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Authority And Political Obligation Notes

History Notes > History of Political Thought c.1890-present Notes

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What sort of obligation does one have toward (what kind of) state, and why?
A liberal democratic polity warrants attention over that of an authoritarian or undemocratic society because a democratic political system typically presupposes the grant of the voluntary consent of its constituent citizens for the government to legitimately rule. In an undemocratic state, citizens do not possess any right to influence the activities of government. It is for this reason that this discussion of authority and political obligation of such citizens to a state will centre on modern liberal democracies where, conceptually at least, citizens have the right to disband a government that they no longer perceive as valid. As such, a democratic government rules by national consensus and thus obligation to that state is willed by the populace and is not compulsory. The mechanism for committing citizens of a democratic polity to their government is embodied in law. This examination will therefore address the reasoning behind common acquiescence, or resistance, to the laws issued by modern democratic state governments. Although anarchist philosophers would argue that modern liberal government is not willed by the people, and hence is illegitimate, I will attempt to advocate that modern liberal democracy is naturally willed by the people, thus not imposed from above. History itself testifies in favour of the legitimacy of states merely by their continued existence. Democratic government is a reflection of the will of its constituents and of human nature itself; consequently John Rawls describes such government as 'nearly just', for human nature is indeed 'nearly just' in itself. The anarchist juxtaposition of state authority and human autonomy is grossly inadequate for the task of pursuing an understanding of the obligations of citizens to their state governments. However it is also worthy of note that this discussion will ultimately favour 'the state forever' as opposed to 'the destruction of states' in opposition to the argument expounded by Peter Kropotkin and Karl Marx. Crucial to the understanding of popular acquiescence to the rule of law is the concept that law does not represent a universal standard. Some laws are supreme while others are not. Laws conceived by state governments have three purposes: to protect individual existence and liberty, thus ensure personal survival and protect personal property; to improve the moral quality of the populace; and to provide welfare measures for those who cannot independently sustain themselves. Punishments incurred for the breaking of such laws vary depending upon the severity of the offence. It is the rational nature of man that provides for the passing of such laws; John Locke wrote in his Two Treatises of Government that law (thus political obligation) is 'no where to be found but in the minds of men'. In other words it is human reasoning that motivates man to establish recognised laws. Reasoned human beings are motivated differently to adhere to different laws. Some laws are created in order to appease interests of the general population (i.e. those established to protect the lives and property of the populace) while others are instituted solely on transcendental moral grounds (i.e. those designed to improve the moral fabric of the populace and to provide welfare measures). This distinction can be seen for example between laws outlawing murder and those that raise taxes to pay for national healthcare. In this way, the public health of a state, embodied in the protection of its citizens, and the private health of those individuals who constitute the state, inevitably overlap in the form of law. This notion is in correction to Thomas Hobbes' assertion in his Leviathan that the public and private will of citizens in a given state are entirely separate. For Hobbes, the private conviction of citizens must not be communicated to any other individual as this would intrude upon the public realm that is absolutely ruled by a supreme government; all members of a polity must 'Submit their Wills, every one to his [the government's] Will, and their Judgments, to his Judgement' and thus retain no public will of their own. In a modern world where theology no longer provides moral justification for everyday human action, morality itself has come to penetrate the political sphere. The private moral convictions of individuals are occasionally enshrined in law. Crucially however, such laws do not carry the same validity as those passed for the fundamental protection of the state and its constituents. The survival of the constituents of a political community is the primary purpose of the existence of that community and thus of the political obligation to abide by the laws of that community. This truth is common among all men in any liberal state; in terms of survival all men

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