UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Political obligation : the good man and his duty to obey the law Hogg, Frances Howard


The 'problem of political obligation' is understood, here, to be one of trying to reconcile obedience to government and law with the essential precondition of responsible moral conduct - that is, with the freedom of the individual to act according to the dictates of his own conscience. Primarily, we are concerned with that theory of political obligation wherein the duty of obedience (and the corresponding right of government to punish the disobedient) are derived from the 'consent' of the individual. By representing the duty of obedience thusly, as one which is freely and wilfully undertaken by the individual upon whom it falls, we would seem to be satisfying the requirements of the ethical individual. We argue, however, that there are problems with 'consent theory' - problems which differ, in themselves, depending on how one understands the act of consent. For example, where consent is taken to imply an 'inviolable' act of submission to government and law, then each and every law becomes obligatory. The subsequent use of 'validity’ as the indicator of a law's authority, and the irrelevancy of the content of a law (moral or immoral) to one's obligation to obey it are of particular importance to us here. For they imply, ultimately, the irrelevancy of individual moral judgement where a law applies. (One is no longer free to act on that judgement.) Far from accommodating the 'good man', this use of consent appears to involve, we argue, an abdication of one's freedom to be good. Alternatively, consent may be interpreted as a 'conditional' act whereby the individual re-affirms his right to resist government where it goes beyond certain 'limits' set upon its nature and purpose. Here, it is the reasons for which one might consent (rather than the act of consent itself) which give rise to the duty of obedience. The values one expects to realize through law - order, freedom, justice, the common good, etc. - these, rather than simple 'validity’, become the final indicators of legitimate authority. But what if a law frustrates the achievement of these end? Does a duty to obey then exist? Whose judgement is to count in such an instance? These questions arise here precisely because one does not necessarily incur, with this use of consent, a duty to obey all valid law. For the same reason, we argue, this approach fails to explain the right of punishment that governments may still exercise over over any or all resistors. Out of this discussion of the 'ends of government' one final question arises concerning the very assumption of compatibility between public and private 'goods'; or between public principles of morality and the ones we use in our private lives. We conclude, in other words, by raising doubts about the feasibility of ever striking a 'final' accord between the good citizen and the good man.

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