Democracy and Political Obligation Essay

Democracy and Political Obligation Essay

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The public life of political servants is characterized by other duties and obligations than private life. Conflicts can even arise between a person's public and private duties. The central point of this paper is to examine whether this difference of duties can be regarded as an effect of different forms of obligation. Can we speak of a particular form of political obligation in the same way in which Kant distinguishes between ethical and legal obligation, the former pertaining to intentions and the latter to external aspects of the action? Could political obligation be distinguished from both of them, for example by its relation towards ends? The first section develops the thesis that if there is such a thing as political necessity, it must be some kind of moral obligation. The second section focuses on the question of whether political obligation can be conceived of as different from legal and ethical obligation, the only two forms of moral obligation that Kant distinguishes. The last section is about a differentiated conception of political obligation and virtue, in democracies, for political leaders, for citizens, and for public servants.

All modern societies in some way accept the distinction between legal and ethical obligation. The former constitutes an exterior sphere of norms and rules, including duties which citizens can be compelled to perform by the threat of punishment or other legal consequences, the latter concerns the interior sphere of a person's conscience and private intentions. Making this distinction can be seen as the explicit acknowledgement of what Agnes Heller has called 'the first structural change in morals': the evolution of a separate subjective sphere of morality within the public ethical life. (1) ...


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...cal action: the problem of dirty hands, in : Philosophy and Public Affairs, 1973, pp. 160-180; Thomas Nagel, Mortal questions, Cambridge 1979, pp. 53-90; Bernard Williams, Moral Luck. Philosophical Papers 1973-1980, Cambridge 1981, pp. 54-70.

(3) Kai Nielsen, There is no dilemma of dirty hands, in: South African Journal of Philosophy, 15-1 (1996), pp. 1-7.

(4) Thomas Nagel, Mortal questions, p. 89.

(5) See e.g. R.M. Hare, Political Obligation, in: Ted Honderich (ed.), Social Ends and Political Means, London 1976, pp. 1-12.

(6) I. Kant, Die Metaphysik der Sitten, Akademie-Ausgabe, Berlin 1902, Bd VI, p. 232.

(7) Cf. Peter Schneider, Recht und Macht, Gedanken zum modernen Verfassungsstaat, Mainz 1970, p. 224.

(8) Cf. Bernard Williams, Consequentialism and Integrity, in: Samuel Scheffler (ed.), Consequentialism and its Critics, Oxford 1988, pp. 20-50.

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