An obligation is a requirement or duty to act in a certain way. It is characterised as a moral duty, rather than a ‘coercive’ force (H.L.A.HART).

Natural Duty

  • Fulfilled because such conduct is seen to be morally correct e.g. to give a promise is to be under a moral obligation regardless of the consequences of breaking it.
  • Advocators of this idea point out that most obligations are by choice and not contractual.
  • Made clear by obligations within families – children to parents.
  • J.J.ROUSSEAU – ‘general will’ – people will oblige because they believe that the state is acting in the interests of the people.
  • Socialists, because of their commitment to community and co-operation, place responsibility on every human being towards others.
  • KROPOTKIN – society demands sociable, co-operative and respectful behaviour from its members.

Social Contract

  • These obligations exist as a result of our membership of a political state
  • J.J.ROUSSEAU – social contract
  • Citizens can claim that they gain no benefit from the state and hence have no obligation towards it
  • HOBBES and LOCKE – ‘state of nature
  • Governments must rule with consent
  • Without obligation, society descends into civil war – all against all. Therefore the rational human beings would be prepared to enter a social contract
  • HOBBES argued that citizens have an absolute obligation to government, regardless of how they behave.
  • This is because the existence of a state, however it acts, is better than no state at all
  • LOCKE: Individuals who form a society must sacrifice some of their liberty to secure order and stability in society; individuals trust their government to protect their rights.
Similarities Differences
  • Both struggle to explain the source of our obligation – no signed contract, and mixed morality means that there is no real general will
  • Anarachists such as WOLFF suggest that neither can create obligation because the only obligation that exists is to oneself
  • ROUSSEAU’S notion of ‘forced to be free’ suggests that the state always act in the ‘real’ interests of individuals – there is obligation to follow the general will for their own good
  • Social contract is more flexible because it is dependent on what an individual believes that they get back from the state – natural duty should apply to all people at all times
  • LOCKE – trust vs contract – contract involves people being obliged to help each other. On the flipside, natural duty is a model of trust that rights and obligation are the reciprocal of each other
  • LOCKE and HOBBES opposed a state of nature which was ‘nasty brutish and short’ – existence of state is preferable regardless of oppression


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