Why Do We Obey the Law?

George Klosko asks citizens a philosophical question

By Kathleen Valenzi Knaus (English ’87)
This is an image of George Klosko

George Klosko

While most political scientists rely on data gathered from observation or experience to substantiate their theories, traditionally political theorists do not.  Instead, they rely on philosophical arguments to address normative issues, rather than empirical studies of political reality.

Which is why George Klosko, a scholar of contemporary political theory and the history of political thought at U.Va., may be considered somewhat of a heretic by his peers in the field. 

Since 2000, Klosko, the Henry L. and Grace Doherty Professor at the Department of Politics, has run ten focus groups in Virginia and Maryland, and five more in Toronto, Canada, to learn what citizens think about “political obligation,” or moral reasons to obey the law. Unlike other political philosophers, he believes that ordinary attitudes are relevant to theoretical discussions.

While Klosko considers his findings “preliminary”—based on the views of a modest number of people—they are, nonetheless, “consistent and potentially significant,” he says. Having written and published some twenty articles and two books on political obligation, Klosko sees the empirical data he is collecting as an important way to “raise the burden of justification” for traditional theorists who argue in favor of different reasons why people should obey the law. 

According to Klosko, standard reasons given for why we should obey the law include “because we have consented to do so, as it says in documents like the Declaration of Independence, and beliefs in shared, if vague, ideas of ‘membership’ in our country.”

But Klosko’s empirical data raises questions about the basic idea of obeying the law. Ordinary citizens make distinctions about laws. They generally feel that they are not doing anything wrong in disobeying certain laws, such as speed limits, legal drinking ages, and prohibition against downloading music over the Internet without paying for it. However, they strongly feel that it would be wrong to disobey “weightier” laws, like the requirement to pay annual income taxes. Klosko believes that citizens decide whether or not to obey the law largely on the basis of different laws' content—what  they attempt to accomplish—as opposed to the prevailing view that political obligation is content-independent—that the law should be obeyed simply because it is the law.

“Distinctions that people make among laws are common sense,” Klosko says, “but ‘common sense’ is not necessarily embraced by philosophers as a rationale for human behavior.” 

In his book Political Obligations, published by Oxford University Press and winner of the 2007 David and Elaine Spitz Prize for best book in liberal and/or democratic theory published in 2005, Klosko also argues that empirical data on issues in political theory can increase the legitimacy of government and “have significant practical uses.” 

For example, studies have shown that “an important determinant for why people pay taxes is the perception that other people are paying taxes, too, so the system is fair and the law is worth obeying,” says Klosko, a self-described ‘fairness theorist.’ “The more the importance of fairness can be supported empirically, the more fairness can be used in public discourse to strengthen citizenship.”

Klosko would like to expand his research findings to other geographical areas. Toward this end, he has enlisted the help of European scholars. Andras Miklos, a graduate of Central European University, where Klosko taught in 2005, and now a post-doctoral student at Harvard, has run eight focus groups on political obligation in Hungary. Maria Ferretti of the University of Bremen has conducted four focus groups on the same subject in Italy and will run similar groups in Germany. Miklos and Ferretti use the script developed and used by Klosko in his American and Canadian focus groups.

What his European collaborators have found is intriguing. “In the focus groups run in Pecs and Budapest, Hungary, where citizens claim to hate the Communists who formerly ran their country, you’d think they’d be appreciative of democracy and supportive of the laws. But instead their attitudes are contemptuous of democracy,” Klosko says. “They believe the democratic government in Hungary is corrupt and provides no services. Their attitude suggests that democratic governments may have to provide a certain level of service before people will believe they should obey the laws.”

This September, Klosko heads back to Budapest to teach a six-week course on the history of political thought at Central European University. While there, he will meet his collaborators and discuss the paper they plan to write and publish based on their research. “Hungary is a new democracy; Italy and Germany have been democratic since World War II; and democracies in the United States and Canada are well established,” he says. “So we’re interested in writing about differences in attitudes among the citizens of these countries, which have different experiences of democracy.”

Klosko hopes that philosophers will come to appreciate, as he does, the value of empirical research in support of political theory. “At the present time there are intractable disputes in the literature on political obligation,” he says. “My research is an attempt to bring additional considerations into the discussion.”

While a few scholars, like Tom R. Tyler of New York University, have collected empirical data about attitudes towards political obligation, very little has been done on citizens’ moral reasoning,” Klosko says, “so people who work in the area are interested in seeing how this plays out.”