Monday, March 19, 2007

Agreement, Political Authority and Procrastination

Political philosophy is not my area either, but I wanted to add a post here to keep up the momentum of this blog and since I’ve been thinking about political philosophy in relation to my teaching obligations, here are some undeveloped thoughts which I could be easily persuaded to abandon.

Despite all their differences, there appears to be a surface similarity between Hobbes’ and Socrates’ views on the nature of political obligation: both seem to hold that one’s obligation to obey the law stems from an agreement one has freely made (or would hypothetically make). For Hobbes, you contract with your fellow (future) countrymen to transfer your rights to a powerful sovereign and thereby incur an obligation to obey the law. For Socrates – according to one of the various arguments hinted at in the Crito – you agree to obey the laws of the state by choosing to live in it. Socrates could’ve moved away from Athens but didn’t and thereby incurred an obligation to obey its laws. Unlike Hobbes’ view, Socrates’ isn’t exactly a general theory about political obligation; Hobbes’ theory is mean to apply across the board whereas Socrates’ argument applies only in cases where the agent freely chose to remain in (or emigrate to) the state in question in full knowledge of the fact that doing so would put him under political obligation.

But though both views seem to ground political obligation in an agreement, the mechanism by which the agreement gives rise to obligations is very different in each case. For Hobbes, our agreement sets up a powerful sovereign who in turn makes it self-interestedly rational for each of us to obey the law. (On this reading it sounds rather odd to speak of an obligation to obey the law; the sovereign’s subjects may have decisive reason to obey the law but it sounds odd to my ears to call it an "obligation".) For Socrates, the agreement gives rise to obligation more directly; he doesn’t spell this out, but presumably the agreement works like any other sort of promise: if I promise you that I’ll do X, I have thereby incurred an obligation to do so.

Assuming the interpretations of Hobbes and Socrates I’ve just sketched are (close to) correct, I’ve come to think that neither view succeeds in grounding the obligation to obey the law (or the corresponding rights of rulers to command) in anything plausibly thought of as an agreement.

Socrates’ argument actually presupposes the notions of political authority and obligation thus does not succeed in accounting for them. Socrates imagines that the Laws of Athens tell him to either leave the city or to obey their commands. But for his choice here to be morally transformative in the way he thinks it is (i.e. if it is to yield obligations towards the Laws), the Laws must already possess political authority. If I stop you on the street and tell you to leave the city or pay me $50, I haven’t really succeeded in doing anything other than to utter some powerless words (and perhaps to puzzle or annoy you). I certainly haven’t made it the case that your staying in the city constitutes an agreement to pay me $50. What do the Laws of Athens have that I don’t such that Socrates’ choice to remain in Athens does give rise to specific obligations to obey the laws whereas your choice to remain in the city doesn’t give me a claim against you for $50? I’m inclined to say that it is political authority. Socrates’ decision to remain in the city cannot be what confers political authority on the Laws since the decision is only morally transformative in the way he supposes if the Laws already have that authority.

(I’m muddling here but I can’t quite see my way clearly. Even if we assume that the Laws have the authority to require Socrates to choose between exile and obedience, before he actually makes his choice to remain in the City there doesn’t seem to be any sense in which he has an obligation to obey the law. I’ve been speaking as if political authority and the obligation to obey the law are mirror notions but that’s probably not the case.)

Hobbes is easier since it is really rather straightforward that what does the work of generating reasons to obey the law is not our agreement with our fellow countrymen, but rather the sovereign’s power to punish lawbreaking. There is a sense in which the agreement is a necessary condition of our overriding reasons for obedience but Hobbes’ social contract is not morally transformative the way promises, agreements and freely entered contracts are normally thought to be.


oblomovitis said...

Agreed about the Hobbes: It seems like you just have reason to put yourself in situations where it will be rational to obey the laws/rulers. And this doesn’t seem like a real obligation, much less obligation generated by agreement.

I am less sure about the Socrates. Your example with the random person demanding money shows that on its own someone merely saying ‘do x or do y’ doesn’t give you an obligation to do y if you don’t do x. And it *would* be question-begging to then appeal to the states authority to issue such a command (obey me or leave). Maybe what is going on in the background is that there is supposed to be a general moral fact that choosing to take part in some optional social structure counts as a kind of promising to obey its rules? (like there are lots of ways you can promise without saying the words ‘I promise’) If so maybe this would succeed in grounding political obligation on agreement?

[p.s. If you have problems with these people I can’t wait to hear what you think about the woolf ;)]

Anonymous said...

I doubt that Hobbes has an account of agency/freedom that could generate (what we'd count as) genuine moral/political obligation. From what I recall, Korsgaard in her Hist of Modern Moral gave an account of Hobbesian obligation that is as charitable and robust as possible. Something like: rationality of the law (for reasons of self-interest) + sovereign's enforcement of the law it issues = obligation. The idea being that some agency with the power to enforce its commands is necessary for initiating an obligation. What's missing in Hobbes is the idea that the capacity for self-determination has distinct moral significance apart from the material considerations he appeals to. It seems to me that only when that's in place, and only when the state is oriented around securing the conditions for the exercise of that capacity, does *agreement* generate authority (of the state) and obligation (of the subject). In other words, social contractual accounts of political authority and obligation require liberal views of moral agency, and Hobbes doesn't have the latter.

Don't remember the Socrates too well, but I think you might have left out the part where he talks about how much he's benefited from political society, and that's why he can't just walk out now. So I think there's a principle of "if you reap, you have an obligation to sow" that's not at work in your "gimme your money or leave" example. The standard counter is to question the applicability of the reap/sow principle when it comes to non-voluntary associations like the state (or associations which carry a *very* high cost of abandoning, which is closer to the truth in the case of actual states).

-Doug Edwards

PS Hello from the hinterlands -- I just saw a flock of wild turkeys meander through my snowy back yard. Classic.

Chris said...


In the Crito, Socrates has a variety of so-called "arguments" for an obligation to obey the law. One such argument claims, as you mention, that you should obey the laws of a state from which you have benefited. I don't know if that argument can be made to work - the objection you allude to seems reasonable enough - but I was trying to adress the argument from agreement in isolation. Treating that argument in isolation from the other argument-shards in the text may be unfair to Socrates. Maybe.

To repeat my worry: There appears to be a difference between my telling you to leave town or pay me $50 and the Laws telling Socrates to leave town or obey. The latter plausibly creates a conditional obligation (i.e. if Socrates stays, then the ought to obey the law) which the former does not. How are we to account for this difference?

One possibility is that the Laws are sovereign over their territory: their are entitled to the obedience of everyone in the city. This might be the right answer, but if it is, then Socrates can't appeal to his decision to stay in Athens as grounding the authority of the state since it appears to presuppose it.

I'm not sure I understood Sharon's suggestion. It might be true that by taking part in (and benefiting from) an "optional social structure" I owe obedience to its laws. But if this is true, then presumably it's true on grounds of fairness or something like that and then it starts to look more like the gratitude argument - the one Doug alluded to - so I worry that we're changing the subject slightly.

But what if I change the example a little? Suppose I'm a local gangster and I operate an effective (but illegal) vigilante service in my neighborhood because I don't want the police to have any reason for patrolling my streets. Bascially, I eliminate crime in my own neighborhood so I can get the police off my back. I then decide to go door to door to all the residents and ask for "contributions." I knock on you door and I tell you to leave the neighborhood or pay me $50 per week to cover my expenses. Let's stipulate that you really do benefit from my services. If you choose to stay do you owe me $50/week? In inclined to say 'no' - though it is not a strong inclination. If that's right, then the reason Socrates incurs an obligation to the state by choosing to remain in the city can't be because he benefits from it.

(I feel like I've lost my way in this argument.)

Doug said...

Chris: The way you discuss Soc's situation (and analogize it with the mugger case) seems slightly off. The case is: obey the law *or be punished* by leaving. The choice is: obey/stay or punish/exile. Soc doesn't have the option to stay and not obey--if he breaks the law he either walks out or they force him out. So staying cannot be what causes him to incur an obligation; staying is the result of his honoring his obligation. So the question of how that obligation arises has to be independent of his staying. For this reason, I think that the benefit/burden account on offer is not changing the subject, it's addressing it. Another type of account is the contractual one: your will is implicated in the laws and your obligation arises from your relation to your own will (that sounds funny, but that's a feature of the contract view of political obligation, not a bug).

Your gangster example comes closer to what the state is: a giant protection racket. The differences I see between the two: the state claims exclusive right to set and enforce law over all its territory, including the gangsters' neighborhood, and actually has, more or less, the power to oust upstart rackets. This difference doesn't amount to much morally unless the state's aims are substantively more just, and its procedures more legitimate. (So, yeah, only the perfectly just and legitimate state is completely out of the racketeering business.)

What do you think -- does that sound about right or am I still missing something?

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