Free «Standards for Political Obligation» Essay Sample


The nature of political obligation has been studied since ancient times. Indeed, Socrates and Plato wrote on political obligation. The theory of political obligation was tremendously enriched my philosophical works of Rousseau, Locke, Hobbs and other outstanding thinkers. Contemporary theory of political obligation is characterized by the revision of the views promoted by aforementioned philosophers. For instance, in his work “Moral Principles and Political Obligations”, Simmons revisits theories of political obligations earlier elaborated by well-known authors. At the same time, Simmons not only analyzes previous theories but also attempts to develop a test to measure an account of political obligations. This is a valuable contribution to political philosophy, since one of its fundamental problems is to find an adequate account of political obligation. In his work Simmons distinguishes three main standards of successful account of political obligation. The presented paper is an attempt to analyze these standards and to discuss whether they are appropriate for any account of political obligation. 

Simmons’s system of standards

The first standard is accuracy. In other words, an account of political obligation should be accurate. According to Simmons (1979, p. 55), an account is accurate when it relies on plausible principles of duty and obligation. Accuracy in the context of an account of political obligation also means that plausible principles should be used “in their most defensive form” (Simmons, 1979, p. 55). Another criterion of accuracy of an account of political obligation is correct application. In simple terms, one must apply plausible principles correctly. As one may observe, the central element of the accuracy standard is plausible principles. In order to explain in a more specific way the standard of accuracy, let us resort to Simmons’s analysis of such accounts of political obligation as the consent theory account of political obligation. Simmons describes consent theory as a system of political obligations which are based on the personal consent of each bound citizen (Simmons, 1979, p. 60). In order to see whether consent account of political obligation meets the accuracy standard, one should test its main principles. According to Simmons (1979, p. 62), the consent theory account of political obligation advances four main principles. They are: “man is naturally free”, “man gives up his natural freedom only by voluntarily giving a “clear sign” that he desires to do so”, “the method of consent protects the citizen from injury by the state” and “the state is an instrument for serving the interests of its citizens” (Simmons, 1979, pp. 62-68). While discussing the “man is naturally free” claim, Simmons seems to find it plausible. The author specifies that this principle does not mean that naturally there are no obstacles to man’s desires or that there are no moral restrictions on his behavior (Simmons, 1979, p. 62). At the same time, Simmons (1979, p. 62) explains, citing Rousseau that a freedom, with which a man is born, can be restrained by government. However such restrain is possible only when a man voluntarily gives up his rights and agrees to the government’s control. Also, Simmons seems to be quite positive about the second claim of the consent theory that man only then gives up his freedom when he shows a clear sign of his desire to do so. However, the author criticizes the claim that the consent method gives a protection against injury by the state. First the author points out that there are two version of this principle. The first version contends that only government chosen by an individual has a legitimate power of the latter (Simmons, 1979, p. 66). In this way an individual is protected automatically at his birth, since he did not choose the government at the time (Simmons, 1979, p. 66). The second version holds that a citizen who consented to the government cannot complain about the way the latter treats him (Simons, 1979, p. 66). In other words, coercive actions of government can be legitimate as far as they are within certain limits (Simmons, 1979, p. 66). It is the second version that is attacked by Simmons. The author finds such a contention as implausible. First, he underlines that even an individual’s express consent to another’s acts cannot justify the performance of harmful behavior of the latter (Simmons, 1979, p. 66). Secondly, Simmons finds that the contention in question contradicts the claim of consent theories that personal consent has certain limits. For instance, a man cannot give up his right to resist assault by force to murder him (Simmons, 1979, p. 67, citing Locke). While considering the fourth claim of the consent theory, Simmons (1979, p. 68) points out that contrary to it, the state is not necessarily an instrument for serving citizens’ interests. The author explains that it is up to citizens who give the authority to the state to decide whether the state should serve their interests or not (Simmons, 1979, p.68). In a word, one may observe finds that at least two principles used by the consent theory are questionable and thus, implausible. Therefore, one may suggest that the consent theory account of political obligation fails to meet the accuracy standard.

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Another standard of successful account of political obligation is its completeness. An account is complete when it “identifies as bound all and only those who are so bound” (Simmons, 1979, p. 55). In other words, a complete account refers to an account which identifies all who should be bound by political obligation. One should not mix up completeness with accuracy. Simmons (1979, p. 55) points out that an accurate account can still be incomplete if it ignores applicable principles (1979, p. 55). At the same time, the author points out that a complete account also can be inaccurate if it relies on “implausible or inadequately developed principles” (Simmons, 1979, p. 55). In order to see how an account of political obligation can be tested against the completeness standard, let us resort to the principle of fair play. This principle has been formulated by Hart. At the heart of this principle is “mutuality of restrictions” (Simmons, 1979, p. 102). Simmons (1979, p. 102), citing Hart, explains how the principle operate resorting to the example of a joint enterprise. When a number of individuals are involved in a joint enterprise according to rules, they limit their liberty. Those who accepted restrictions have a right to similar acceptance from those, who benefited from the restriction of their liberty. In other words when a person submits to certain rules, another person, who gained from such a submission, should also be submitted to the latter. Thus, there is a case of mutual submission, and it constitutes the core of the fair play principle. Simmons (1979, p.103) fairly points out that such a principle leaves a room for many discussions and questions. Thus, Simmons (1979, p. 103) asks what should be considered as an enterprise, in which way individuals may participate in an enterprise, how to define a class of beneficiaries to whom obligations are owned, why there is a need for set of rules and so on. All these questions indicate the incompleteness of the fair play principle developed by Hart. In other words, the Hart’s account relies on certain principle (at this point the author does not discuss whether these principles are plausible). However, there is mechanism of application of these principles. Roughly the Hart’s incomplete account can be compared to the law without enforcement mechanism: the law contains principles and rules, but it cannot be implemented without enforcement. Similarly, an incomplete account of political obligation cannot be implemented without certain mechanism of application of the principles on which the account relies.

However, Simmons (1979, p. 55) contends that accuracy and completeness are not enough for a successful account of political obligation. Thus, the scholar believes that an account of political obligation should also be reasonably general in its application (Simmons, 1979, p. 55). In Simmons’s view, an account should be general enough to cover most citizens in most states. The author also refers to this standard as to universality (Simmons, 1979, p. 56). He contends that when an account of political obligation fails to meet the universality test, it fails to maintain its role in political theory (Simmons, 1979, p. 56). In particular, Simmons finds that the fair play principle fails to meet the universality test. The fair play principle implies that citizens give up a part of their freedom to government, e.g. they submit themselves to obey the laws created by the government, but in return they are supposed to obtain certain benefits. However, Simmons (1979, p. 139) draws attention that “many citizens barely notice… the benefits they receive”. Simmons (1979, p. 139) further specifies that instead of benefits many citizens face military service, high taxes, “unreasonably restrictive laws governing private pleasures” and so on. Also, the author adds that even if there are benefits coming from government, citizens tend to perceive them as purchases, since they pay taxes (Simmons, 1979, p. 139). Thus, Simmons (1979, p. 139) concludes that the principle of fair play account for political obligations covers only few citizens in a few states, and thus, fails to meet the generality test.

Discussion of Simmons’s standards

While Simmons’s contribution to the theory of political obligations must be acknowledged, one should also draw attention that Simmons’s set of standards is not necessarily appropriate for any account of political obligations. The author agrees with Simmons’s accuracy standard. Indeed, any account of political obligations should be based on plausible principles. Otherwise, these principles will be difficult to accept by citizens. The attitude of citizens should be central to an account of political obligations, since citizens as well as government are key participants of political relationships. The author also accepts the completeness standard. Although Simmons pointed out that a complete account is not necessarily accurate and vice versa, in the author’s view there is no use of one standard without another one. Thus, an account may indeed use plausible principles. However, when there is no mechanism for implementation of these principles an account for political obligations is simply invalid. If one seeks to see an account for political obligations in practice but not merely on paper, one should think of both accuracy and completeness. The only standard, the author questions here is the generality (or universality) standard. From a practical point of view this standard seems quite problematic. In modern world we still have irreconcilable differences in ideologies. An ideology dominant in one’s state defines an attitude of citizens towards government. In western world, roughly speaking, relationship between citizens and government is somewhat compatible to principles, on which the consent theory and the fair play doctrine are based. However, such relationship may be different in other parts of the worlds. Because of differences in the relationships between citizens and governments throughout the world, it is difficult to accept the contention that the account of political obligation should be general so as to cover many citizens in many countries.


Simmons distinguishes three main standards of an account of political obligations: accuracy, completeness and generality (or even universality). The accuracy standard refers to plausibility of principles used by an account.  The completeness standard can be defined as appropriate application of the principles on which an account is based. Finally, universality refers to as broad coverage of citizens and states as possible. The first two standards seem quite correct in order to test an account of political obligations. Indeed, any account of political obligations should be based on plausible principles which should be applied in an appropriate way. However, the generality standard seems rather problematic, since the perceptions of political obligations by governments and citizens vary greatly throughout the world. 


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