The Question of Fairness
The question of political obligation has long been a concern of political philosophy. George Klosko defined a theory of political obligation as, “a set of linked considerations intended to provide answers to questions concerning whether we have a moral requirement to obey the law”1 What is it that gives a polity the right to generate the obedience of its citizens (or perhaps any person who lives within the polity)? Does a person within a polity have an obligation to obey the law of the polity simply because it is the law? Is there something above fear that motivates obedience? Is there some sort of moral obligation to obey the law? Many different principles of obligation have been offered up to explain and answer this question of political obligation. However, each theory is accompanied by myriad objections and criticisms. Many theories are able to affirm why some people in a polity may feel a duty to obey the laws of the polity, but in each theory there are holes. They fail to demonstrate why there is an obligation for the whole population of a polity. The principle of fairness (or fair play) is one such theory of political obligation. A theory of political obligation must ground basically all living in the polity, or the at least the citizens (some attempt to account for anyone within the polity) to support a full range of governmental functions. The question is, does political obligation do this; and if not, does it function at all as a motivator of obligation to the state? According to George Klosko, the fairness principle was first established by H.L.A. Hart in 1955. Hart, as quoted by Klosko, described the principle of fairness in the following: When a number of persons conduct any joint enterprise according to rules and thus restrict their liberty, those who have submitted to these restrictions when required have a right to a similar submission from those who have benefited by their submission.2
Fundamentally, the principle maintains that it is unfair for one individual to enjoy the benefits of life under a state without shouldering the benefits of maintaining the state. In his book Justice and Legitimacy, Simmons lays out the principle of fairness in its most general form saying it, “asserts that those benefit from the good faith of other, made in support of a mutually beneficial cooperative venture, have a moral obligation to do their parts as well within the venture”3 Hobbs, and Locke, both argue that from a state of nature, humans will naturally be motivated to cooperate and form a political society. Hobbs argues that it is ultimately in an individual's self-interest to cooperate with others and to seek a higher authority to mediate/oversee cooperation. Locke, quite differently, believes there are moral reasons to respect the rights of others and it is immorality that causes people to form a political society. In both cases, a cooperative political society is the goal. The rule of law is essential for this cooperation to be achieved; and the government of the polity must be effective in enforcing this law. If we agree with Hobbs and Locke in the belief that a life in a political society is far more desirable than life in the state of nature, it is reasonable to accept that the members of the society have an obligation to do their part in maintaining the cooperation by obeying the laws of the state. The principle of fairness argues this, and goes further. It suggests that it is unfair to take advantage of or exploit the, “sacrifices of others who have freely assumed the burdens associated with maintaining mutually beneficial schemes”4 This act is called free-riding. Freed-riding may not necessarily even do any direct harm to the cooperation of the society of take away any benefits of the other participants. Simmons gives the examples of not paying for one bus ticket or cheating a little on your tax return5 However, even in cases such as these, there might be...
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