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About this book

How should we understand the relationship between citizens and governments, and what are the obligations of citizens? In this substantially revised new edition of an influential text, John Horton challenges dominant theories by offering an 'associative' account focusing particularly on what it is to be a member of a political community.

Table of Contents

1. Problems of Political Obligation

Abstract
The term ‘political obligation’ is not one that has much currency in contemporary political discourse, and will likely be unfamiliar even to those who are generally well-educated and politically informed. It is not a term like ‘rights’, ‘freedom’ or ‘justice’, which although also the subjects of extensive academic debate and inquiry, some of it quite technical and difficult, are omnipresent in popular political discussion. Most people have views about rights, freedom and justice, however naive and unreflective, whereas if challenged to say what they think about ‘political obligation’, without further explanation, the same people would be unlikely to have much idea what they are being asked. In fact, political obligation is something that appears scarcely to be mentioned outside books and articles on political philosophy; and even in that context the best evidence suggests that it dates from as recently as the late nineteenth century (Green, 1986). It is not, therefore, possible to begin by assuming even a rudimentary understanding of the term.
John Horton

2. Voluntarist Theories

Abstract
In this chapter I seek to offer an overview and critical assessment of one broad and potentially attractive class of accounts of political obligation. These accounts, following terminology which has become quite familiar, can be labelled ‘voluntarist’ (Riley, 1973; Pateman, 1985), and many of them can also be covered by the even more familiar idea of consent theories. Such theories have proved consistently appealing in the long history of discussions of political obligation, but especially so in the modern world to theorists of a broadly liberal persuasion. Central to these theories is the role that they attribute to individual choice or decision, to some specific act of voluntary commitment, in explaining or justifying political obligation. Their essential and common feature is simply that they seek to explain political obligation in terms of some freely chosen undertaking through which persons act so as to bind themselves morally to their polity. It is through this act or decision that people are thought to acquire their political obligations. However, the particular form of this act or decision; the conditions that are taken to be sufficient to render it freely chosen; the precise nature of the relationship implied; the extent of the obligation incurred; and to whom or what the obligation is owed — are all variously articulated within differing voluntarist accounts. Often these differences are important and for some purposes may be regarded as more significant than the features that these accounts share. Without, though, seeking to deny or underestimate those differences, the discussion that follows is premised on the assumption that it is legitimate and instructive to treat such differences for the most part as variations within one broad class or type of views.
John Horton

3. Teleological Theories

Abstract
The preceding chapter examined one broad category of accounts of political obligation: voluntarist theories. In this chapter we look at another type of account: I label these ‘teleological theories’. Whereas voluntarist theories seek to explain political obligation in terms of some putative voluntary undertaking by the person obligated — a specific utterance or form of action — which puts that person under an obligation, the theories discussed in this chapter approach political obligation from a different perspective. These theories seek to explain political obligation by looking to the future rather than to the past, and by looking to the likely consequences or the purposes of the obligation, rather than to some obligation-creating voluntary act. They are teleological theories because they explain political obligation in terms of some goal, end or purpose, a telos, which provides the explanation or justification of the obligation. Political obligation within teleological theories characteristically derives from a general requirement to act in a manner designed to bring about a particular state of affairs. Teleological theories, therefore, are typically consequentialist or purposive in structure: broadly, the rightness of an action (or type of action), practice or institution is to be judged in terms of the value of what it brings about. Where teleological theories divide sharply one from another is in their accounts of the nature and value of these purposes or consequences. Thus, while all teleological theories account for political obligation by reference to the beneficial purposes or consequences of there being such an obligation — the obligation ultimately deriving from these purposes or consequences — they differ about the point of the obligation.
John Horton

4. Deontological Theories

Abstract
In the two preceding chapters, I have argued that neither voluntarist nor teleological theories are able to provide convincing accounts of political obligation, although both approaches do seem to latch on to features of it that any adequate account will need to accommodate. Voluntarist theories, though superficially attractive, present a picture of political relations that largely misrepresents the character of a polity and people’s experience of their relations to it. Teleological theories are either, as in the case of utilitarianism, unable to tie political obligation to the particular polity of which people are members, or, as with T. H. Green, involve an unconvincing conception of the common good. Overall, therefore, voluntarist and teleological theories both fail to capture distinctive features of political obligation. There is, though, a third type of account of political obligation that aspires to avoid the failings of the other two theories. This approach seeks to explain political obligation in terms of the idea of duty, and therefore the theories may be called, in philosophical terminology, ‘deontological’.
John Horton

5. Anarchism: Political and Philosophical

Abstract
Taken together, the three preceding chapters have considered a wide variety of theories of political obligation, and all those that could be counted as standard theories. The upshot of the discussion so far is that, notwithstanding several of the approaches having distinctive merits, all are ultimately unconvincing: none of the theories provides a satisfactory general account of political obligation. Perhaps inevitably, the failure of these theories has given rise to real doubts about there being a convincing general account of political obligation, and it is therefore not surprising that a number of philosophers have come to more or less sceptical conclusions about the possibility of any philosophically cogent account of political obligation (e.g. Smith, 1973a; Wolff, 1976; Simmons, 1979, 2001). The perceived failure of attempts to justify political obligation has led in turn to the claim that there are few, if any, such obligations. In short, on this view, there is no special moral relationship between people and the polity of which they are members. Typically, this sceptical conclusion about political obligation is the basis for some kind of anarchism; and is the subject of this chapter. In particular, we shall be concerned with the question of the viability of the anarchist vision of political relations and whether the wholesale rejection of political obligation really offers a convincing alternative to the theories that have so far been rejected. If, as will be argued, this turns out not to be the case, then we shall need to return once more to our search for a more satisfactory account of political obligation.
John Horton

6. Associative Political Obligation and its Critics

Abstract
Thus far we have examined several general theories of political obligation, which have all been found wanting to varying degrees. None of them, it has been argued, provides a very plausible basis for attributing political obligations to most members of any existing polity, or to any polities that have existed or are likely to exist. As this rather cumbersome way of expressing our interim conclusion perhaps suggests, this does not mean that none of the theories have anything to be said for them or that they cannot or could not explain how some people in some circumstances may come to have political obligations. The point is that they do not provide what they purport to offer, which is a convincing general justification of political obligation. A general theory, as set out in Chapter 1, does not need to explain how everyone has political obligations, but it should cover at least the standard case of people who acquire membership through being born into the polity. None of them, I want to suggest, effectively captures the intuitive idea of political obligation: the idea that we are ethically bound to our particular polity, although we never chose to join it and although it may be flawed in a variety of significant ways.
John Horton

7. Elaborating the Associative Theory

Abstract
In the preceding chapter I began to sketch in broad and general terms the key components of an associative understanding of political obligation. Such an understanding centres on what it is to be a member of a polity and how being a member of a polity, like being a member of a family, involves corresponding obligations of membership. I also sought to show that although the very idea of associative obligations, and in particular the idea of associative political obligations, has been subject to extensive criticism, these criticisms are less damaging than their advocates maintain. So far, however, beyond these generalities about membership, little has been said to give real substance to the account of associative political obligations. That is the task of this chapter.
John Horton

8. Conclusion

Abstract
The principal tasks of this book have now been completed. Several general theories of political obligation have been considered, and what I claim to be a more promising alternative approach has been sketched. The fundamental contention that I have sought to defend is that there is robust and cogent understanding of associative political obligations that provides a highly plausible explanation of how it is intelligible, reasonable and morally defensible for people to think that they have such obligations. I have also claimed that there are good, though not logically compelling, reasons as to why pretty much all of us should take the idea that we have political obligations seriously. The main arguments for these conclusions have been that political obligations are a concomitant of membership of a particular polity; a polity being a form of association that has as its generic value the good of order and security. Membership of a polity can be, and usually is, a status that one assumes without any voluntary decision to join and which is internalized through various forms of identification. The precise content of political obligations will vary according to the character of a particular polity but, because of the nature of the generic good of a polity, political authority in the form of governmental institutions backed by legitimate coercion will inevitably be at its heart. It has also been argued that it is hard to see how we could flourish, at least under conditions of modernity, outside of a polity. All of these arguments stand in need of greater refinement and further elaboration, but it is perhaps worth remarking that, while I can easily envisage many aspects of the particular account set out in Chapter 7 being qualified, revised and improved upon, and some rejected as mistaken, it is to the broad contours of an associative account of political obligation that my commitment is firmest.
John Horton
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