The Scope of Political Obligation

Convenor: Ben Sachs (


States have obligations—obligations to protect liberties, secure opportunities, ensure some level of welfare, etc.  But to which kinds of beings do states have such obligations?  This is the question of the scope of political obligation.

The current literature on the scope question is generally focused on two kinds of beings: animals and severely cognitively disabled humans (and, especially, whether these two classes of individuals can be brought within the ambit of Rawls’s theory of justice).  This workshop welcomes contributions that extend those debates as well as contributions that delve into what we should say about other beings, such as plants and children.

Possible approaches include, but are not limited to:

  • Responding to recent literature on the scope question, such as that by Jeff McMahan, Christine Korsgaard and Martha Nussbaum.
  • Investigating the contemporary relevance of historically significant ways of answering the scope question, for instance
  • Plato, Aristotle, and the idea of man as the only ‘political animal’
  • Natural law theory, the great chain of being, and the relevance of free will
  • Hume, social contractarianism, and the circumstances of justice
  • Exploring the intersection between the scope question and the question of political liberalism.  Can we, and should we try to, answer the scope question without taking a position on the value of different forms of life?
  • Examining the relevance of human attitudes.  Could it matter whether we humans care about or are otherwise attached to other kinds of individuals?  Could that determine whether they fall within the scope of political obligation?
  • Discussing whether we can and should be individualistic about the scope question, that is, insisting that whether an individual falls within the scope is determined by her intrinsic properties alone.

Please send papers (3000 words, maximum), suitable for blind review, to by 8 June, 2014.  Send other communication directly to the convenor at the email address below.

Ben Sachs (University of St. Andrews)

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