Two fair-play theories of political obligation

 

This handout is a draft.

In 'Presumptive Benefit, Fairness and Political Obligation', George Klosko considers what I shall refer to as the voluntary version of the fair-play theory of political obligation. He objects to it, before offering an alternative version of fair-play theory. Below I present both versions.

 

The basic idea of a fair-play obligation

Suppose persons A, B, C and D conduct a joint enterprise aimed at producing certain benefits and submit to rules to obtain these benefits. Person E gains the benefits. It may seem that it is only fair that person E contributes to producing the benefits as well, which requires that they too submit to certain rules. The basic idea of a fair-play obligation is that person E should do their part, because they have gained benefits from the enterprise.

 

The voluntary version of the fair-play theory of political obligations

The voluntary version can be divided into two parts: a part which specifies when there are fair-play obligations in general and a part which applies this general account to citizens and the state.

 

Part 1.

A person P has a fair-play obligation if and only if:

(a) There is some set of people who have conducted a joint enterprise aimed at producing certain benefits and have submitted to rules in order to obtain these benefits.

(b) Person P has taken one of the benefits produced by the enterprise.

(c) The taking of the benefit was voluntary.

 

The person referred to in (b) may be one of the people who agreed to the enterprise, but they may also not be.

 

Part 2.

There are at least some states in which citizens have political obligations towards that state, e.g. to pay taxes and abide by its laws. When a person has such an obligation, this is usually a fair-play obligation. The state is a joint enterprise aimed at producing certain benefits and the obligation has arisen because the person has voluntarily taken the benefits. (There may be some people who have obligations for another reason, but this is the explanation for the obligations of most people.)

 

An objection to the voluntary version

Klosko endorses an objection to the voluntary version of the fair-play theory of political obligation. The objection is as follows. It is an important function of a state to provide non-excludable goods. However, benefits from them cannot be taken voluntarily, because there is no option of not taking the benefit from a non-excludable good. In which case, the voluntary version will have to say that there are no fair-play obligations to contribute to the provision of these no-excludable goods, since condition (c) above is not met. But then the voluntary version is not of much help in explaining political obligations, because we want to explain why there are political obligations to contribute to providing these non-excludable goods as well, since it is an important function of the state to provide them.

 

Note A: a non-excludable good is a good which cannot feasibly be provided while excluding select individuals from taking/receiving the benefits of that good. Examples are police protection and clean air. Note B: Klosko assumes that in order for a benefit to be taken voluntarily, there must be the option of not taking the benefit. (I will not contest this assumption.)

 

 

Klosko's version of the fair-play theory of political obligations

Klosko rejects the voluntariness condition as a necessary condition for a fair-play obligation. If some set of people conduct a joint enterprise aimed at producing certain benefits and submit to rules in order to produce these benefits, Klosko thinks that a person P who receives the benefits involuntarily can still have an obligation to submit to the rules as well in order to do their part, as long as the following conditions are met:

 

(a) The benefits received are from non-excludable goods

(b) It is worth the effort to provide the non-excludable goods from which the benefits are received.

(c) The benefits are presumptively beneficial.

(d) The distribution of these goods is fair.

 

Presumptively beneficial, according to Klosko's definition = it is rational for all people to want these benefits (p. 246).

 

The conditions above are supposed to be met by some states.

 

Below are two objections I have to Klosko, but they are not standard objections in the political philosophy literature.

 

Objection 1 to Klosko's argument

Recall what the voluntary version of fair--play theory says. According to it, a person P has a fair-play obligation if and only if:

(a) There is some set of people who have conducted a joint enterprise aimed at producing certain benefits and have submitted to rules in order to obtain these benefits.

(b) Person P has taken one of the benefits produced by the enterprise.

(c) The taking of the benefit was voluntary.

 

Klosko rejects (c) as a necessary condition for a fair-play obligation. But in this article he does not consider why someone might propose (c) in the first place. If there is a reason, Klosko needs to consider that reason and explain why it is mistaken, but he does not actually do this.

 

For example, suppose that the reason is that we have a right to certain freedoms and that part of having this right is that we cannot acquire extra duties without some kind of voluntary process. If that is the reason for (c), then Klosko is not in a position to deny (c) without arguing against the existence of this right. But Klokso never considers the reason for (c). He just proposes his alternative.

 

Objection 2 to Klosko's argument

Klosko says that, in order for a cooperative enterprise that supplies non-excludable goods to generate an obligation, the benefits from them must be presumptively beneficial. Presumptively beneficial means that it is rational for all people to want these benefits.

 

An objection to Klosko's argument, from Hume, is that rationality does not apply to wants. Here is a preliminary statement of Hume's model of rational action: if you want to bring about state X and you believe with evidence that action Y is a good way to bring about state X, then it is rational for you to do Y. (E.g. if you want to pass the exam and if you believe that studying hard and then sitting for the exam is a good way to do this, then it is rational for you to study hard and then sit for the exam.) On this model, actions can be evaluated as rational or irrational, but wants cannot. Whatever you want, it can be rational to act on that want, if you believe that the want can be satisfied by doing Y and have evidence that it can be satisfied in this way. But wants themselves cannot be evaluated as rational or irrational. This model of rationality is very influential. (If you want to introduce it in an exam or essay, make sure you do so properly. Avoid just briefly saying that what is rational for one person may not be rational for another person.)

 

The objection to Klosko is this: Klosko needs to argue against Hume's model of rationality, in order to defend his definition of presumptively beneficial, but he does not do this.

 

Reference

Klosko, G. 1987. Presumptive Benefit, Fairness and Political Obligation. Philosophy and Public Affairs 16: 241-259.