It is trivially obvious that all members of society have imputed obligations, and if such obligations were enough for a successful solution to the membership there would be no need for an involved theory concerning joint commitments at all. And so it would seem that a solution to the membership problem which assigns to some members only imputed obligations is not a complete solution.

[4] It also neatly solves the objections that Simmons raises, that the account in TPO doesn’t work given the largely passive nature of membership, and which substantial effort is made to avoid, for example at TPO pg. 178.

[5] A further advantage, in my eyes, is that the reconstruction is essentially free of any appeals to intuition since it is ultimately supported not by intuitive definitions, but rather by appeal to empirical facts, namely that certain strategies, i.e. honoring the joint commitment, are practically effective. I concede though that not everyone would consider that an advantage.

[6] It might be argued that historical facts might set them part from the group, such as the fact that they didn’t enter into that commitment in the past, but I take it to be impossible for the existence of an obligation to depend on historical facts, a claim I will argue for subsequently.

[7] I find this to be an unsatisfactory measure because it varies by location and wealth, which seems highly unintuitive to me, as it seems unjust to hold the poor and those unlikely to be born farther away from the borders to a higher standard. Indeed if our society makes them more obligated I would think that we were doing something substantially wrong.

[8] This also can be taken as an argument that agreements aren’t kinds of joint commitments since agreements don’t work this way. Indeed I would take this line of argument to provide reason to believe that agreements are given their obligating power, including the obligation not to unilaterally back out of particular agreements, by external social constructs and conventions that are independent of particular agreements, thus making skipping out on the agreement contrary to practical rationality because one is still subject to the larger social structures (assuming that we haven’t left the joint commitment as well), which frown on such behavior.

[9] According to a 2001 study.

[10] Although in TPO it was argued that obligations stemming from joint commitment were substantially recalcitrant to the will I have argued against that claim here, since it follows from the fact that such obligations are partly dependant on our present mental state that certain acts of will can rid us of them.


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