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.
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