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Obligation and Consent—I

  • Hanna Pitkin (a1)

One might suppose that if political theorists are by now clear about anything at all, they should be clear about the problem of political obligation and the solution to it most commonly offered, the doctrine of consent. The greatest modern political theorists took up this problem and formulated this answer. The resulting theories are deeply imbedded in our American political tradition; as a consequence we are already taught a sort of rudimentary consent theory in high school. And yet I want to suggest that we are not even now clear on what “the problem of political obligation” is, what sorts of “answers” are appropriate to it, what the consent answer really says, or whether it is a satisfactory answer. This essay is designed to point up the extent of our confusion, to explore some of the ground anew as best it can, and to invite further effort by others. That such effort is worthwhile, that such political theory is still worth considering and that it can be made genuinely relevant to our world, are the assumptions on which this essay rests and the larger message it is meant to convey.

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1 No doubt the problem encompasses more than these four questions, and could be divided up in a number of different ways. Indeed, Borne aspects of it not covered by these four questions will emerge in the course of this discussion.

2 Benn, S. I. and Peters, R. S., Social Principles and the Democratic State (London, George Allen & Unwin, 1959), pp. 299300.

3 Tussman, Joseph, Obligation and the Body Politic (New York, Oxford University Press, 1960), p. 12.

4 Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, The Social Contract, in SirBarker, Ernest, ed., The Social Contract (New York, Oxford, 1960), Bk. I, iii.

5 Jeremy Bentham, Fragment on Government, ch. IV, par. 21.

6 Laslett, Peter, ed., John Locke, Two Treatises of Government (Cambridge University Press, 1960) p. 155.

7 For a discussion of the evidence on when the Treatises were written, see ibid., Introduction, esp. part III.

8 John Locke, Second Treatise of Civil Government, in Barker, op. cit., par. 176.

9 Ibid., pars. 132, 149, 199, 211.

10 For example, ibid., par. 171: “political power” is spoken of as that power which every man has “in the state of Nature given up into the hands of the society, and therein to the governors whom the society hath set over it self ….”

11 Ibid., par. 116.

12 Ibid., and also par. 73.

13 Ibid., par. 119.

14 “But since gold and silver, being little useful to the life of man, in proportion to food, raiment, and carriage, has its value only from the consent of men, whereof labour yet makes in great part the measure, it is plain that the consent of men have agreed to a disproportionate and unequal possession of the earth ….” Ibid., par. 50.

15 Ibid., par. 119.

16 Ibid., par. 121.

17 Ibid., pars. 73, 119, 120.

18 Ibid., par. 87.

19 Ibid., par. 99.

20 Ibid., par. 131, italics mine. See also pars. 90, 135, 137, 149, 164.

21 Ibid., pars. 135, 23.

22 Ibid., pars. 90, 168.

23 Ibid., par. 135; see also par. 142.

24 Op. cit., pp. 24, 8.1 hope it is clear, in spite of all the criticisms I make of Tussman's argument, how greatly this essay is indebted to his work.

25 Ibid., p. 36.

26 Ibid., p. 37.

27 Ibid., p. 127.

28 Ibid., pp. 37, 39–41.

29 Ibid., p. 8.

30 Ibid., p. 20.

31 Ibid., p. 44.

32 Ibid., p. 37, italics mine.

33 Cf. Benn and Peters, op. cit., pp. 323, 329.

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American Political Science Review
  • ISSN: 0003-0554
  • EISSN: 1537-5943
  • URL: /core/journals/american-political-science-review
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