Political Obligation and Moral Conflict

Convenor: Allyn Fives

Email: allyn.fives@nuigalway.ie

If we are at times faced with a plurality of conflicting moral principles and values, how are we, as citizens and as political thinkers, to make normative judgements in politics? In particular, how are we to judge whether, in situations of moral conflict, we are bound by political obligations and if so what is required of us by such obligations? This workshop seeks to explore both the theoretical and practical issues raised by these questions.

First, this workshop will explore theoretical questions concerning how we are to respond to moral conflicts. Some argue that moral dilemmas are never real as such, given that it can never be the case that, all things considered, we ought to do X and also, all things considered, we ought not to do X (Philippa Foot). Also, it is argued that we cannot be faced with real moral conflicts concerning our political obligations. For example, we not only owe nothing to tyrannies, as a legitimate polity guarantees our freedom it cannot demand anything from us that will violate that freedom (see variously Jean-Jacque Rousseau, John Rawls, J.S. Mill). In contrast, for moral pluralists, we have not identified the general rule for the resolution of moral dilemmas. That is why, for example, the demands made by even the most legitimate polities will always be a fetter, a violation of individual freedom (Isaiah Berlin, Bernard Williams).

Second, this workshop will examine practical or applied questions concerning what situations conflicts arise in and what claims may be in conflict. Is it our group-based loyalties that may come into conflict with our political obligations (Michael Walzer, Alasdair MacIntyre), or can these dilemmas be raised for individuals isolated by the political evil they perceive around them (Judith Shklar, Henry David Thoreau)? Do such conflicts arise only for those who, even in their acts of disobedience, show fidelity to the law, such as in cases of civil disobedience (John Rawls), or do they arise when anyone is prevented from doing what they could otherwise do, even if the acts in question are not only illegal but cannot claim to be morally praiseworthy on any other grounds?

This workshop seeks to examine how as citizens we are to respond to such conflicts, and in particular by exploring the kinds of considerations that we can and should appeal to in working through moral conflicts, including those based on empirical findings, conceptual analysis, and ethical judgement.

We welcome papers on a wide range of topics, such as:

  • whether moral conflicts are real
  • whether moral conflicts concerning political obligations can arise in legitimate polities
  • how moral conflicts are to be resolved
  • political obligation and group-based loyalty
  • political obligation and political freedom
  • political obligation in the context of civil disobedience and utopian reforms
  • political obligation for extremists and ordinary criminals
  • political obligation under tyranny


Abstracts should be between 500–1000 words