Sometimes we are presumed, without any prompt on our side, to have certain allegiances, do certain things, even sometimes to hold certain opinions. For example, the presumption to have allegiance to the government of the country of your birth. And rejection of such presumed allegiances is often met with extreme prejudice.

On the other hand, contractual obligations presuppose consent of both sides.

Thus the question: are we obligated to honour the allegiances and duties that others assumed on our behalf, to which we never consented to?

EDIT: some clarifications of the question, based on comments.

The question is more about moral obligations than legal ones. Although I didn't phrase it clearly, I am interested in social as well as state-imposed obligations.

There are plenty of laws that would punish you for doing things that nobody would consider unethical, such as using force to defend somebody other than yourself from an assailant in some states, etc. There are also plenty of actions that most people would consider unethical, although they are not illegal.

A different way to phrase this: does other people's expectations of what our duty is imposes that duty?

Examples, some from comments:

Certain allegiances are expected within a family. Though shall not covet thine brother's wife. Certain allegiances are expected within social groups, such as colleges. Though shall not cheer for the opponent team. Certain "fairness" duties are socially expected by citizens from the officers of the State. There are extensive expectations by parents about school teachers' behaviour. Is a teacher obligated to comply to what the parents would consider "good moral character?"

Another set of expectations can be produced by your own actions. Suppose you got into a habit of giving daily a couple of bucks to a homeless at the corner on your way to work. It's possible that the homeless grew to rely on your daily donation. Does his expectation that was produced by your action imply a moral obligation for you to continue your daily charity? Are we "responsible for those we tame?"

  • If you don't pay your taxes, the government puts you in prison. However, you never agreed to pay taxes nor did you ever agree to the "social contract" between you and your insane, corrupt, warmongering government. It follows then that government is nothing more than brute force; and that if you want to resist, you're going to need to resist by force. And if you don't believe me, read some history.
    – user4894
    May 7, 2014 at 16:53
  • @user4894: true. However, I'm talking asking about moral obligations rather than legal ones. We are talking ethics here, not law. There are plenty of laws that would punish you for doing things that nobody would consider unethical. Hell, there are laws that would punish you for making the only ethical choice, such as using force to defend somebody other than yourself from an assailant in some states. Existence of law-imposed non-consentual obligation does not imply existence of moral non-consentual obligations.
    – Michael
    May 7, 2014 at 17:06
  • 1
    Can you clarify (i.e. edit your question) to indicate which type of obligation you mean in the last sentence? It is trivially true that we are forcibly obligated by the government if it forces us to do something. It is a philosophical question if we are morally obligated to the state. It is merely a legal question if you want to know if some states obligate or try to obligate thoughts and feelings and not just actions.
    – virmaior
    May 7, 2014 at 23:43
  • @user4894, I think you're misrepresenting the idea of a "social contract." According to any reasonable interpretation of social contract theory, you're agreeing to the social contract every day, and you're free to reject the social contract at any time. The contract doesn't bind you; it binds the government! You have the right to reject it any time, and by changing citizenship or engaging in open rebellion, you are exercising that right. Sometimes that's a sensible thing to do. But once you've done so, your former government no longer has any obligation to protect you from violence.
    – senderle
    May 8, 2014 at 1:08

2 Answers 2


Michael, you've noted in a comment that legal and moral obligations are distinct, so the obvious answer to your question is:

We are legally obligated to honour the legal obligations imposed on us by the government, but are only morally bound to execute our moral obligations. To the extent that the legal obligations coincide with moral ones, we are morally bound to execute them, to the extent that they don't, we are not morally obligated to execute these immoral, yet legally imposed, ones.

Just to be clear, I consider the "presumed allegiance" referred to in this question to be a legal obligation, which may (or may not) lead to morally just actions.

In this way of thinking of things, moral considerations come first; then one assess whether the legal obligations align with the moral ones. If they do, then your course of action is obvious, if they don't you have a moral obligation to take the moral position. In some cases the presence of the non-moral (legal) obligations may reduce our culpability for failing to take the morally preferred option, since, especially in the legal case, there are pretty direct coercive forces at play.

This line of thought can be extended to other types of situations, e.g. we have social obligations to conform to the social norms of our community. These social norms may or may not have any moral aspect to them. For those that don't, e.g. some aspects of table manners, there is no moral imperative to conform.

Edit in response to edited question (and some comments).

This answer is somewhat unsatisfying due to the nature of the question, which is, "if you have these non-moral obligations, to what extent are you morally obligated to uphold them?", which has an obvious answer.

It's pretty clear that there is no direct/logical/necessary relationship between what is legally or socially proscribed and what is moral; most people would claim that some things are moral whether or not they are legal or socially accepted etc. Thus these external influence are separate from actual moral responsibilities.

The fact that these obligations are implicit does have significance for this: If you had given your word to adopt/adhere to the strictures, then you have at least the modicum of moral responsibility to uphold your word. However, since this question posits that these commitments have not been made, it is more clear that the external obligations are not really moral ones.

Where I see the intersection is that these legal/social forces are a coercive force that can affect an individual's moral assessments. The usual example is when a criminal threatens you (or other individuals) with bodily harm unless you do something immoral. Most moral systems account for this type of external coercion by reducing your moral responsibility in these situations. I'd say that you can apply this same approach in order to account for the coercive effects of legal/social strictures as well.

Of course, all this is predicated on (some degree) of objective moral truths. If you wanted to adopt the position of moral relativism, then you'd be deriving the moral truths from exactly these kinds of social/legal forces.

  • "We are legally obligated to honour the legal obligations imposed on us by the government" -- Why? I don't remember signing a contract. Is there anything to my legal obligation beyond the government's use of force?
    – user4894
    May 7, 2014 at 19:12
  • Currently (i.e. for nation-states) governments claim sovereignty over swaths of land; if you are inside that swath of land you are subject to those legal obligations. You may not like it, or may think that it is immoral, or it may be sub-optimal, or it may be ambiguous when more than one entity (set of laws) claims to apply to a given swath of land, but that's currently the way the world is set up.
    – Dave
    May 7, 2014 at 19:34
  • Also note: by "legally obligated" I only mean the coercive effect of the law, i.e. if you want (or are willing to accept) outcome X you need to behave in manner Y with respect to the law.
    – Dave
    May 7, 2014 at 19:41
  • Of course that's how the world works ... because government is the entity that has a legitimate local monopoly on force. This is not my personal idea, this is a well-developed idea of Max Weber. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monopoly_on_violence. So I ask you, is there any OTHER reason you can think of that I should obey the law, other than the fact that the government may come and kill or hurt me? The OP says he was asking about morality, so that would be my question as well. I signed no social contract, but I'm afraid of being hurt by the government. Is that it?
    – user4894
    May 7, 2014 at 19:45
  • If acting in accordance with the law is moral, then its the morally right thing to do. Or the other way, to the extent that the law is a catalogue of the morally correct ways to behave, then you have moral obligations to follow it. This moral imperative (to adhere to good laws) is independent of whether or not you signed on to any "social contract", and is independent of whether or not the monopoly of force concept applies.
    – Dave
    May 7, 2014 at 19:53

You are allowed to change your citizenship at the age of majority. At this point you can choose country that fits your needs and is willing to accept you as citizen at which point it's consent of both sides.
Before you are major you are not allowed to make any legally binding contracts, your parents deal with that side of your live, and this is already separate question. I cannot judge if it is moral, but it certainly is convenient.

  • Can you show me where the asker asked whether one can change citizenship? I doubt he was meaning to ask whether he can obligated to things by choices his parents make.
    – virmaior
    May 8, 2014 at 9:04
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    @virmaior "For example, the presumption to have allegiance to the government of the country of your birth." May 8, 2014 at 9:10
  • But his question is not whether this can be changed but rather what is the source of its grounding.
    – virmaior
    May 8, 2014 at 9:42
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    @virmaior Convenience - you do not have rights of choice before majority age and when later you do acquire right to make that choice. May 8, 2014 at 10:14
  • I can't see how this answers the question.
    – Lucas
    May 8, 2014 at 16:35

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