Should we regard political obligation as a ‘natural duty’?

The concept of political obligation and related notions of fairness, justice and natural duty is a fascinating field of inquiry that lends itself to new and ever more complex perspectives on the world of politics. It is now studied under political science, but was previously dealt with by institutions and academies of law, ethics and philosophy. In this regard, it is fair to say that the ideas of Immanuel Kant, Jeremy Waldron and John Rawls comprise the origins of this field of inquiry. The growing stature and relevance of the subject to the present times is reflected in the rapidly growing body of literature pertaining to it (Buchanan, 2004). Coming to the topic question, the ideas of the aforementioned intellectuals as well as contemporary thinkers on the subject are drawn upon in answering it. The group of contemporary thinkers on the subject include Christopher Wellman, David Lefkowitz, Craig Carr, George Klosko and Allen Buchanan.

To begin with, let us now consider John Rawls’ principle of fairness. At the time of his writing, the nation-state as we now understand it was not established as the dominant political entity. As a result, Rawls’ principle of fairness is applicable to any group of persons, irrespective of the political jurisdictions that they fall under. Rawls articulates the principle as follows:

“When a number of persons engage in a mutually advantageous cooperative venture [or scheme] according to rules, and thus restrict their liberty in ways necessary to yield advantages for all, those who have submitted to these restrictions have a right to a similar acquiescence on the part of those who have benefited from their submission. We are not to gain from the cooperative labors of others without doing our fair share”. (Rawls, as quoted in Lefkowitz, 2004)

Political thinkers of our time, including Carr and Lefkowitz have critiqued Rawls’ principle of fairness by pointing out its inadequacy to offer solutions for global warming, climate change, etc. Lefkowitz, in particular, claims that “mere receipt of benefit from a cooperative scheme does not entail an obligation to contribute to its operation” (2004). For example, one of the stark realities of our times is pollution due to auto-mobile emissions. The industrialized nations of the world, that includes the United States, United Kingdom and other western democracies, are major contributors to this pollution. It is fair to expect citizens of these nations to do something about the situation by adopting stringent pollution control standards for their auto-mobiles. Upon its implementation, the air will get cleaner, the benefits of which will be enjoyed by Americans, British and people in the Third World alike. It then raises the question, Are auto-mobile owners of the Third World countries, who contribute to pollution to a lesser extent, but qualify as unintended beneficiaries of clean air, required to adopt similar pollution control standards for their auto-mobiles on grounds of fairness? As a way of responding to this question, Lefkowitz asserts that it is

“irrelevant exactly whom those who institute a cooperative scheme intend to benefit; in this case, whether citizens of the industrialized nations intend to benefit the Third World people. What matters is the nature of the good provided by the cooperative scheme; if the good is one that the latter have a moral duty to secure for themselves or others, be it a natural duty or an acquired one, then they are required to contribute to a scheme that serves this purpose, and in all other cases, they are not so required”. (Lefkowitz, 2004)

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