Political Authority and Obligation

Course Description: 

Political institutions are peculiar entities. They claim a right to issue binding directives (commands, rules, laws) to those within their jurisdiction and to enforce their directives against disobedience. Furthermore, they claim that their directives have supremacy over the directives issued by non-political institutions that exist and act within their domain. In other words, they claim that whenever their directives conflict with those of other institutions, it is their directives that should be followed. They also claim to have monopoly of force, i.e. exclusive right to decide who can use force against whom, when and how. Furthermore, the obligation to obey created by their directives is claimed to be general, i.e., to hold with regard to (almost) all directives, on (almost) all occasions, to (almost) all agents (whether individual or collective) within their jurisdiction. Generality seems to be a corollary of the fact that the subjects of obligation are required to obey the official directives merely on the ground that their source is a political institution within the jurisdiction of which they find themselves. They have, thus, a reason to obey independently of the moral or prudential worth of the particular content of the directives. This is called the content-independence of the political obligation to obey. Content-independence does not mean that official directives have binding force whatever the worth of their content; “I have acted on command” is not an excuse for executing grossly immoral or unjust commands, nor is there a duty to assume the burdens of complying with rules totally unsuitable to yield the desired effect even if they are obeyed by all. Thus, even if political institutions must be obeyed on most occasions, sometimes there are good reasons for departing from obedience. But if the claim of political institutions is correct, then those reasons must be very strong. To put it differently, the claim of political obligation is a claim that individuals within the scope of a political institution bear pro tanto obligations, i.e., the presumption is that they bear obligations, but this presumption is open to rebuttal. Now an institution with a right to issue and enforce directives presumed to be binding is called a political authority.

The claim of political authority is not self-justifying. Claims are not true just in virtue of being made. First, not all political institutions have the capacity to exercise supreme authority and monopoly of force. Only political institutions with this capacity can be de facto authorities. But, sometimes, even de facto authorities fail to satisfy the conditions that make their claim of authority true. For example, an utterly unjust regime may claim the right to be obeyed and to enforce obedience, and it may be capable to act in accordance with this claim, without its claim being true. Satisfying the truth conditions of the claim of authority changes a de facto authority into a legitimate authority. Identifying the normative conditions of legitimacy is a central problem of political philosophy.

This is a hard problem because the claim and the exercise of political authority seems to be incompatible with certain moral principles that modern political philosophy takes to be basic. These principles insist that humans are free and equal persons, and must be treated as such. On the face of it, the claim of political authority as a right to be obeyed is ruled out by the moral freedom and equality of persons. If the incompatibility is genuine, then either the moral foundations or the claim of political obligation are to be abandoned. Only a few outliers in contemporary political philosophy would be ready to give up on the idea that humans are free and equal persons. For the rest, the default must be the presumption that political institutions can never command legitimacy. Even an ideal liberal democratic state is necessarily illegitimate. In other words, the default is the position taken by radical political anarchists who argue that, lacking legitimate authority, states should be resisted and dismantled. (The values upheld by classical anarchists were not identical with the values upheld by liberals. But the radical anarchist argument does not need those particular values to carry persuasion. The anarchist position can be sustained on a liberal basis.)

That the anarchist position is the default means that as long as the moral foundations are accepted, anarchists need not provide further arguments in support of their view – until their opponents come out with challenging arguments against it. In other words, the burden of proof is on the opponents of the anarchist position. Liberals, for example, stick to the moral foundations of freedom and equality but they want to reject the anarchist thesis. Three ways of meeting the anarchist challenge are explored by contemporary liberal political philosophers.

Some try to show that the claim of political authority can be reconciled with the basic moral principles of freedom and equality. They offer various different theories that can be grouped into two main types: voluntaristic and non-voluntaristic. Theories of the first type assume that for a person to be politically obligated, s/he must perform some act that counts as undertaking an obligation (expressing consent, accepting benefits from a cooperative scheme, etc.), and that the relevant act must be performed voluntarily (acts performed under coercion, manipulation, duress, or hypnosis, for example, are not obligation-generating). Consent theory and its descendants (tacit consent theory, hypothetical consent theory, normative consent theory) and theories of fair play belong to this type. Non-voluntaristic theories assume that individuals can be subject to political obligations without voluntarily undertaking them. One way of getting subjected of a non-voluntary obligation is supposed to consist in just receiving (rather than voluntarily accepting) goods from the relevant political institution, goods that are necessary for their survival and well-being (non-voluntary fairness theory). Another way is supposed to be originating with a person belonging to a particular political community (associative political obligations theories). Non-voluntary fairness theory and associative political obligation theory share the property of building their claim on the assumption of the existence of some special relationship between the obligee and the group toward which the obligation holds (reception of benefits from the efforts of the group in the case of the non-voluntary fairness theory, bearing a social role in the group in the case of the associative political obligation theory). A third version of the non-voluntaristic theory has two levels. At the basic level, it makes no assumption of any special relationship between people: it insists that the relevant duties are held by all individuals towards all other individuals merely in virtue of their having the moral status of persons. The relevant duties are claimed to be duties of justice. Hence the name of the theory: theory of natural duties of justice. At the second level, the natural duties of justice theory claims that people are unable to live up to their duties of justice without the assistance of political institutions. They discharge their duties of justice by obeying the directives of the institutions that apply to them, provided that those institutions are just. Thus, according to the natural duties of justice theory, the duty to obey just institutions is derivative of the more basic duty to be just towards all human persons.

Critics argue that none of these theories succeeds to reconcile the claim of authority with the liberal moral foundations. According to these critics, liberals must bite the bullet: there is no such a thing as a general duty to obey political institutions just because they are political institutions. They tend (somewhat misleadingly) to call themselves “philosophical anarchists”. The label is misleading because the so-called “philosophical anarchists” argue that the radical anarchist conclusion does not follow. Even if there is no such a thing as a legitimate political authority, they insist, many directives of a reasonably just political institution are worthy of being obeyed since they are valuable on specific grounds, independent from their being issued by a putatively legitimate political institution. So even if no state can command legitimacy, the subjects have reasons to act on its official directives on a sufficiently large number of occasions. The set of particular obligations that the “philosophical anarchists” believe to be genuine might even be coextensive with the set that the believers in the possibility of legitimate political authority would stipulate, since the latter argue for a presumption of political obligation, for a presumption that leaves room for justified exceptions. Thus, “philosophical anarchists” are actually liberals who insist that liberal political theory can and should do without the idea of legitimate political institutions.

There are, finally, liberals who agree with the “philosophical anarchists” on whether even a fully just political institution can have a general, content-independent right to be obeyed but who disagree with the “philosophical anarchists” on whether the concept of political authority is inseparably linked to the right to be obeyed. Liberal political theorists making up this third group argue that, properly understood, the claim of political authority is more modest: it consists in the claim that an instance with political authority is morally permitted to issue directives backed by coercive force but it includes no claim that by virtue of issuing directives, such an instance imposes an obligation to obey those directives on (almost) everyone within their jurisdiction on (almost) all occasions. If so, then there can be legitimate authorities even if there is no such a thing as a general, content-independent obligation to obey their directives.

This course will introduce into the debate outlined above. It will ask the question what are the distinctive features of a political institution, why those features raise the problem of legitimacy, and how legitimacy should be understood. It will address conceptual issues related to political authority and obligation. It will discuss the foundational moral principles of modern political philosophy and confront the issue of an apparent incompatibility of those principles with the idea of legitimate political authority. It will reconstruct the various different attempts to solve the difficulty, the arguments advocates of rival theories make against the views of their opponents and in defense of their own.

Learning Outcomes: 

Getting an in-depth grasp of the problem of political authority/obligation and its role in political theory.

Understanding the nature of arguments in political philosophy and of the way they differ from arguments made in institutional political theory. Developing the ability to make such arguments.
Enabling critically to present a philosophical text.
Developing the ability to make such arguments.
Enabling critically to present a philosophical text.


This is a four-credit course for doctoral students in Political Science or Philosophy. It continues over the entire academic year; students will get a certificate of attendance in the Fall term, and they will earn the four credits in the Winter term. For those who do not take the course in the Fall term, it will not be possible to join it in the Winter term. Those dropping out at the end of the Fall term cannot earn a grade.
The grade will reflect class participation (50%) and a 4500-5000 words long final essay to be submitted at the end of the Winter term (50%). Class participation includes at least one seminar presentation based on a hand-out.

The grade will reflect class participation (50%) and a 4500-5000 words long final essay to be submitted at the end of the Winter term (50%). Class participation includes at least one seminar presentation based on a hand-out.