This chapter offers a critical assessment of one class of accounts of political obligation. These accounts, following terminology which has become current in this context, are labelled ‘voluntarist’ (Pateman, 1985; Riley, 1973). Such theories have proved consistently appealing in the long history of discussions of political obligation, but especially so in the modern world to theorists of a broadly liberal persuasion. Central to these theories is the role they attribute to individual choice or decision, to some specific act of voluntary commitment, in explaining or justifying political obligation. Their essential and common feature is simply that they seek to explain political obligation in terms of some freely chosen undertaking through which persons morally bind themselves to their polity. It is through this act or undertaking that people are thought to acquire their political obligations. The precise form of this act or undertaking; the conditions which render it freely chosen; the nature of the relationship implied; the extent of the obligation incurred; and to whom or what the obligation is owed, are all variously articulated within differing voluntarist accounts. Often these differences are important and for some purposes may be more significant than the features that these accounts share. However, without denying or underestimating those differences, the discussion that follows is premised on the assumption that it is legitimate and instructive to treat such differences for the most part as variations within one broad class or category of argument.
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