What Is Meant by Political Obligation?

Political obligation refers to an individual's moral duty to abide by the laws of their state or country. Although there is close to total agreement among philosophers and political thinkers regarding this premise, there exists a lengthy history of attempts to explain the manner in which an individual acquires the obligation, what people have actually done to acquire it and whether political obligation is more of an issue of being rather than doing. Some of the more well-known attempts to define political obligation have been made by Socrates, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and David Hume.

The importance of obedience to law was famously demonstrated by Socrates in 399 B.C. when he refused to escape the death sentence imposed upon him by the Athenian government. Although he was presented with an opportunity to flee, he explained his refusal to not do so by pointing out his obligation to uphold his commitment to abide by the laws of the city-state in which he lived and from which he received the benefit of his education. He also explained that his disobedience would not be fair to his fellow citizens who were expected to abide by the Athenian laws. In his refusal to escape, Socrates demonstrated what became known as the gratitude theory of obligation and the argument from fairness.

In the 1700s, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke viewed obedience to the laws of a state as a social contract between the governed and the government. The issue then arose concerning whether the agreement between the two parties must be explicitly expressed or if tacit consent, implied by simply living within the state, suffices to bind the contract. David Hume later described the obligation of obedience as arising from the basic utilitarian nature of laws to enable people to live together peacefully.