Fordham Law

Abner S. Greene Publishes New Book on Political Obligation

May 31, 2012

Do we as U.S. citizens have a moral duty to obey the law? Are officials obligated to follow what the Constitution’s text meant when ratified? To adhere to precedent? To abide by what theAgainst Obligation book cover Supreme Court today believes the Constitution means? Abner S. Greene, Fordham Law's Leonard F. Manning Professor of Law, asks these provocative questions about political and interpretive obligation in his new book Against Obligation: The Multiple Sources of Authority in a Liberal Democracy (Harvard University Press).

Greene’s answers are as bold as his questions. He proposes that such obligations do not exist. Although citizens should obey some laws entirely, and other laws in some instances, he argues that no one has advanced a tenable theory supporting why citizens should obey all laws all the time.

Greene’s case is not formed solely in opposition to obligation; he advocates for an approach he calls “permeable sovereignty,” stating that all of our norms are on equal footing with the state’s laws. Accordingly, the state should accommodate religious, philosophical, family, or tribal norms whenever possible.

Greene shows that questions of interpretive obligation share many qualities with those of political obligation. In rejecting the view that constitutional interpreters must follow either prior or higher sources of constitutional meaning, Greene dispenses with arguments similar to those offered for a moral duty of citizens to obey the law.

Reviewer Christopher Eisgruber of Princeton University said, “Smart, ambitious, provocative, and original—this tightly argued and broad-ranging book compels readers to reexamine basic assumptions about political obligation, constitutional
democracy, and religious freedom.”

James E. Fleming of Boston University said, "Against Obligation is one of the finest contributions to constitutional theory in recent years. Abner Greene shows the connections between questions of political and interpretive obligation in this remarkably incisive work."

Against Obligation is available for purchase from Harvard University Press, Amazon, and Barnes and Noble.