Fair Play as Political Obligation

In my view, there are five central philosophical accounts of political obligation. I will give brief explanations of four accounts and consider possible responses. I will expand considerably upon the fifth account:

  1. Consent– Political obligation arises from the consent of the individual to follow rules made by the state. The precise nature and conditions of the obligation are specified in the original contract.
  2. Gratitude– The state bears costs by nurturing and providing residence for the individual. We are obligated to the state insofar as we are grateful.
  3. Membership or Association– The state is analogous to a family. We have obligations to the state in which we are born for the same reasons that we have obligations toward the families in which we are born.
  4. Natural Duty– Our political obligations derive from obligations and moral duties we owe toward individuals by virtue of their personhood. Political institutions ought to underscore and enforce the individual’s moral duties toward others.
  5. Fair Play– The state is dependent upon mutually beneficial cooperation among individuals. In order to reap its benefits, all members of state are obligated to bear the associated costs of such cooperation. Benefits and costs must be distributed equally and proportionally among all individuals.

According to the consent theory of political obligation, all political obligations are grounded in express or tacit consent[1]. However, it seems prima facie unlikely that all individuals living in political communities have consented expressly or tacitly at one time or another. To say that all members of a state consent to the government by which they are ruled, Hume thinks, is very much like saying “a man, by remaining in a vessel, freely consents to the dominion of the master; though he was carried on board while asleep, and must leap into the ocean, and perish, the moment he leaves her”[2].

It is implausible to think that gratitude gives rise to political obligation because gratitude alone cannot explain why we owe, and what we owe, to one another. Further, we run into social epistemic problems when we speak of being “grateful” toward institutions. As a form of political obligation, gratitude simply is not something owed between individuals and institutions, but instead is owed between persons.

Consider the case in which, a diplomat travels to a foreign country, and during his stay there, civil war breaks out. Let D be the diplomat in the foreign country experiencing civil unrest, and let C be that country.  D’s original obligation of gratitude is toward his home country. However, if the civil war ends after a significant number of years and the incumbent government is victorious, does D have political obligation to C because C has taken costs to keep her well, to protect her from attack and provide her with food and shelter? Under a gratitude-account of political obligation she would become politically obligated to C and would become effectively bound to all that the obligation entails such as paying taxes, possible conscription, etc.

The membership or association account is implausible due to the fact that the relationships and social interactions that are constitutive of political communities are unlike those of households. The Membership or Association account holds that one is obligated to one’s country of origin in analogously the same way he is obligated to his own family.  Imagine a person, call him L, is a libertarian with strong family values. L believes government should not interfere with adults in paternalistic manners. L has money taken from him by his parents to save for retirement. L resists a little, but realizes that his parents know best, and acquiesces. He does so because his family has a strong presence in his life. Now take L in another universe, call it B. L in B is now being told that the government will institute a financial saving scheme. This scheme involves placing a portion of L’s annual paycheck in a personal retirement fund. L vehemently opposes the paternalistic intervention of his state, just as he opposes the intervention of his parents. He maintains that he has a right to his own money, and that he will spend it however he pleases. He argues the claim: “Who are you to tell me how to spend my money?!”. Due to L’s strong family values and overall feelings of intimacy with his family, he is likely to consider following his family’s wishes although these go against his political libertarian values in universe B. In universe A, L’s libertarian values reduce the importance he ascribes to abiding by state-based policies and weakens his already-weak relationship with his government. Thus, L is less likely to abide by the wishes of his government in B than he is to abide by his family’s wishes in A. The disparity in the way he views his relationship with his family on the one hand, and her country on the other, lead to completely different outcomes in each case.

Natural duty theory supplies us with both a non-instrumental moral reason and a purely instrumental reason for fulfilling our political obligations. Taken together, these reasons entail that our political obligations derive from our moral duties. It follows that moral duties have lexical priority over political duties. Thus, political obligation is a matter of what is morally permissible, and political duties are valid insofar as they are morally permissible. However, it is incorrect to say that political communities are necessarily just. Nazi Germany was not an apolitical community because it was immoral. Some citizens still had political obligations, perhaps not obligations to do the unjust, however a political obligation does not necessarily entail an obligation to do the unjust even in an unjust state. Consider the following: Hans is a doctor in the German Wehrmacht, Hans is stationed as a doctor in a war hospital, he is part of a system that is unjustly fighting a war, Hans however is nursing soldiers back to health, and saving lives, even if the war is unjust Hans can still be said to have a moral duty to save the ones fighting the unjust war. “Even those who have no regard for the justifiability of their actions toward others retain their basic moral rights”[3]. Thus, Hans is both morally and politically obligated to nurse German soldiers back to health. However, the soldiers receiving treatment are not politically obligated, because they are forced to commit immoral acts through their political obligation and immoral acts cannot be true political obligations according the theory being discussed here. It would be difficult to maintain that only Nazi doctors who served on the frontlines had obligations whereas the soldiers had no obligations.

Under my view, the most defensible account of political obligation is fair play. The principle first received its official formulation and name from John Rawls. Robert Nozick, a critic of the principle of fair play offers this formulation: “[W]hen a number of persons engage in a just, mutually advantageous, cooperative venture according to rules and thus restrain their liberty in ways necessary to yield advantages for all, those who have submitted to these restrictions have a right to similar acquiescence on the part of those who have benefited from their submission”[4]. At face value this principle seems intuitively sound. The principle itself is meant to root out the problem of the Free Rider, that is, anyone who reaps the benefits of the cooperation without bearing any of the necessary costs. However the implications of this principle seem to be implausible. In part I of this paper I will outline the arguments that I know of for and against the principle of fairness, I will also offer up a formulation of Fair Play that most closely conforms to Richard Arneson’s interpretation, then I will provide reasons for accepting my interpretation instead of the Rawlsian interpretation. Along the way, I will advocate for a way of distinguishing between a passive participant and an active participant. I will also make some revisions to his principle to make it more plausible. In part II I will say why it is identifiable with important aspects of political obligation, focusing on the absolving of political obligation. I will also draw the distinction between permissibility and requirement, attempting to show that other accounts do not properly show this distinction.

Part I

The principle of fairness has its roots in ancient philosophy, specifically in Plato’s Crito. The principle has been more adequately formulated in contemporary times, first by HLA Hart, and then by John Rawls. Rawls’ formulation of fair play requires one to accept the benefits of a scheme in order for one to incur the costs of it. In his famous essay he states that “First our moral obligation to obey the law is a special case of the duty of fair play…Second, we have accepted and intend to continue to accept its benefits”[5]. The first statement is not so contentious, but Rawls insists on putting a second constraint on the duty of Fair Play, namely that we must accept and continue to accept its benefits. It is easy to see why this idea is intuitively attractive. However, these qualifications raise further problems for the principle of Fair Play.

First, we must determine what the conditions are for accepting benefits as opposed to receiving benefits, and whether there are certain benefits that cannot be avoided and if those would be accepted or received. In his analysis of the principle AJ Simmons says that to accept a benefit you must have “(1) tried to get (and succeeded in getting) the benefit, or (2) have taken the benefit willingly and knowingly[6]”. Simmons’ stipulations are illustrated in the following example: Jones is part of a village experiencing food shortages. The people of the village institute a scheme to conserve on food. A public farm is created from which villagers can take whenever they would like, provided they take only in proportion to what they give. Jones dislikes this idea and does not take part in the scheme. Instead, he grows envious of how successful the scheme is. Jones then decides to sneak into the public farm and take food for himself.[7] This illustrates Simmons’ claim that acceptance of benefits does not necessitate consent to the scheme. I take Simmons to be correct in his account of acceptance.[8] However Simmons goes on to say that most benefits, which are open, are impossible to accept, even given his way of understanding acceptance.

As opposed to Simmons’ view, Richard Arneson distinguishes between different kinds of open benefits: pure public goods and collective goods. Arneson maintains that pure public goods do not need to be accepted, but merely received. If the good is a collective good, which simply entails that if anyone is consuming the good it is unfeasible to prevent anyone from consuming the good, acceptance is sufficient for participation. In order to be a pure public good, all members must consume the same quantity of the good. This entails the property of being a collective good as well[9]. An example of this kind of good is national defense. Arneson also claims that there are some benefits that the principle of fair play accounts for, and some that it cannot account for. He gives an example of a gift giving association, which satisfies the principle of fair play but does not impose obligation upon the individuals as part of the scheme. He responds to Simmons by saying that Simmons is right to note that there must be some sort of intent to cooperate in a later essay on fair play and paternalism.[10] Arneson claims that this disagreement between himself and Simmons is dependent on beliefs of whether or not people would consent to having these goods.

Both Arneson and Simmons maintain that there must be some degree of consent involved, or some sort of intention to cooperate. The disagreement is about to what extent. We must hypothetically consent to a cooperative enterprise in order for the enterprise to actually be legitimate according to Arneson. Why however, should it be hypothetical consent, why should this be valued over the active participation of people involved? Simmons is skeptical of the claim that people actively participate with one another in order to yield mutual benefits and agree with one another to bear the costs of those benefits. I take it that hypothetical consent for Arneson serves the same purpose as active participation for Simmons in a scheme of Fair Play. Namely it defines the conditions for participation. One must still be a participant in order to incur duties of fair play, even in cases of pure public goods. The conclusion that Simmons draws is this: because people are not actively participating with one another in a political community, the principle of fair play cannot hold for political obligations. I do not believe that Simmons is correct on this account.

The following is my account of active participation: P is an active participant if (A) P accepts the benefits[11], or (B) P must be attempting to and knowingly produce the benefit, (C) must continue to actively bring about the benefit after its inception, and (D) P pledges his support expressly or in a tacit way[12]. Simply because individuals do not actively participate, it does not mean the principle is implausible. We do not have to be actively participating in order to be part of a scheme of mutual cooperation. At minimum, we must participate in a passive manner, and would hypothetically consent to the scheme. In this case what I suggest is that when one is participating in a scheme of mutual cooperation the disjunction (A), (B), (C) or (D) still holds with modifications to clause (D) and an addition of an extra clause (E). (E) states that when it is reasonable for P to know he is part of a scheme, he is still receiving benefits as a passive participant. (D) Now holds that the participant must have a hypothetical consent for the scheme. (E) holds that if it is reasonable to know that P is part of a scheme, and he is benefiting, then he is in fact part of the scheme. By reasonable I mean that the material information is readily available and one does not have to go out of their way to obtain such information. Notice, however that (D) must be held with (E) conjunctively, so our final formulation is (A) ∨ (B) ∨ (C) ∨ ((D) ∧ (E)). With this weaker, more general formulation the principle applies to people who are passive participants, not simply active participants. What I am suggesting can be put into a simple example: Smith is a man living in a neighborhood where he never attends the meetings and lounges about when he is not working. The neighborhood makes a plan of mutual cooperation to use less water, in order to conserve. Smith is told that he ought not use water but never comes to know the reason why. Smith, being a man who hates confrontation, acquiesces and receives the benefits but never really knows of the scheme. Smith realizes that the water is increasing in the public well, and his neighbors talk about benefits of the scheme all the time. However, Smith never finds out why he should stop watering his lawn, and he avoids any way of getting the information. Since Smith has been partaking in the benefits and would have consented counterfactually, to say that he was not part of the scheme is strange. According to the above formulation, when a person willingly restricts his own liberty, he ought to know the benefits he is producing in doing so, and it must be the case that he would hypothetically consent to the scheme, in order to be a participant in a scheme of fair play. From this, and holding that participants are members of a scheme, being a participant, even in a passive sense, is sufficient for incurring the duties of a scheme of fair play because of said membership. Notice however that once a participant is a passive participant, the condition of hypothetical consent becomes necessary. The condition for hypothetical consent simply guarantees the willingness of the participant.

With this revised formulation of what a participant is, the problem of why express or tacit consent is not necessary for non-excludable pure public goods is still unanswered. In response, I simply maintain that hypothetical consent is plausible. Hypothetical consent is to be understood as a status of the individual with consent that is not tacit nor express but counterfactual. It is what the person would have agreed to if they were presented with full information up until their present point in time. I now wish to explore some problems with hypothetical consent. The individual cannot plausibly have hypothetical consent before she receives the benefit. This is because there is nothing to hypothetically consent to. Another problem is that the hypothetical consent could be, on one view, tainted. One could say that a participant is in a state of hypothetical consent only because of the massive influence of the benefits, not allowing them to have anything else to plausibly consent to. The problem is that the participant has no basis for knowing counterfactually what it would have been like if the scheme was not in place, thus the hypothetical consent that they would give is a ‘tainted’ consent that is uninformed, not misinformed. However this kind of consent is consent that is influenced[13], not coerced or purposefully misinformed. It is not tainted consent if the consent is influenced in certain ways.

Tainted consent is consent that is coerced or purposefully misinformed. This is applicable to pure public goods, if a person is benefiting from a good, and has a hypothetical consent for the good even though they grew up receiving the good; this hypothetical consent[14] is still not tainted.

I have claimed that being a passive participant is sufficient for incurring costs in a scheme of fairness provided that the individual is in a state of hypothetical consent. To test this claim we must see if a participant can be plausibly considered to be able to free ride. The principle of fair play is meant to root out the free rider, so only if a participant can possibly free ride can the scheme be considered a scheme of fair play, otherwise it is no different from any coercive scheme. Arneson gives seven conditions for Free Riders and says that “When conditions a-g[15] hold each person who benefits from the cooperative scheme supplying B (Benefit) can correctly reason as follows: either other persons will contribute sufficient amounts to assure continued provision of B, or they will not. In either case the individual is better off if he does not contribute…If this reasoning induces an individual not to contribute, he counts as a free rider.”[16].

There are some problems with what Arneson suggests to be a free rider in the case of a public good. In this case Arneson places too much emphasis on free riders and not free-riding. Arneson makes a hard distinction between the Free Rider and what he calls the Nervous Cooperator, and the Reluctant Cooperator. I do not think that this distinction is necessary; Arneson does because he believes that they (Nervous and Reluctant cooperators) are not blameworthy. However the blameworthiness of an agent and the permissibility of an action are separate[17]. If we are to truly believe that this is an account of political obligation in a moral sense, then the fear of someone else not doing their part should not give one permission to free ride. Appealing to the possibility that others will not pay their taxes does not justify a person in failing to pay his. A person is never permitted not to pay his taxes, regardless of his justification.  According to Arneson however these people are not free riders. Arneson gives an account of free riders in which free riders are not blameworthy. However, he fails to realize that free riding is impermissible, regardless of intentions. This is not to say that people cannot be excused for their conduct of breaking the scheme, but under Arneson’s strict definition the nervous cooperator is free riding in a way that is blameless, which they are not because they still knowingly free ride. He also says that fair play is applicable where free rider conduct is possible. I believe it is the conduct of free riding and not the conditions of being a free rider that is really at question once one has incurred the obligations under the duty of fair play. Arneson’s conditions are subjective in an agent-relative sense.

This distinction will now be applied to Arneson’s conditions now, to avoid making them too subjective, and to develop an account of free-riding fit for participants as given from before. I have mentioned his conditions in a footnote. There is no problem with condition (a) as it simply outlines the conditions of a scheme of Fair Play. (b) should still hold as well. For each member the benefits must outweigh the costs, there is nothing about this claim that would have directly anything to do with the subjective experience of each participating member. (c) holds nothing subjective except for the final part of (c) which states that if one has disinterested motive for not contributing then they should not be required to contribute. There is nothing wrong with this as far as I can see, being a participant entails that one does not have disinterested motive for not contributing, through the clause of hypothetical consent. (d) is a clause made solely on the rationale that if coercion is not necessary then coercion should not be resorted to. However I fail to see how this has anything to do with free-riding, for even if coercion is not necessary, that has no bearing on whether or not the participant is free-riding. (e) is a subjective claim, that each member must find their share to be burdensome. I also fail to see how this is a condition for free riding. The implication of (e) is that it is not enough that participants bear costs, but they also must find these costs burdensome. According to (e) if there were a scheme of fair play where everyone bore costs but found these costs not to be burdensome, then one cannot free ride. It is clear, however, that people are still bearing costs. Regardless of whether or not they find the costs burdensome, they still have a reason for others to acquiesce provided that each member is a participant. Perhaps if no one finds the costs burdensome, then no one will force you to acquiesce, however they still have this right, they may simply choose not to exercise that right. For example imagine a scheme of fair play that is so efficient that everyone has a benefit to cost ratio of X:1, X being some large number. Perhaps no one finds the costs burdensome anymore. This does not mean no one can free ride. (f) does not hold for reasons that I have outlined above, about the nervous cooperator and the free-rider. (g) as well seems to have no bearing on free-riding, it does not matter how large the scheme is, if it is a pure public good and if they are a participant, then it doesn’t matter how large the scheme is, one can still free ride, regardless of the reasons that one holds.

As it is, I will only accept conditions (a), (b), and (c) of Arneson’s formulation, because I am not saying that one has to have the intention of being a Free Rider. However as far as free-riding goes, one simply needs to free ride to be a free rider no matter the reasons that one holds. However, there is a question of culpability as well as when one is allowed to free-ride. These are questions that go beyond the scope of this paper and I will not endeavor to answer them here. Free-riding is to be understood as the unequal and disproportional receiving of benefits and costs. As such a person may not extinguish the costs that they bear in the scheme so long as they are receiving benefits. Arneson’s conditions (a), (b), and (c), stipulate that benefits cannot be received in a disproportional unequal manner. For instance, an individual is not permitted to greatly reduce his costs, while at the same time reaping the same degree of benefit, even if he is still contributing just as much as everyone else at the time. This would be an instance of free riding and a violation of fair play. Society has a right to ensure that the individual stops free-riding, but it is not necessarily the case that they will exercise this right. There is also a constraint of significance, which takes into account de minimis infractions of free -riders. The idea is that, though a scheme may be disproportional and unequal, there is no need to abandon the scheme completely. The final formulation of Fair Play will be:

Revised Principle of Fair Play: When a group of participants engage in a scheme of mutual cooperation and bear the costs of producing a benefit, which outweighs the cost of producing it. Each participant has a duty, insofar as he is a participant, to benefit and bear costs in a proportional and equal way in relation to others.

In this part, I outlined some of the arguments concerning the principle of Fair Play and analyzed which ones should hold. I have said that mutual cooperation does not necessarily entail active participation, but only participation. And further I claimed that by being a participant one could free- ride. In a scheme of fair play free riding is what is rooted out, not free-riders. Further, I follow Arneson on his claim that pure public goods need only be received in order for obligation to exist, provided the individual is a participant. Arneson provides a further condition for what kind of public goods can be subject to fair play “When non-excludability prevails, the scheme is worth its costs, and the division of burdens is fair, yet the good supplied is not a pure public good, voluntary acceptance of the benefits of the scheme by the individual will generally be sufficient to place him under obligation.”[18]. For a pure public good hypothetical consent is enough, and hypothetical consent is to be understood as consent after the benefits have been received, and counterfactually in a position where one is provided with full information. The final formulation of fair play can be thought of as: When one is a participant in a scheme of mutual cooperation, in which all parties bear costs in order to receive a benefit. Provided that this benefit is distributed proportionately and equally[19], no participant may permissibly free ride.

Part II

            Following these arguments for fair play as political obligation, I will now offer other reasons to accept such a principle of fair play. Free riding is an impermissible act in the scheme of fair play. Fair play can guarantee goods that are public for people and also can guarantee the obligations of people to incur costs to provide those goods. Under a principle of fair play, we are to think of governments as large schemes of mutual cooperation. This seems to be true if the principle is considered as a basis for political obligation. There are some cases of political obligation that other accounts will not satisfactorily explain with respect to what obligation is. Consider two cases:

The German Jew in 1940: Viktor is a German Jew under Nazi rule. He lives in Berlin and runs a small shop. Viktor has always been a devout German citizen. However the Nazis begin moving Jews into concentration camps due to the belief that they are not bearing their costs in a fair way. Viktor has a chance to escape before the Germans come for him. His family has given him papers to move to America.

The German Village in 1945: A village in Germany is in a strategic position that is highly valued and highly necessary for the war. The Russians are approaching and the German Wehrmacht is given orders to fall back and defend Berlin, before the Russians get to the village. The German Forces fall back in a hurry and leave vital information around. However, the German Forces also leave guns for the village. When the Russians come to the village and ask the Germans for the information. Does political obligation demand that the villagers defend the information? (Assuming there is a law in place to not give away intelligence to the enemy)

In both cases it seems that political obligation is not something that should factor into any decision-making for either the villagers or Viktor. Under fair play Viktor has no obligation to stay and be persecuted under false pretenses, and the village no longer has any obligation once the public good of national defense has been revoked.

Under fair play, political obligation is nonexistent for Viktor and the village. First take the example of the German Jew. Under the principle of fair play he would have no obligation to stay. His scheme is no longer fair in that he bears greater costs and gains less benefits proportionally with respect to his fellow citizens. Perhaps one would say that the state that thinks it is rectifying an injustice is doing so to keep fair play. My response to this is that fair play is not consent, the fairness of a scheme does not depend upon the perceived fairness of the scheme similar to how free riding does not depend upon the intentions of the person doing this free riding. Overall he has no obligation to the Nazis. Another objection could be that the scheme Viktor is a part of, forces him to accept these new costs, because the benefits in the past, given to Viktor were so great. However what matters is the proportion of the benefits to the costs that he bore, and how that compared to the proportions of his fellow citizens. Under a duty of fair play people must obey the law if it gives them benefits. The costs that each citizen incurs and the benefits received by following the law, is roughly similar to one another. In Viktor’s scenario, his cost to benefit ratio is far out of line with that of the average German citizen, and it will continue to be so if no attempt is made to make the scheme fair. And it is reasonable that there will be no attempt to make the scheme fair.

Now, apply fair play to the case of the German Village. This case is simple. There was a public good, and it was taken from the people of the village. It would seem that since the benefit is discontinued to villagers who up to that point bore the costs of keeping those benefits, and it is the case that the benefits are revoked permanently, the villagers no longer have an obligation to protect German intelligence, though a Berliner might. In fact, under a scheme of fair-play that views the government as a participant, one could say that both Viktor and the village are owed obligations as opposed to the other way around.

In remembering that Viktor is a loyal German Citizen, does he have an obligation, brought about by a sense of gratitude? Gratitude is a form of obligation that an individual has over time. The gratitude that Viktor felt could not be overshadowed by the Nazi’s purposefully making life worse. It is imaginable that a person has a duty of gratitude even after the person whom they owe gratitude to, has changed in his attitude towards a person. Whereas under a principle of fair play, once the benefits and costs are noticeably and significantly disproportionate with respect to his fellow citizens and there are no indications of change in the near future, one no longer has to bear those costs. In short, if Viktor wanted to fight the Nazis after he comes to America, a duty of gratitude would stop him. Applying the principle of gratitude towards the village will yield the same result. Even after the benefit is gone, there is gratitude still remaining from a time when the benefits were received. In either case, gratitude yields highly counter-intuitive and morally impermissible results.

Consent depends on the terms of the agreement. Consent is dependent upon what you had agreed to in the first place. Viktor could say that he had never consented to being sent to a concentration camp or anything of the sort. However if the terms are such that of Nazi Germany, and those people have tacitly or expressly consented towards giving the state absolute authority in pursuit of utilitarian reasons, then Viktor has no say, if it is for the good of the state, as interpreted by the state. One could interpret the contract in a number of ways; the number of logical possibilities is large. However, in some cases, there is no logical reason to choose one possibility over the other. For the village it is the same. Under a dictatorship, the state is the one who dictates the terms of the extent of political obligation. That is to say if the state told the village to defend German intelligence, the village may be obligated to do so under a dictatorship with a social contract. However under fair play, all obligations are based on benefits and costs, therefore even under a dictatorship, the benefits and costs must be distributed proportionately and equally, for any individual to be politically obligated.

A Membership or Association account may run into a problem similar to that of gratitude. Under this account, being born into the state implies that one has familial obligation to their state. I take it to be that a person is obligated not to attack their family in normal cases. So membership or association would allow Viktor to escape the country, but would make it impermissible for Viktor to go back and fight the Nazi’s. Consider the case of an actual family. If someone runs away from her family because their family is persecuting her, she may have escaped, but remains part of that family. This is analogous to lingering political obligation. However to say that Viktor has any lingering political obligation is mistaken. For the village example, the village would be stopped from receiving benefits, however this would not absolve them of any obligation under membership and association. To extend the family analogy, if one family member is in need of help, but another member is in need of more help, the head of the family may be justified in giving help to one instead of the other. However this would not absolve obligation[20].

Finally we turn to the natural duty view, where political obligation is an extension of our natural moral duties. One way to say that Viktor is obligated is to say that he has an obligation to save his own life. Which would give some strange implications: A soldier who is fighting a just war is in a platoon with a live grenade in the middle of the platoon. This soldier is just far enough away to save his own life, but fast enough to jump on the grenade and save many of his comrades. If the soldier has an obligation to save his own life, he is actually obligated to run away, rendering the act of jumping on the grenade impermissible. In this situation the obligation to save one’s own life might be replaced with an obligation to save many lives. The principal ought to be reformulated to posit that it is permissible but not obligatory for the soldier to jump on the grenade. It may be the case that if Victor consents to being sent to a concentration camp and becomes part of a medical experiment by Mengele, Victor has sacrificed his body for the discovery of life-saving medicines in the long-run creating medicine and saving lives in the long-run. A natural duty view might indeed imply that Victor has a political obligation to do so insofar as it is morally permissible for him to be sent there. However, It would be more accurate to say that he has no political obligation, and instead he truly is going above and beyond the call of duty. Similarly with the village, the village is not obligated to fight the Russians. However, if they do it is above and beyond the call of duty.

This part of the paper shows how fair play absolves political obligation. Under this view of political obligation Viktor and the village are no longer politically obligated, though they may act in ways that they are not required to. It is normally impermissible to break obligations, and persons have obligations not to be free riders under fair play. Any other actions are permissible. If Viktor or the village would like to continue with orders, they would do so but it would not be out of political obligation. This is true for gratitude and membership or association. As for natural duty you are politically obligated insofar as you are acting permissibly. This is implausible. This obligation may exist, even if only instrumentally so. Due to the instrumental nature of this account, the permissibility of actions that can fall under this obligation is large and indeterminate. Fair play does not obligate one to do anything except abide by the scheme of benefits and costs. Anything beyond that is beyond political obligation. For example, one does not have a duty to be patriotic. As far as this goes, fair play is important as well in absolving political obligation. It would be a stretch to say that one is politically obligated insofar as one consents or feels as the other accounts of political obligation may suggest.


            In part I of this paper I outlined fair play, and the arguments that people have given for it, most notably Simmons, a critic of the principle, and Arneson an advocate of the principle. Both Simmons and Arneson agree that an individual must be participating and give some degree of consent to be bound by duties of fair play. Simmons however argues for an account of an active participant, as opposed to a participant. I gave an account of what it means to be a participant and I made modifications to what Simmons believes to constitute a passive participant in a scheme of mutual cooperation. I also said that Arneson places focus on free riders and not free-riding. I have said that this is incoherent because it places the blameworthiness of an agent for an action in place of the permissibility of such an action under a principle of fairness. His conditions (a), (b), and (c) which I accept have been put into the final formulation of the principle:

Revised Principle: When a group of participants engage in a scheme of mutual cooperation and bear the costs of producing a benefit, which outweighs the cost of producing it. Each participant has a duty, insofar as they are participants, to benefit and bear costs in a proportional and equal way in relation to one another.

In part II of this paper I  argued for how fair play fits into some important aspects of political obligation such as absolving political obligation and being a moral obligation. The obligation of fair play involves duties not to free-ride. I argued that past the permissibility of obligations of fair play, there is nothing that one is obligated to do politically. For example Viktor was not obligated to run from his country but rather he is permitted to do so, as he is absolved of obligation and thus absolved of the impermissibility to break obligation. In a more adequate formulation he is permitted to break obligation because as a participant he is being treated unfairly with no reasonable indication that the way he is being treated will change. This aspect of political obligation is independent of the individual and other moral duties, which is not fully maintained in membership, gratitude, or natural duty view. Because this theory fits plausibly within important aspects of an obligation, it is important to maintain. For example one could say, if the benefits are distributed unequally or disproportionately, the participant who is being wronged also has the right to be treated in a proportionate and equal way. However this claim would not mean that one must exercise this right.  This account views members of political society as mutually disinterested members to a higher degree than gratitude or membership. I believe this to be the most plausible account of political obligation, however I am not saying that it cannot be compounded with aspects of other theories of obligation. I am simply saying that it is plausible and important to keep in mind when talking about political obligation.



Arneson, Richard. Paternalism and the Principle of Fairness, Paternalism: Theory and Practice. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013, pp 134-156.

Arneson, Richard. “The Principle of Fairness and Free-Rider Problems”, Ethics, Vol. 92, No. 4. University of Chicago Press, July 1982, pp 616-633

Hume, David. “Of the Original Contract”, Political Philosophy: The Essential Texts. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015, pp 477-485

Nozick, Robert. Anarchy State and Utopia. New York: Basic Books, 1974.

Rawls, John. “Legal Obligation and the Duty of Fair Play”, John Rawls Collected Papers. Cambridge, Massachustts: Harvard University Press, 1999, pp 117-129

Scanlon, T. M. Moral Dimensions: Permissibility, Meanning, Blame. Harvard University Press, 2010

Simmons, A. John. “The Principle of Fair Play”, Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol. 8, No. 4. Princeton University Press, Summer 1979, pp 307-337


[1] Simmons, Principle of Fair Play, 307

[2] Hume, Of the Original Contract, Political Philosophy, 482

[3] Scanlon, Moral Dimensions, Permissibility, Meaning, Blame, 142

[4] Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, 90.

[5] Rawls, Legal Obligation and the Duty of Fair Play John Rawls, Collected Papers, 128

[6] Simmons, The Principle of Fair Play, 327

[7] Ibid, this example is very close to Simmons’ example of the well

[8] Ibid, 328

[9] Arneson, Fairness and Free Riders, 618

[10] Arneson, Fair Play and Paternalism, Paternalism a Theory and Practice

[11] Using Simmons’ conception of accepting

[12]  It should be noted that Simmons does give conditions of participation, these are conditions which I take Simmons to mean when he says “play a active role in the scheme”, because he never gives a definition of what active means, and Condition (A) is what I take him to mean mostly when he says “pledges tacitly” Simmons, The Principle of Fair Play, 323

[13] If the good in question has persuaded you to change your attitude and thus you consent, you have been influenced

[14] The hypothetical consent of the person can change over time, but even this kind of consent requires reason for the change. If the scheme has changed in an unfavorable manner then the hypothetical consent can be changed. In a more accurate way of putting it hypothetical consent is pure consent in its strongest formulation.

[15] a-g are as follows:

  1. A number of persons established an ongoing cooperative scheme of supplying a collective benefit B with respect to the members of a group G
  2. For each member B outweighs the cost of him contributing
  3. The scheme distributes the cost of supplying B in a fair way. No beneficiary who has motive not to contribute is not required to do so.
  4. It is unfeasible that the scheme be arranged so private benefits are supplied to each beneficiary of B to induce all bneficiares to contribute their fair share.
  5. Each member of G finds his assigned fair share to involve disutility
  6. The choice by any member of G is not influenced by other members choices
  7. No single member of G will have such great benefits that it is to his advantage to contribute the entire cost of supplying B in the absence of contributions of others. Nor will a few members find the benefits to him outweighs the cost of contribution. A large number of persons must contribute if the benefits each receives are to overbalance the cost of each’s contribution.

Arneson, Fairness and Free Riders, 621-622

[16] Ibid, 622

[17] This point is taken from Scanlon, see Moral Dimensions: Permissibility, Meaning, and Blame

[18] Arneson, The Principle of Fairness and Free Riders, 619

[19] By this I mean equally distributed in the proportion it is given. Ie everyone would receive a 2:1 benefit to cost ratio if anyone is receiving it. Also see footnote 22

[20] Perhaps it could be said that the head of the family is obligated not to show favoritism, and to not help either member of the family. This is absurd as an account of political obligation because by not showing favoritism both the village and Berlin would fall and both would still be obligated.