Which State Should You Obey?

We began by describing the topic for the next two classes: political obligations, or the obligation to obey the state.

Then we went over Simmons’s case for thinking that we are mistaken about our political obligations. According to Simmons, we believe that we are obliged to obey a particular state, namely, our own. However, he argues, this particularity requirement cannot be defended and so we are mistaken.

What are Political Obligations?

Most of us think we are morally obliged to obey the state. What do we think this obligation involves? I noted two features: content independence and particularity.

By “content independence,” I just mean that we think we are obliged to do what the state requires because the state requires it. Notice what I left out: any evaluation of whether what the state requires is a good idea or not. That’s what I mean in saying that the obligation is content independent.

To illustrate the point, I gave some examples of things the state does that I think are wrong. But do I disobey? No, I respect the state’s authority and comply. That makes sense only if I give the state’s authority weight apart from the content of what it requires. The particular example I harped on comes all the way back from our discussion of Hobbes. We know that the state imprisons innocent people but we do not think that those people or their friends are permitted to kill the guards or even to escape without violence. They have to go through the procedures that the state itself has laid out. (I have some factual material on this topic later in these notes.)

“But that’s not something I believe,” you might say. “I think there are lots of orders the state might give that are too horrible to be obeyed. That’s the lesson of the Nuremberg trials, to say nothing of common sense!”

If that is what you did say, good for you. I agree. I only mean that we treat the fact that the state commands something as being one reason to do it. It is not an overriding or absolute reason. If the state commands you to do something horrible the horribleness of what you are commanded to do should outweigh the content independent reasons for obeying the state’s authority. “I was just following orders” is sometimes a good policy, but not always.

The other side of content independence is that there are plenty of good reasons for doing what the state requires apart from the fact that the state requires them. The state forbids murder and so there is a content-independent reason not to kill someone. But, of course, there is also a content-dependent reason not to kill someone: murder is wrong! So, as Simmons notes, even if there are no political obligations, there will still be lots of good reasons to comply with most of the laws most of the time.

The second thing we believe about political obligations is that they are owed to particular states. I am obliged to obey the government of the US but not the government of Canada even if the government of Canada is as good or better than the government of the US. Because this is something that most of us believe about political obligations, Simmons thinks that any successful account of political obligations must meet what he calls the particularity requirement.

The Natural Duty of Justice

Most attempts to explain political obligations revolve around consent. The idea is that we are obliged to obey our governments because we agreed to obey them. The obligation is similar to a promise or contract in that it is created by a special voluntary act. The relevant act of consent could come with the social contract (as in Hobbes) or in expressions of explicit or tacit consent after the state has been established (as in Locke).

Simmons believes that if a consent theory were true, that would satisfy the particularity requirement. A person’s consent to obey a particular state would explain why that person is obliged to obey that state. However, Simmons also believes that Hume showed consent cannot explain why anyone would be obliged to obey the state. So this route to satisfying the particularity requirement is out.

Rawls agrees with Simmons about consent. So he proposes something different: a natural duty of justice that requires people to obey just states.

From the standpoint of the theory of justice, the most important natural duty is that to support and to further just institutions. This duty has two parts: first, we are to comply with and to do our share in just institutions when they exist and apply to us; and second, we are to assist in the establishment of just arrangements when they do not exist, at least when this can be done with little cost to ourselves. (Rawls 1999, 293–94)

Does the natural duty of justice require us to comply with states because they are just? Not exactly. It requires us to comply with states that are just and whose laws “apply to us.” That is how Rawls means to meet the particularity requirement. He says we have a duty to comply with the laws that apply to us. He does not say that we have a duty to comply with the laws of all just states.

So everything comes down to what it means for the institutions of a state (like laws) “apply” to someone. Simmons uses the example of the Institute for the Advancement of Philosophers to show that there is no satisfactory way of saying what it means for an institution to apply. The only way of spelling this out that would explain why anyone is obliged to obey the Institute’s rules is good old consent. Since that is what the natural duty of justice was supposed to get away from, this amounts to a failure.

More on the State’s Authority

I said that most of us are willing to respect the state’s authority even when we know it is doing something wrong, like imprisoning the innocent. I said that we know that there are innocent people in prison because DNA tests have shown a significant number of rape convictions are false. It is reasonable to assume that there are a similar number of wrongful convictions for other crimes, where there is not a lot of DNA evidence available to exonerate the wrongly convicted. You can read all about it at the Innocence Project. My point was that even though researchers for the Innocence Project know there are innocents in prison, they still comply with the law: they don’t try to break them out but rather consider themselves obliged to go through the normal legal channels.

Kenny challenged me on this point. He said that if we really believed the state was arbitrarily rounding up the innocent, we would also approve of breaking down the prison doors to let them out. I think he’s right about that. I think we tolerate wrongful convictions because we believe the state is acting in good faith in trying to minimize them and releasing those who are shown to be innocent. If this starts to slip, so will the obligation to obey the law. While I think content independence goes quite a ways, it will only take an abusive state so far.

I said that a former colleague with the University of Chicago’s Program on Human Rights had shown that the police in Chicago were using torture to force confessions. Here is a harrowing story about torture by the police in the Atlantic, an announcement of the Human Rights Program’s archive project, and the Chicago City Council’s reparations ordinance to cover police torture.

Obviously, this is horrific. Beyond that, it’s depressing to realize just how much abuse we will tolerate, either because we don’t know about it, because we think we are safe from it, or because we would rather not think about it at all. On the other hand, things like this are surely part of the reason why significant parts of the population do not trust the police. Needless to say, it is both unwise and immoral for a society to operate its criminal justice system like this.

Key Concepts

  1. The particularity objection
  2. What the natural duty of justice is
  3. Why Simmons does not believe the natural duty of justice meets the particularity requirement


Rawls, John. 1999. A Theory of Justice. Revised edition. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Simmons, A. John. 1979. Moral Principles and Political Obligations. Princeton: Princeton University Press.