Ethics & International Affairs Volume 25.2 (Summer 2011): Book Reviews [Full Text]: "Liberal Loyalty: Freedom Obligation and the State" by Anna Stilz [Full Text]

Jun 30, 2011

Liberal Loyalty: Freedom, Obligation, and the State, Anna Stilz (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2009), 264 pp., $29.95 cloth, $24.95 paper.

Avia Pasternak (Reviewer)

In this highly engaging book, Anna Stilz seeks to offer a liberal solution to the problem of political obligations. As she points out, a liberal who argues that citizens have special obligations to their state and compatriots faces two challenges: the "cosmopolitan challenge" casts doubt on the possibility of reconciling liberal universal values with special concern for one's compatriots; the "particularity objection" deems it impossible to construct a liberal argument that will show why citizens have obligations to a particular state, rather than to any state that promotes freedom and equality.

In her largely successful attempt to meet these objections, Stilz reconstructs the "duty to justice" argument first developed by Kant and later defended by Rawls. Her reconstruction is an important service to this argument, as it updates it for the contemporary circumstances of citizenship and arms it against some of its more recent critiques, most specifically the liberalnationalist one. Stilz's study will therefore be of value to anyone interested in the problem of political obligations or in theories of democracy and citizenship.

The book is divided into two parts. The first part addresses the cosmopolitan challenge, which identifies a tension between liberal political obligations and universal values. Following Kant, Stilz suggests that the liberal universal values of freedom and equality are in fact what ground our political obligations to the state, because "only a state can create the conditions in which equal freedom is realized" (p. 22). Here Stilz is mainly concerned with refuting the philosophical anarchist position, most famously developed by A. John Simmons. This position takes justice to be primarily a matter of individual morality, and implies that as such, it can be realized even in a state of nature. Stilz argues that the philosophical anarchist fails to recognize the complexity of defining the content and the scope of individuals' rights as free and equal persons. The state is a public political authority that is necessary both to provide a publicly accepted definition of rights and to enforce it.

After reconstructing Kant's account of the duty to create and support a shared political authority, Stilz makes the more controversial claim that these political obligations exist only in fully democratic states. This argument rests on Rousseau's famous claim that only democracies have legitimate political authority over their citizens, because only in democracies are citizens not required to give up their inalienable right to freedom. Rousseau's own presentation of this argument, which revolves around the general will of the political community, is notoriously vague, and Stilz does a good job at explaining it clearly and methodically. It is worth pointing out, however, that readers who are interested in the political thought of Kant and Rousseau more generally may find her treatment of the secondary literature on these authors somewhat sparse.

In the second part of the book, Stilz turns to address the particularity challenge to political obligations, a challenge to which the "duty to justice" position is especially vulnerable. For if the promotion of justice is the core reason why citizens have political obligations, why do they have such obligations only to their particular state, rather than to any just state in the world?

As Stilz points out, in recent decades the debate over this specific question has evolved into a dispute between two camps: on the one hand, the civic-liberal camp, which argues that a commitment to justice is able to ground, on its own, particular political obligations (see, for example, Habermas); and on the other hand, the liberal-nationalist camp, which argues that particular political obligations can be justified only by an additional appeal to shared culture (see, for example, Yael Tamir and David Miller). Stilz identifies the origins of this dispute in Rousseau's thought and traces its later development. She rejects the liberal-nationalist position and, in what is her most important contribution to this debate, she uses recent theories of collective action to provide the civil-liberal position with the tools to address the particularity challenge.

The question of the nature of collective action has gained much interest in recent years. Stilz provides a quick yet perceptive tour of this ongoing debate, and then focuses on the work of Michael Bratman, who argues that collective action revolves around individuals' shared intentions to contribute to a collective outcome, formed under conditions of mutual responsiveness and common knowledge. Stilz's original move is to apply this general theory to the particular case of democratic action. Her insightful suggestion is that democratic institutions are necessarily cooperative ventures; that is, that in order to succeed they require that some individuals would see themselves as acting together to promote their shared goals (in the same way, for example, that individuals who successfully play a piece of music must act with the intention of playing a particular piece).

The conclusion that follows is that in order to satisfy the demands of justice, individuals have a duty to develop an attachment to a particular state: they should be willing to act collectively to promote its shared just goals. Which particular state should an individual citizen be willing to act collectively with? Here Stilz offers the attractive answer that "an individual is under a duty to do his part in establishing and upholding institutions together with that group of people whose rights are regularly affected by his acts" (p. 198). For Stilz, this duty translates into the duty to uphold the institutions of the states we already live in, since in our daily activities as residents of a specific state we are most likely affecting the rights of those who live under its jurisdiction.

Stilz's reconstruction of the duty to justice argument and infusion with Bratman's theory of collective action is an important addition to the debate over the nature of political obligations. But it also leaves some unanswered questions. As we saw, in the first part of the book Stilz positions her argument specifically against Simmons's philosophical anarchism. But it is not clear that in answering Simmons, Stilz has in fact managed to fully meet the cosmopolitan concern. After all, many cosmopolitans do not wish to replace the Westphalian state system with some individualistic anarchy, but rather with a (arguably more politically viable) system of supranational or global political institutions. Their core claims are: first, that recent processes of globalization have given political societies in the developed world the capacity to determine the fate of individuals and groups in the developing world; and, second, that since political societies today have political effects that far exceed their national borders, the traditional state system should be replaced by a transnational democratic system that would give people across the globe the opportunity to participate in shaping the laws and policies that affect them.

Stilz's suggestion that people have the duty to form just institutions with those whose rights are regularly affected by them seems to support rather than reject this conclusion. It is therefore unclear to what extent her defense of individuals' obligations to their state can withhold the cosmopolitan challenge.

Another question that Stilz's account raises concerns her rejection of political obligations in nondemocratic states. This rejection rests on the value she attributes to the freedom of individuals. However, there are alternative accounts of political obligations (for example, John Horton's) that suggest that individuals have at least some obligations to nondemocratic political institutions, if the institutions provide them with invaluable goods other than freedom (for example, order and security). Since Stilz's own defense of political obligations shares a structural similarity with those other accounts, it would have bolstered her argument had she explained why she finds them unsuccessful. These questions aside, this is a valuable study that sheds new light on one of the oldest questions in political theory.


The reviewer is a lecturer in political theory at Essex University.

You may also like

AUG 9, 2023 Podcast

Nuclear Ethics for this Moment

This panel explores ethical questions surrounding nuclear weapons and builds upon a symposium published in the most recent issue of "Ethics & International Affairs."

MAY 10, 2023 Journal

Ethics & International Affairs Volume 37.1 (Spring 2023)

The editors of "Ethics & International Affairs" are pleased to present the Spring 2023 issue of the journal! The highlight of this issue is a symposium organized ...

MAY 4, 2023 Article

A New Era for "Ethics & International Affairs"

The editors of Carnegie Council's quarterly journal "Ethics & International Affairs" are proud to announce the beginning of a new era in our publishing history. Starting ...

Not translated

This content has not yet been translated into your language. You can request a translation by clicking the button below.

Request Translation