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Why Should I Obey the State?

The example of the anarchist prompts the question of why we should obey the state. Of course part of the answer to this may be merely wise: if we do not obey the state (pay our taxes, enroll in the armed forces when required, wear clothes in public places, etc.), its agencies may detect our violation of its laws and punish them.

However, if we look for a moral justification for obedience we must look in two main directions. First, we need to consider arguments based on the moral need to preserve an essential or desirable social institution and second, arguments based on the idea of our consent to the authority of a specific form of state. Conservative theorists (like Burke) have tended to emphasize the first line of argument, liberal theorists (like Locke) the second.

As the state represents a safeguard against the chaos, crime and confusion, it may claim our obedience. As the institutionalization of law it is seen as worthy of respect and obedience. Theologians, following St Augustine’s [354–430] City of God, have often seen the state as an institution created by God to discipline sinful humanity. Classical Greek writers such as Aristotle and Plato saw man as a naturally social animal who should abide by the rules of the ‘polity’ (a community organized politically) which created the civilized conditions, in those conditions men would flourish. Both schools of thought, therefore, considered obedience to the state as a normal part of the moral duty of all thinking men and women. Disobedience is therefore to be censured not only for the harm it might do, but also for the example it sets to others.

The democratic view stresses that it is the duty of the good citizen to respect the products of the decision-making processes, as the state is established in the name of citizens and survives only with their consent. Even a bad law should be obeyed until it can be amended by democratic processes. However it does not include genocide or slavery, or other major breach of ‘human rights’. The government reflects the interests of the majority of the community, so minorities should respect its decisions.

In terms of the classical theorists, the contrast is illustrated by Hobbes and Locke. Both used the metaphor of a legal contract adopted in a ‘state of nature’. In Locke’s case the establishment of a trust between the governors and the governed was seen as a contract to set up a civil society. Thus people would obey the government if the government followed that contract. But in Hobbes’s case, the contract gave the government all power to enforce the peace: “I authorize and give up my right of governing myself, to this man, or this assembly of men, on this condition, that thou give up thy right to him, and authorize all his actions in like manner. . . . This is the generation of the great Leviathan, or rather (to speak more reverently) of that mortal God, to which we owe under the Immortal God, our peace and defense”.


1 Give Ukrainian equivalents for the following words and expressions.

To prompt, to enroll, institutionalization, obedience, sinful, to abide by.

2 Translate words and word combinations from Ukrainian into English and use them in your own sentences.

Підкорятися, обґрунтування, згода, процвітати, порушення, більшість.

3 Complete the sentences.

1. Disobedience is ...

2. However, if we look ...

3. This is the generation ...

4. Classical Greek writers ...

5. In terms of ...

6. Thus people would obey ...

7. The government reflects ...

4 Comprehension questions.

1. Does obedience to the state have moral justification?

2. What kind of justification is it?

3. How do different theorists explain the necessity to obey the state?

4. What does the state represent?

5. How did classical Greek writers see the state?

6. How is obedience seen in democratic view?

7. Should all laws be obeyed?

8. How do Locke’s and Hobbes’ views on the nature of the state differ?


5 Say if the following statements are true according to the text.

1. The anarchists believe that people should obey the state.

2. People have the moral need to preserve social institution.

3. Aristotle and Plato saw man as a social animal that could not live in the state.

4. Disobedience is punished for the example it sets to others.

5. In democratic view the state exists because people agree to it.

6. If the law supports genocide or slavery people should still obey it.

7. In democratic society minorities should abide by the will of majority.

8. In Hobbes’s case only government had the authority to enforce the peace.

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