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Obligation and Consent—II

  • Hanna Pitkin (a1)


A reexamination of even the most venerable traditional problems of political theory can sometimes yield surprisingly new and relevant results. The problem of political obligation, for example, and its most popular “solution”, based on consent, turn out on reexamination to be rather different from what we have come to assume about them. The problem of political obligation resolves itself into at least four mutually related but partially independent questions:

1. The limits of obligation (“When are you obligated to obey, and when not?”)

2. The locus of sovereignty (“Whom are you obligated to obey?”)

3. The difference between legitimate authority and mere coercion (“Is there really any difference; are you ever really obligated?”)

4. The justification of obligation (“Why are you ever obligated to obey even a legitimate authority?”)

And the consent theory of obligation, as exemplified in Locke's Second Treatise and Joseph Tussman's Obligation and the Body Politic, turns out to yield a new formulation—perhaps a new interpretation of consent theory, perhaps an alternative to it—that might be labelled either the doctrine of the “nature of the government” or the doctrine of “hypothetical consent.”

It teaches that your obligation depends not on any actual act of consenting, past or present, by yourself or your fellow-citizens, but on the character of the government. If it is a good, just government doing what a government should, then you must obey it; if it is a tyrannical, unjust government trying to do what no government may, then you have no such obligation.



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1 This and part of the following paragraph are intended to summarize the argument of Obligation and Consent—I,” This Review, 59 (12, 1965), pp. 990999.

2 John Locke, Second Treatise of Civil Government; Tussman, Joseph, Obligation and the Body Politic (New York: Oxford, 1960).

3 Wittgenstein, Ludwig, Philosophical Investigations (New York: Macmillan, 1953). See also Cavell, Stanley Louis, “The Claim to Rationality” (Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Harvard University, 1961), esp. Chapter I.

4 See, for example, Macdonald, Margaret, “The Language of Political Theory,” in Flew, A., ed., Logic and Language: First Series (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1960), pp. 167186.

5 This suggestion is advanced, against Miss Maodonald's argument, in Benn, S. I. and Peters, R. S., Social Principles and the Democratic State (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1959), pp. 299301.

6 Something like this point is suggested by Tussman, op. cit., p. 43.

7 Locke, op. cit., pars. 121, 149, 168, 203–4, 208–9, 211–12, 220, 232, 240–3.

8 Plato, , Crito [50]: “are you not going by an act of yours to overturn us—the laws, and the whole state, as far as in you lies?” B. Jowett translation (New York: Random House, 1937).

9 Plato, , Apology, 32.

10 For the latter distinction, compare Benn and Peters, op. cit., pp. 329–31.

11 One difficulty of this discussion is that it seems to make human decisions look excessively rational. Are any abstract principles of this kind really relevant to what real people think about when they must decide? Is a man on the point of rebellion or revolution not much more likely to be moved by strong emotion—by an overwhelming anger or sense of outrage?

But I would like to suggest that the human capacity for outrage is, as it were, the emotional correlate to rational moral principles. It is our inner, helpless response to a violation of principles of right and wrong, as we sense them, perhaps quite inarticulately. Outrage (unlike mere anger), is an emotion of principle. I take it that this is what Albert Camus means when he insists that “the act of rebellion is not, essentially, an egoistic act,” even though it can, “of course” have “egoistic motives.” The Rebel (New York: Vintage, 1956), p. 16. The rebel, the man who acts from a sense of outrage, says not merely “I don't want to put up with this,” but “No man ought to have to put up with this.” And by feeling “no man ought…” he acts, in a sense, on principle. Compare Tussman, op. cit., pp. 78–79.

Of course a man's feeling that his situation is outrageous is one thing; whether the situation is in fact outrageous is another. A three-year-old may feel outraged at not being allowed to drink the detergent. We may sympathize with his feelings, but cannot condone the resulting violence. Not every feeling of outrage is a valid assessment of the world; but then, not every rational judgment that the limits of contractual obligation have been exceeded is valid either. No doubt rational judgments are more likely to be right; that is one advantage of rationality.

12 Hume, David, “Of the Original Contract,” in SirBarker, Ernest, ed., The Social Contract (New York: Oxford, 1960), p. 161.

13 This assertion is not about the relative claims that the two obligations—political obedience and promise-keeping—have on us, where they come into conflict. It seems obvious to me that no single, binding principle could be found to govern such a question. There are occasions when a vitally important promise is clearly a more important obligation than obedience to some minor law; on the other hand, the keeping of a minor promise is no excuse whatsoever for treason. But the assertion that the two obligations are separate and equal is not meant to bear on this question. It is meant only to say: there is no reason to suppose that promising is more “natural” or basic than obeying authority, and hence no reason to derive the latter from the former.

14 See particularly Austin, J. L., Philosophical Papers (Oxford: Clarendon, 1961), chs. 3, 6 and 10; Rawls, John, “Two Concepts of Rules,” Philosophical Review, LXIV (01, 1955), 332; and Cavell, S. L., “Must We Mean What We Say?” in Chappell, V. C., Ordinary Language (Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1964), esp. pp. 94101.

15 Compare Cavell, “Must We Mean What We Say?” op. cit., pp. 96, 99.

16 Op. cit., Part II.

17 “The Claim to Rationality,” Chapter VIII.

18 It is significant, in this respect, that consent theorists so often speak of contracts or covenants, rather than simple promises or oaths. For of course the idea of a contract or covenant implies that you get something in return for the obligation you take on, and in a way at least suggests the informal additional ties of gratitude. But there are other differences as well, a contract being more formal and usually more explicit than a promise.

19 Op. cit., p. 8.

20 Benn and Peters, op. cit., p. 322.

21 This and the next three paragraphs lean heavily on Cavell, “The Claim to Rationality,” p. 323 and all of Part II.

22 Compare Tussman, op. cit., pp. 86–95. It is tempting to construe the problem in relation to Arendt's, Hannah discussion of action: The Human Condition (1958), Part V. The human situation is precarious, and human action fallible in unpredictable ways. Both privately as individuals, and collectively as a society, we try to some extent to overcome this uncertainty, this fallibility. We make commitments, tie ourselves down for the future. As individuals, for example, we make promises. As a society, for example, we try to act and plan beyond the lifetimes of individuals, through the education of our children, or through the establishment of laws and institutions. As we reduce the uncertainty of private future action by telling others what we will do so that they can count on it, so we reduce the uncertainty of public future action by telling others and ourselves what we will do and how, so that we all can count on it. Yet in both private and collective action, uncertainty remains and things go wrong. We do not always live up to our commitments, and promised actions do not always accomplish their intended purpose. Institutions do not always function as intended either; they produce quite different goals, pursue other principles than those they were supposed to embody. Thus sometimes we need to review, replace or reject commitments we have made; sometimes it must be right for us to do so.

And where do human beings get the standards by which on such occasions they assess their government and find it wanting? Well, surely from the very society which they criticize with these standards. That this is possible—that we learn both the existing rules and criteria for assessing rules together, and yet can use the latter on occasion to criticize the former—may well be the most important single fact about social life.

23 Compare Tussman, op. cit., pp. 44–6.

24 Thus not only citizens, but also bystanders and commentators may need to decide about a government. Their problems are not the same, to be sure. The citizen must decide whether to obey or resist; the bystander never had an obligation to obey, so he at most must decide whether or whom to assist; the commentator only makes a judgment. Therefore the evaluation of governments as to their legitimacy, their entitlement-to-be-obeyed-by-their-subjects, is a topic that ranges beyond problems of political obligation

Obligation and Consent—II

  • Hanna Pitkin (a1)


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