Philosophy 214 - 11.3.5 Political Obligations

So far, this chapter has examined the role of rulers in society. But what responsibilities do citizens have to the government and to each other, and what responsibilities does the government have to its citizens?


Building on the idea of an individual’s responsibility to community, communitarianism is a theory about human identity that holds that people’s values and worldviews are contingent on their social environment. Most of us spend our lives as members of one community or another, and often these communities provide us with our first introductions to moral values, which in turn influence our interactions with others and our political views. The implication of this position is that individuals have obligations to their communities that may supersede their individual interests. While communitarian ideas can be found in many historical texts, including Plato’s Republic, the modern understanding of communitarianism has its roots in early sociological theories. Later, communitarianism grew as a reaction against John Rawls and the liberal position (Bell 2020).

Constraints on Universalism

Communitarians deny the notion of universal values and assert that values, being determined by society, can vary. Moreover, they argue that reliance on tradition and a belief in shared goals can help stabilize a society. Communitarians reject the notion of individualism, or the idea that self-reliance and personal goals should take precedence over social interests, and hold that “it makes no sense to begin the political enterprise by abstracting from the interpretive dimensions of human beliefs, practices, and institutions” (Bell 2020). A Rawlsian framework that asks us to imagine ourselves in a theoretical position in which personal facts are unknown to us doesn’t make sense, when our values are in fact determined by the society we find ourselves in. According to this view, the community is the focal point for enforcing a sense of responsibility for protecting the fundamental rights of others.

Principles of Communitarianism

Sociologist Amitai Etzioni (b. 1929), the founder of the Communitarian Network, elaborates on three main principles at the heart of communitarianism. First, human beings need social interaction. Etzioni points to existing literature showing that individuals in solitary confinement in prisons, as well as elderly persons living alone and without a support network, experience significant psychological and physiological harm. Societies that embrace community and prioritize community involvement have a much greater chance of remaining healthy than societies that do not (Etzioni 2015).

Next, societies have moral norms that are enforced by members of the community. We are motivated to obey moral rules, such as picking up our trash when in public places, keeping our promises, and helping others whenever possible, due to the corresponding praise or blame we receive from our communities. Etzioni claims that this sort of community oversight can take the place of laws that must be enforced by police and other authorities. He explains, “We will agree with each other on what’s right and what’s wrong, and we reinforce it by nothing more than by public education and by mutually appreciating when people do what needs doing and express our concern when they do not” (Etzioni 2015).

Finally, people have not only rights but also responsibilities. In the United States, for example, the notion of individual rights is so strong that often the connection between rights and social responsibility is overlooked. Etzioni gives the example of the competing concerns of personal privacy and national security. We recognize that it is important to maintain our right to privacy; however, we also recognize that sometimes it is necessary to make certain information public to protect the general welfare of the society. Rather than positioning this scenario as a war of competing values, the communitarian sees it as an opportunity to balance the needs of the individual with those of the community (Etzioni 2015).

Mahatma Gandhi and Ahimsa

Some political obligations are primarily to individuals. This view can be seen in the writings of the Indian activist Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869–1948), better known as Mahatma Gandhi, who believed his primary responsibility was to the people of India. He and many other Indians wanted to drive the British colonizers out of their country. Gandhi’s obligation to bring about Indian independence existed independent of any obligation to obey the government. According to Gandhi, “Civil disobedience . . . becomes a sacred duty when the State has become lawless or, which is the same thing, corrupt. And a citizen that barters with such a State shares in its corruption or lawlessness” ([1969] 1994, 172). Thus, it becomes a duty to disobey the government predicated on the obligation to serve both oneself and others. Gandhi offers the following injunction: “Let each do his duty; if I do my duty, that is, serve myself, I shall be able to serve others” (n.d., “Hind Swaraj”). Gandhi is not advocating that people simply serve their own self-interest; he says that “service without humility is selfishness and egotism” ([1940] 1998, 443).

Gandhi recommends robust restraints while disobeying the government. The doctrine of ahimsa, or non-harming—a key idea in Indian philosophy and religion—constrains how one may disobey the government and even governs all interactions in the process of nonviolent noncooperation with the government. Speaking of ahimsa, Gandhi notes, “For one who follows this doctrine there is no room for an enemy” (n.d., “Ashram”). Gandhi calls his particular doctrine satyagraha, or embodying or holding to the truth. One who follows this doctrine is a satyagrahi. For Indians resisting the British, satyagraha took the form of passive, nonviolent resistance to the injustice perpetrated by India’s colonial invaders. The person grounded in ahimsa and satyagraha does not act out of anger or violence, which is why Gandhi says, “A satyagrahi loves his so-called enemy even as he loves his friend. He has no enemy” (n.d., “Epigrams”). For Gandhi, a person’s first duty was to practice ahimsa. Indeed, he practiced ahimsa to the extent that he went on a hunger strike to end Hindu–Muslim infighting once India began to establish its own government. Moreover, he refused to defend himself when he was physically attacked multiple times throughout his life. These obligations to his moral code, as he saw it, existed apart from the government or any law it might have passed.

Gandhi’s writings and political work raise the question, What are people’s obligations when it comes to obeying specific laws? Most theorists separate the obligations to the state from those to the law. For example, American civil rights leaders and activists such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, and Rosa Parks recognized the legitimacy of the government, but they opposed laws that they felt were unjust. They popularized the idea of civil disobedience as a means of opposing unjust laws.

Read Like a Philosopher

Mahatma Gandhi gave his “Quit India” speech on August 8, 1942, calling for the adoption of his plan of passive resistance to British colonial rule in order to achieve independence, which India did five years later. Read the excerpt below. In it, Gandhi proposes using “the weapon of ahimsa.” Is this phrase a contradiction? What duty does Gandhi feel to his people? Do you feel that he is carrying it out appropriately?

There are people who ask me whether I am the same man that I was in 1920, or whether there has been any change in me. You are right in asking that question. Let me, however, hasten to assure that I am the same Gandhi as I was in 1920. I have not changed in any fundamental respect. I attach the same importance to nonviolence that I did then. If at all, my emphasis on it has grown stronger. There is no real contradiction between the present resolution and my previous writings and utterances.

Occasions like the present do not occur in everybody’s and but rarely in anybody’s life. I want you to know and feel that there is nothing but purest ahimsa in all that I am saying and doing today. The draft resolution of the Working Committee is based on ahimsa; the contemplated struggle similarly has its roots in ahimsa. If, therefore, there is any among you who has lost faith in ahimsa or is wearied of it, let him not vote for this resolution.

Let me explain my position clearly. God has vouchsafed to me a priceless gift in the weapon of ahimsa. I and my ahimsa are on our trail today. If in the present crisis, when the earth is being scorched by the flames of himsa [harm, the opposite of ahimsa] and crying for deliverance, I failed to make use of the God-given talent, God will not forgive me and I shall be judged unwrongly of the great gift. I must act now. I may not hesitate and merely look on, when Russia and China are threatened.

Ours is not a drive for power, but purely a nonviolent fight for India’s independence. In a violent struggle, a successful general has been often known to effect a military coup and to set up a dictatorship. But under the Congress scheme of things, essentially nonviolent as it is, there can be no room for dictatorship. A nonviolent soldier of freedom will covet nothing for himself; he fights only for the freedom of his country. The Congress is unconcerned as to who will rule, when freedom is attained. The power, when it comes, will belong to the people of India, and it will be for them to decide to whom it placed in the entrusted.


This lesson has no exercises.

The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax