Last week a Chesterfield circuit court ruled Romito has no obligation to pay dues to the homeowners’ association in the tony Bexley neighborhood. Romito bought his property two decades ago, when membership in the association was voluntary. Last year the Bexley Association made membership and dues mandatory. To force Romito to pay dues now, ruled Judge Herbert C. Gill, would be “simply unjust.”
Why? Well, the lovely thing about homeowners’ associations is that they entail voluntary social contracts. People who join them freely and explicitly consent to live by a set of rules governing the community. When a member flouts the rules, he also violates a universal moral law: the law against breaking promises.
As C.S. Lewis noted in Mere Christianity, people seem to have an innate grasp of certain moral notions: “Everyone has heard people quarrelling . . . . They say things like this: ‘How’d you like it if anyone did the same to you?’ — ‘That’s my seat, I was there first’ — ‘Leave him alone, he isn’t doing you any harm’ — ‘Give me a bit of your orange, I gave you a bit of mine’ — ‘Come on, you promised’ . . . .Quarreling means trying to show that the other man is in the wrong. And there would be no sense in trying to do that unless you and he had some sort of agreement as to what Right and Wrong are . . . .Now this Law or Rule about Right and Wrong used to be called the Law of Nature.”
The binding quality of promises seems to be one of those moral notions upon which we can all agree, so much so that the concept of a non-binding promise seems oxymoronic. (Of course legitimate reasons exist for breaking promises sometimes, and everyone can think of hypothetical situations to illustrate them, but those exceptions do not invalidate the general rule.)
A community association covenant is a promise to obey the rules, and the promise imposes an obligation. The trouble comes when we start asking about the obligations we have to other communities — such as cities, states, and especially nations. Why does a person living in country X have a duty to obey its government?
Philosophers have produced all sorts of answers. At one time, sovereigns embraced the idea of the divine right of kings: Subjects should obey their monarchs because God says so –’nuff said. This didn’t satisfy anyone for very long, so later thinkers suggested the existence of a social contract, rather like the contracts people sign when they join homeowners’ associations today.
Yet when it comes to larger communities such as nations, there is no contract. Almost no one (except perhaps naturalized citizens) ever signs on a dotted line. So if we are to say people have an obligation to obey their governments, then we need another reason as to why. Coming up with a convincing one, however, proves to be tricky.
We presumably want the explanation to apply only to good governments. We don’t want to write a rule obliging us to participate in the Holocaust, just because we happen to live in Nazi Germany. So we might say individuals have a duty to obey only just governments. But this not only invites us to decide for ourselves whether our government is just (not necessarily a bad thing), it also leads to some curious possibilities. For instance: While a citizen residing in the dictatorship of North Korea might owe no allegiance to Kim Jong Il, he might owe allegiance to a different, more just government such as England’s. Supposing England were to go to war against Iran for a just and noble cause, could England draft a citizen of North Korea to fight — or at least to send money? If not, why not?
Other explanations for political obligation have been offered, such as the notion of tacit consent: The fact that you choose to live in the United States implies you accept the laws of the United States. After all, you could move to another country. But does this seem right? Perhaps someone chooses to stay in the U.S. only because she wants to take care of her sick mother — or because it seems the least bad option. The victim of a mugging could choose to fight back. Should the fact that he heeds the counsel of prudence and hands over his wallet instead be taken as a sign that he consents to the mugging?