A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

The Primary Challenge of Political Philosophy...

...should be less to explain why the governments of liberal democracies, primarily in Europe and North America, are legitimate and that why we must obey them, but rather to explain precisely why less enlightened states are not legitimate, why there is no duty to obey them.

It seems to me to be beneficial to view political obligation as a number of sets of actions. There exists a set of acts which are morally permissible for an individual within the state of nature, and a set of acts which are morally permissible for the same individual when under a state. This essay shall discuss the relationship between these two sets, which we shall label the Natural set (actions morally permissible within the state of nature) and the Statist set (actions morally permissible when under a state).

The basic claim of the philosophical anarchist is that there are no acts in the Natural set which are not also in the Statist set, i.e. that there are no political obligations. The basic claim of the political anarchist is that there are no acts in the Statist set which are not also in the Natural set, i.e. that being a representative of the state confers no special moral status.

One of the key claims made by defenders of the state is that the legitimacy of its laws is content-independent: that is, that we have the duty to obey the laws of a legitimate state regardless of what those laws are. I take it as a priori that it is impermissible to murder or imprison someone purely on the grounds of their religion. It is a simple fact that many states, from various medieval kingdoms to Nazi Germany and the USSR to a number of modern states in Africa and the Middle East, have not respected this and have instead murdered many people specifically because they were of a different religion to that of the state's leaders. From these premises, it is obvious that either (a) the obligation to obey a state's laws is not content-independent, or (b) the citizens of many states, including a number which exist today, have no obligation towards their states. Otherwise the persecuted minorities would be required to hand themselves in to be killed, and if they did not then other citizens would be obliged to point them out to be rounded up and slaughtered.

If conclusion (a) is accepted, then the question becomes: even if a state is legitimate, what distinguishes its legitimate commands, which I must obey, from those which I have no duty to obey? This is likely to depend upon the specific theory used to defend the state. The question from the beginning of this essay may be formulated as "Why is it that I must pay a given proportion of my income to the state of the UK, while Jews under Hitler in 1944 were under no obligation to reveal themselves?" (1) If one appeals to Christopher Heath Wellman's argument from a "Samaritan Duty of Rescue", then one has a duty to obey laws only in so far as they are necessary to rescue people from the state of nature, which seems fair enough. If one appeals to a theory of Democratic Fairness, then one runs into problems - the Nazis were democratically elected, which makes it far harder to argue that they were illegitimate but that our existing governments are legitimate.

If conclusion (b) is accepted, then the question is much the same. This has slightly less of a problem, in that it need not explain why a state taking 40% of my income is legitimate while an otherwise identical state taking 100% of my income is not. However, it still needs to explain precisely why I must obey David Cameron, but no Syrian need obey Bashar al-Assad.

I would regard it as a failure of a theory of political obligation if it held that all people must obey all laws of their local state.

(1) The obvious, flippant answer is "Because the Jews would have been killed, whereas you just wouldn't be able to afford that new computer or whatever. Duh!" While not entirely impossible, this raises the issue of what exactly it takes for our suffering to be permissible for the state to inflict. Suppose that a 40% income tax is legitimate, but a 100% income tax will cause me to starve and die and is therefore impermissible. Given that a rate of 90% would leave me wallowing in homelessness and poverty but would not kill me, is this permissible? A rate of 70% would allow me to survive and to just about pay rent, but would leave me no security in case I fell ill; would this be permissible? Moreover, this answer fails to provide a positive case as to why the state has a right to even 1%, let alone 40%, of my earnings. It gives no substantive answer as to why the state could legitimately take 40% of my income, but I could not legitimate take 40% of your income.

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