My topic is the relationship between obedience and political authority. My assertion is that obedience to a law or the directive of a ruler is considered consent, and that obedience provides sufficient entitlement to authority. I will begin by discussing political authority and how power and entitlement of the state are connected to the actions of individuals. Next I will discuss the nature of obedience, including the roles that coercion and justice play in the decision of individuals to obey when ruled. I will then present my ideas about obedience as consent and the problems it eliminates in consent theory. I will conclude by addressing why consent cannot create an obligation for future obedience.
“Rulers are said to have not only the power to make and enforce rules but also the entitlement to do so. And when they do so, they are said to have (political) authority.” Power and entitlement must both be present. Every human being is born under an authority that has power to coerce, be it a parent, tribal leader, dictator, bureaucratic entity of a state, or even a God. Regardless of the time, place or circumstances of our birth, we are born with boundaries and rules in place to govern our actions. A. John Simmons thinks that Rousseau recognized that there are obstacles to the fulfillment of our desires and that there are moral constraints on our actions even though he claims that man is born free. Even recognizing these areas of constraint, Rousseau expressed concern with the legitimacy of governmental coercion within specified areas that he believed were only able to be voluntarily given by the consent of the individual governed. The state of nature thought experiment of Hobbes, Locke and others, as well as Hampton’s idea of a political convention are introduced into a discussion of political authority to explain how those who are ruled could have consented to both the power and the authority of a ruler. There are two very big problems with this pre-political authority consent. First, the consent of the original contract-makers does not have the power to create or obligate consent in others. Contracts are only binding to the parties that enter into the agreement. Second, ideas about the creation of political authority without prior existing political authority do nothing to help one understand his relationship to a government he inherited at birth.
The following chart represents a state. Rulers are those who have political authority. The body politic, which includes rulers, is defined as those who have the power to choose the rulers, consent to changes in state structure, and consent to the laws of the state. Inhabitants of a territory, defined as those who have the power to obey or disobey the laws, includes the previous two groups.
Inhabitants of territory
All individuals residing or traveling within the territorial boundaries of a state are able to be punished for breaking the laws of the state, regardless of citizenship, status, sex, race, gender, age or religion. These individuals include people such as resident aliens, travelers and children who are not part of the body politic. According to Hampton, to be mastered is to be subject to the use of coercion in a way that disables one from participation in the process of creating or changing a governing convention.”Prohibition from participating in the body politic places them in a master/slave relationship with the state, which creates a problem for consent theorists.
It does not seem just to be punished for disobedience to laws and rulers they did not consent to, especially if they are prohibited from participation in the body politic. They cannot consent, yet they are not free to disregard the laws of the territory without fear of consequences. All those who risk being coerced or killed by a state should have the ability to consent to its laws in a way that is stronger than merely their presence in the territory. When voting is considered consent, and only those within the body politic vote, then those represented in the grey area of the above chart are only ruled through coercion, making the government illegitimate. “The state must not only receive the convention consent of the people, which merely makes it authoritative in that territory, but also their endorsement consent, which makes it not just a state but a legitimate state”.Legitimacy arises only through the moral justification of individuals.
Some wonder, if the government is protecting your life, liberty, and property, does it matter if you have not consented to the government’s rule? I would reply that governments have many possible motivations for protecting the life, liberty and property of its citizens: self interest (in order to secure power and stability) , manipulation in order to increase power, it is considered part of the “contract”, or it is the right thing to do. All individuals in a state cannot possibly know the true motivations of their government. The individual must use his ability to reason to determine what is best for him and convey through some form of consent his willingness to obey laws regardless of benefits that governments provide.
According to Hampton “a person’s rightful control over others seems to arise from that person’s authority; and authority is about the entitlement to rule. Connected to this entitlement is the obligation the subjects have to obey the authoritative ruler’s commands.” Joseph Raz defines the obligation connected to political authority as follows:
Person x has political authority over person y if and only if the fact that x requires y to perform some action p gives y a reason to do p, regardless of what p is, where this reason purports to override all (or almost all) reasons he may have not to do p.
The idea that someone would be obligated to obey regardless of the directive seems “to limit our freedom or impose on our will.” While it sounds reasonable and desirable for a person to obey just laws, the commitment to obedience in the future poses a problem. Future laws may not be just. Future rulers may not be just. We may have reasons in the future to withdraw our consent because of other obligations. If the initial consent to political authority obligates us to obey that authority regardless of the content of their directives in the future, then we really only give our consent once. Those in authority would have little incentive to be just with all that consent plus the power to force their will.
According to Hampton, power alone does not supply entitlement to rule, yet tyrants still feel entitled to coerce. What situation communicates to a tyrant the entitlement to use coercion? Historically, it appears that without sustained, persuasive dissent, rulers do not feel any obligation to change their course. The act of obedience to a law communicates consent to the authority that declares the law. Obedience is an individual decision that cannot be forced, not even by God himself. Philosophers have emphasized the importance of retaining the power of individual choice. Raz in his definition of political authority recognizes the need to retain the ability to disobey a command. Even Hobbes, who asserts that an individual must alienate his natural right to self-governance, includes the necessity for him to be able to withdraw his consent when he feels his life is threatened by the sovereign.
Coercion by a ruler admittedly influences the decision to obey, but it does not have the power to eliminate the option of disobedience. If an individual chooses to disobey, the surety of consequences to his choice does not force him to obey. The choice to disobey when faced with consequences that threaten life and limb has sufficient power to challenge authority. The individual retains unto himself the ability to determine the justice of the laws he is given, which results in varying conceptions of justice within a state. The future actions of each individual are unknown to both the individual and to the rulers. The willingness to obey is an act of faith by the governed based on their individual perception of how the regime will behave. If individuals perceive the regime to be unjust they will be less likely to obey.
It seems logical that the only kind of consent that has the power to threaten the stability of political authority would have the power to authorize the use of political authority. Only disobedience that risks coercion or death carries sufficient weight to threaten political authority regardless of the legitimacy of the regime. When enough people in a territory are willing to withdraw their obedience over time, the stability of the political authority begins to deteriorate. The ability to withdraw consent through disobedience to the law is the only power that checks the state’s power to make and enforce the law. Conversely, the ability to disobey laws is kept in check by the coercive power of the state. The act of obedience acknowledges the presence of authority and demonstrates consent to the state’s use of coercion to enforce laws, which sustains the authority of the rulers.
When obedience is viewed as consent, the master/slave problem outside of the body politic is eliminated. All individuals within a given territory, including children and resident aliens, now have the same ability to directly consent by obeying the laws. In obeying the laws of the territory, those not in the body politic consent to the authority and can justly be punished for disobedience to the laws.
There are many reasons why groups within a state would desire to remove their consent to be governed. Some groups are too different from the rest of society. Sometimes laws restrict groups from displaying particular differences, or penalize them for their differences. Some groups are threatened with violence by others in the society or are made the target of propaganda. If a group of people within a state no longer consent to be governed by a particular regime, they have very few options available to them. They can choose to disobey the laws and risk fines, imprisonment or death. They can move to a place where they will consent to be governed; but where do they go if a regime that reflects their interests does not exist? Finally, they can change the regime through the established legal process, through revolution, or civil war. Therefore, it can be very dangerous for rulers to ignore minorities or to use coercion to handle dissent.
When a law is considered unjust by enough individuals who choose to disobey the law it creates a problem for the government. The regime is forced to act to retain stability. Those actions have historically included repealing the unjust law (e.g. prohibition in the U.S.), granting previously withheld rights or privileges (e.g. napoleonic reforms in France), or using the coercive powers of the state (Stalin, Hitler, etc.). Disobedience, whether civil or violent, is only effective against unjust laws if sufficient numbers in the society are willing to suffer coercion or death and withstand state retaliation over time. The number of disobedient individuals, the amount of suffering and the length of time depend on the arrogance of the regime in power.
When an unjust law is obeyed, those who obey it communicate to the rulers that the injustice is not worth the risk of coercion or death for their defiance. Individuals imply that justice is of less value to them than their other interests. This situation does not pose any problems for a government. Stability is not threatened when there is obedience. Even if a government passes a law, and obedience to that law has unforeseen consequences, the government’s stability remains until individuals decide to disobey the law. When the laws are just and individuals obey the laws, it is a win/win situation for everyone. Power, coupled with the consent derived from the obedience of individuals, seems sufficient to supply entitlement to political authority; however, it does not generate a continued obligation to obey regardless of the content of a ruler’s directive.
I am not convinced that the lack of obligation poses a problem for consent theory. I believe that obligation is irrational and unreasonable if obedience is viewed as consent and consent is sufficient for obligation. There are many people in the world who obey tyrants. Their obedience demonstrates to others, especially to the ruler, that they are willing to be ruled unjustly and through coercion. Individually they have their particular reasons for obeying under these conditions. Regardless of their reason, it does not necessarily follow that they feel obligated to continue to obey. On the opposite end of the justice spectrum, our obedience to God shows our willingness to let him lead us, but it does not necessarily follow that we have a continual obligation to always do his will without individually understanding and accepting what we are being asked to do. Obligating ourselves to continually obey a ruler, regardless of the content of his directives, puts us in the position where using our ability to reason becomes unnecessary. Obligation is connected to a particular law (not a ruler) only if individuals are given means to consent to the law and consent to the rulers who make the laws, however, this obligation is not attached to every law irrespective of their content. “There has never been, and is not now, agreement on the nature of justice”. Individuals determine a law’s justice and act according to their determination. A ruler’s authority comes from the obedience of individuals who base their obedience on a variety of criteria.
1] Political Authority, Jean Hampton p.4
 Moral Principles and Political Obligation by A. John Simmons p.62
 Hampton p 90
 Ibid. p. 180
 Ibid. p.4
 Simmons p.7
 Hampton p.4
 Ibid. 122