This is a question about justifying the state. What D. D. Raphael calls " the grounds of political obligation. 1 If the state can be justified somehow then so can the commands it makes, whether it is voluntary or not. This would be a state built on individual consent; obligation to the commands of the state would flow from that consent. This essay will discuss the possibility of justifying of the state through the idea of a social contract. The state when it creates a law draws a line one cannot cross without consequences.
For clarity I am talking about a serious law, specifically one that obviously has a moral base, the law against murder for example. An individualist might say 'I have no intention of crossing that line anyway because I believe it would be morally wrong to do so'. The law in his case may as well not exist. Just by not breaking a law it can appear as though he supports it. When what he might agree with is what the law defends/upholds /represents, and that is the moral principle behind it. This is one reason why some people appear to uphold the law when in fact all they may be doing is following a personal moral code.
or simply agreeing with the basic rational belief shared by most people that 'murder is wrong or (maybe) tax for the NHS is good' for example. I suggest this analogy can be applied when questioning many commands of the state. When I obey the state by paying taxes, I may not be doing so because I am obligated too by law but for other reasons including moral ones. Socialists (as do many others) might argue that they are happy to pay more tax in return for a wider societal benefit that includes all, i. e.
as in the National Health Service. Therefore a socialist might argue that she paid her National Insurance not because the law obligates her too, but because it 'fits her moral attitudes and outlook anyway'. The fact that she has no legal right to refuse to pay becomes relevant in this case only if she actually doesn't. The above argument is Lockean to the extent that it "appeal[s] to the idea of individual consent. "2 It is also in part my own view, which is (I think) essentially individualist in nature, though not libertarian.
The relevance of my own view to this essay is that when thinking about this question, I realised that I had no idea what my own moral position was regarding some of the most crucial problems and contradictions of political philosophy. Many of these questions require (I think) a moral stance in order to be able to make sense of them. This may seem like a non-academic approach as if I am personalising or reducing this essay to subjective notions, however the questions and issues of political philosophy are in large part moral questions and issues that therefore have as a basis, personal moral opinions.
Locke's view according to Wolff is that obligations to the institutions of the state "must be justified in terms of the will, choices or decisions of those over whom they have authority. "3 Justification of the institutions of the state that enforce obligation then is reliant on the idea that personal autonomy is of premier value. Will Kymlicka defines this as the belief that the individual is 'morally prior' to the community. One objection to this is the communitarian argument that the individual is not 'morally prior' to the community instead individuals are a 'product of the community.
'4 There are other objectors to Locke's idea that autonomy is the primary value. Wolff writes that Bentham considered "the primary value is not autonomy but happiness … whether we consent to the state is irrelevant. "5 This utilitarian argument is that the 'happiness' of society, as a whole is of more value than personal autonomy or the happiness of the few or one. And that therefore one has a duty to obey the commands of the state as it pursues this goal.
So if the state decides that having nuclear weapons is for the greater good (happiness) then I would be obligated to pay my share of tax for them whatever I thought. I may be against nuclear weapons or the military in general for moral reasons (pacifism for example) but my moral objection is sacrificed for the greater happiness. The problem political philosopher's face is finding ways to solve issues like the one above. Just how does one justify the state? One theory is the idea of 'the social contract. '
Wolff here defines the 'project of the social contract theory. ' "The project of showing that individuals consent to the state lies behind the idea of social contract theory. If, somehow or other, it can be shown that every individual has consented to the state, or formed a contract with the state, or made a contract with each other to create a state, then the problem appears to be solved. "6 It is difficult to support the idea that the state, and thereby its commands and responding obligations, can be justified by the theory of a social contract.
"The theory of a social contract tries to justify political obligation as being based on an implicit promise, like the obligation to obey the rules of a voluntary association. "7 If there were such a contract (based on the idea that the state is a voluntary organisation) the problem of individual obligation to the state would be solved. One could join (or leave) institutions of the state at will, and not be subject to state penalties. This is clearly not so. To clarify this further I can ask a different question: how much like a voluntary association is the state?
The consensus among political philosophers is I think that the state is not a voluntary organisation. To be born is to be joined to it. As Raphael says "the universality of the states jurisdiction makes its compulsory character more pervasive and more evident. "8 Individuals are inextricably linked to it in many ways, for example through the financial/legal institutions. Neither of these institutions are voluntary, they both carry obligations that are enforceable by law. For a comparison I will examine what I think a voluntary organisation is.
The obligations I have to the UEA regarding my degree, I agreed to honour. They were stated, I accepted. This does not mean I think the UEA is perfect. Just because I am obligated, (I agreed to the UEA rules) does not mean I cannot criticise the parking problem. What is important is that I chose to join. My obligations to the UEA are voluntary, and I can withdraw from them voluntarily and leave the university should I choose. This is not possible in the case of the state. "[I] am subject to the rules whether I like it or not.
"9 As a general philosophical attitude I am 'nervous' or sceptical of organisations people are forced to join or have to remain joined to, this includes the idea of a state. This could be framed as, (if this sentence makes sense) 'I do not like the idea that there is a group I am unable not to join'. These reasons might help to explain why I am 'generally sceptical' of some of the motives of our own state. So where does this leave us? The above contentions highlight some of the problems of the social contract theory.
The central objection to it is that the state is not voluntary therefore there can be no 'mutually agreed contract. ' Nor has there historically ever been one. As Wolff observes, if there ever was a social contract "What is the evidence? Which museum is it in? "10 The idea of a hypothetical contract is an attempt to solve this problem. It does not rely on any formal notion of "actual consent, be it historical, express, or tacit. "11 The hypothetical contract relies on hypothetical consent. If hypothetical consent were possible it would provide a moral reason for political obligation.
That is the ingredient the question this essay is discussing implicitly implies is missing. The idea asks us to imagine a position from where we could successfully negotiate a social contract. Rawl's idea is a very complex one that effects many issues. In his Theory of Justice, Rawls sets out primarily to establish "what moral principles should govern the basic structure of a just society. "12 Rawls Theory of Justice suggests a set of specific moral principles that he hopes will achieve this consensus view.
It is these principles that critics of the theory in the main object to. What they are concerned with is the kind of society that would emerge from behind any veil of ignorance whatever its character. For the purpose of this essay the idea of a 'veil of ignorance' which is subject to many conditions, is the device Rawls uses to argue for consent. If people can agree on what would be just, (which he argues is possible using the principles he suggests) from behind a 'veil of ignorance' the consent reached would be a voluntary contract.
Again the problem remains, what principles really constitute a 'just society' are not clear. Objections to Rawls ideas include the 'libertarian critique. ' Kukathas and Pettit13 argue that for principled libertarians like Nozick the state that would emerge from Rawls's theory "is bound to seem inherently evil. "14 Nozick's objections are based on his libertarian view that "Individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them (without violating their rights)"15
To conclude is this essay is very difficult; the argument I have tried to demonstrate is that one cannot be under any obligation to obey the commands of the state using the social contract model. I have argued that the social contract fails because it is not consensual. I have also tried to show that the idea of hypothetical contract cannot work because the 'veil of ignorance' still does not produce consent because people cannot agree on what the principles of a just state are. One can only be obligated to obey the commands of the state (I think) when its principles are consensual.