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Political Obligation and Civil Disobedience Essay

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Updated: Aug 18th, 2021


While speaking on the topic of political obligation and civil disobedience, it would be relevant to note that the discussion and analysis of the issue of political obligation can be regarded as one of the most permanent characteristics of democratic political thought. If to regard a legal political obligation and a moral obligation, also called a ‘natural duty’, then it is necessary to dispute on the topic whether or not common people can have a moral obligation (‘natural duty’) to perform the required legal political obligations.

If referring to liberal political theorists, the term of moral obligation “is often thought to be concerned less with external conduct than with internal motivation, in the sense that acting morally is said to require acting with a particular attitude or sense of duty” (Hart, 1973, pp. 188 – 189).


Following this, it might be pointed out that liberal political theorists suggest that the issues of legal obligation and coercion should be regarded as inseparable ones, thus, it is impossible to deem obedience to the law within the context of a genuine moral motivation or intendment. Nevertheless, such coercion helps in the process of separation of legal obligation and ‘natural duty’ – moral obligation.

The disparity between the issues of legal political obligation and moral obligation makes it hard for liberal political theorists to analyze the natural duty and the moral basis of any person’s submission to his or her government and law.

The “Consent” theory designed by liberal political theorists suggests the model involving a person’s “consenting” to obey and respect the law. Thus, the issue of “consent” moralizes the act of a person’s obedience to the law and a person gives himself or herself certain moral cause to obey the law without pressure and freely. Hereby, it is possible to state that people might perform their political obligation only in the case if the law, as well as political obligation, becomes for them a sort of act which they freely ought to perform if they are to act morally.

The “Consent” theory defines obedience to the law and political obligation as a certain act people are morally obliged to perform. Such an act should be performed for a person’s motives rather than for fear or self-interest, so that “by consenting to obey the law, individuals may be said to obey their own wills when they obey the law, rather than be subjected to dependence on the wills of other persons” (Adler, 2002, p. 244).

Various liberal and democratic political philosophers support the idea that the moral legitimacy of truly democratic and liberal government comes from “the consent of the governed,” a thesis that is generally based upon Locke’s assumption that “no man can be… subjected to the Political Power of another without his own consent” (Locke, 2005, vol. 2, sec. 95, p. 374). According to Locke’s statement, it is possible to conclude that one’s consent is an essential condition to his or her being lawfully subjected to the exercise of political authority and power by other ones.

Hereby, it heuristically follows that the moral right of the democratic and liberal government to subject its own citizens to the exercise of political authority and power would, necessarily, demand the consent of those citizens subject to obeying the laws of society with liberal and democratic values.

While discussing the topic of political obligation and civil disobedience, it is necessary to take into consideration the issues of moral obligation as well as moral justification. The issues of freedom and autonomy must be analyzed and taken into account, as they are frequently used to reconcile the process of having a moral natural duty to obey the law with maintaining a person’s individual rights for the above-mentioned freedom and autonomy.

Following these statements, it might be suggested that when an individual freely participates in an election process, he subconsciously consents to obey and respect the law. Liberal and democratic theorists argue that the democratic ideal of “government by consent may be used in an entirely non-hypothetical sense, referring to the actual consent of individual citizens” (Fowler, 2000, pp. 46 – 47).

The above-mentioned procedure can be described as an exact act performed by particular people at selected periods of time rather than as an unapprehended vague process. But, it must be pointed out that, if defining the act of voting as a “method of consent” that applies to the ‘natural duty’, it is possible to “distort the normative significance of electoral participation as this participation is defined in the liberal and democratic tradition of political thought” (Fowler and Orenstein, 1997, pp. 128 – 129).

If referring to Locke’s political thought, which holds a contrary position and establishes a “coherent non-consent theory of political obligation and political legitimacy”, it appears that consent is used as a hypothetical and rhetorical obligation. Within this context, consent, by itself, is used to propose what would be relevant and rationale for any person to consent.

Thus, according to Pitkin, “consent is used as a hypothetical means of expressing a theory of the kinds of ends and purposes a government ought to promote in order to ‘deserve’ obedience” (Pitkin, 2004, p. 999). Such an interpretation established by Pitkin has been strongly supported by another political theorist – Cassinelli.

Alleging to Locke, again, it is necessary to point out that he excludes personal consent as a necessary and essential condition of political obligation as a ‘natural duty’ as well as political legitimacy. Oppositely to him, another theorist Jules Steinberg suggests the model of “morally diverse and pluralistic society” and asserts that “liberal political ideas are applicable primarily to a morally diverse and pluralistic society, that there is a ‘normative logic’ characteristic of liberal political thought that is incompatible with the normative logic characteristic of the consent theory of political obligation” (Steinberg, 2004, p. 8).

Tracing the problem of the political obligation and civil disobedience with the regard to political theorist – Rousseau, it is necessary to point out that he connects the issue of moral autonomy with his own theory of consent. The theorist also suggests certain ways in which the performance by individuals of moral autonomy might be combined with obedience to the law and political obligation.

In his political thought, Rousseau suggests solutions with the view “to reconcile obedience to the law and moral obligation in terms of a conception of an individual consent that is intended to demonstrate how moral autonomy may not be violated by obedience to the law” (Reiman, 2003, pp. 3 – 4). Contrary to Rousseau’s viewpoint, Locke and his successors – liberal and liberal-democratic political theorists, consider the principle of personal autonomy as ‘privatized’. According to them, this principle becomes capable of being exercised when a person is not compelled to obey the law and political obligations.


After describing, comparing, analyzing, and critically evaluating all of the above-provided materials on the topic of the political obligation and civil disobedience and of understanding the above mentioned political obligation as a ‘natural duty’, it might be concluded that individual does not have a congenital moral obligation or ‘natural duty’ to obey the law and political obligations, although obedience to the law and political obligation is morally justified. Therefore, it might be stated that a person has a natural moral duty to obey a law and political obligation as it is morally justified.

A number of political philosophers argue that the concept of a ‘natural duty’ or moral obligation can not be regarded as equivalent to moral justification. For example, an individual might be morally ought to fulfill an act without having any obligation to do that. As such, it is possible to conclude that person does not have a moral obligation or natural duty to obey and respect a morally justified law or political obligation.

Following this, it is necessary to note that moral obligations, called natural duty, appear when some people commit themselves to do something for other individuals “with the commitment establishing what may be called a ‘relationship of obligation’ involving an individual, the performance of an act, and another individual to whom the act to be performed is ‘owed’” (Taylor, 1973, p. 107).

Thus, it is possible to assert that ‘natural duty’ creates certain moral reasons for any person to perform an activity where this moral reason was previously absent. In accordance with political theorist Gewirth obligations “make what was previously indifferent or optional for a particular person into something he must do” (Gewirth, 2000, p.132).

What happens, nowadays, is that citizens are not convinced and do not feel that freely voting actually means freely consenting. Consent is considered as a necessary and essential term of political obligation, particularly, in the context of liberal and democratic order government.


Adler, M. J. 2002. The Idea of Freedom. Doubleday, New York: vol. 1, pp. 224-249.

Fowler, R. B. 2002. Political Obligation and the Draft, in Obligation and Dissent, eds. Donald W. Hanson and Robert Booth Fowler. Little Brown, Boston: pp. 46-62.

Fowler, M. J. and Orenstein J. R. 1997. Contemporary Issues in Political Theory. John Wiley & Sons, New York: pp. 117-137.

Gewirth, L. 2000. Political Justice. Mandarin, London.

Hart, H. L. A. 1973. Legal and Moral Obligation, in Concepts in Social & Political Philosophy, ed. Richard E. Flathman. Macmillan, New York: pp. 187-200.

Pitkin, H. 2004. Obligation and Consent. Macmillan, New York.

Reiman, J. H. 2003. In Defense of Political Philosophy. Harper & Row, New York: pp. 1-16.

Steinberg, J. 1978. Locke, Rosseau, and the Idea of Consent: An Inquiry into the Liberal-Democratic Theory of Political Obligation. Greenwood Press, Westport, CT.

Locke, J. 2005. Two Treatises of Government, ed. Peter Laslett, rev. ed. Mentor, New York: vol. 2, sec. 95, p. 374.

Taylor, R. 1973. Freedom, Anarchy, and the Law. Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.

Moir, A. & Jessel, D. 1991, Brain Sex: The Real Difference Between Men and Women, Mandarin, London.

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