Liberal Loyalty: Freedom, Obligation, and the State

Liberal Loyalty: Freedom, Obligation, and the State

Liberal Loyalty: Freedom, Obligation, and the State

Liberal Loyalty: Freedom, Obligation, and the State


Many political theorists today deny that citizenship can be defended on liberal grounds alone. Cosmopolitans claim that loyalty to a particular state is incompatible with universal liberal principles, which hold that we have equal duties of justice to persons everywhere, while nationalist theorists justify civic obligations only by reaching beyond liberal principles and invoking the importance of national culture. In Liberal Loyalty, Anna Stilz challenges both views by defending a distinctively liberal understanding of citizenship.

Drawing on Kant, Rousseau, and Habermas, Stilz argues that we owe civic obligations to the state if it is sufficiently just, and that constitutionally enshrined principles of justice in themselves--rather than territory, common language, or shared culture--are grounds for obedience to our particular state and for democratic solidarity with our fellow citizens. She demonstrates that specifying what freedom and equality mean among a particular people requires their democratic participation together as a group. Justice, therefore, depends on the authority of the democratic state because there is no way equal freedom can be defined or guaranteed without it. Yet, as Stilz shows, this does not mean that each of us should entertain some vague loyalty to democracy in general. Citizens are politically obligated to their own state and to each other, because within their particular democracy they define and ultimately guarantee their own civil rights.

Liberal Loyalty is a persuasive defense of citizenship on purely liberal grounds.


This book is called Liberal Loyalty because it offers a defense of loyal or committed citizenship. It is not an argument in favor of supererogatory displays of patriotism—dying for one’s country—nor for political loyalty at all costs—“my country right or wrong.” Instead, it defends loyal citizenship in a more restrained, everyday sense: obeying the law, paying one’s taxes, voting and participating politically, and showing a special concern for the equality and well-being of one’s compatriots. It argues that we have important political obligations, and that we should take them seriously.

The book is called LIBERAL Loyalty, on the other hand, because it claims that the reason we should be loyal citizens—the reason we should take our political obligations seriously—is simply that we care about liberal justice, and not that we share a national identity, are especially patriotic, or cherish a sentimental attachment to our state. An appeal to rationalist and universal principles, I argue, is sufficient to establish the importance of committed citizenship, and it provides a more normatively attractive basis for defending citizenship than do other views. Many people, of course, already believe that committed citizenship is important. I fear, though, that those who are already loyal citizens may not be so for the right reasons—that is, for liberal reasons, and not patriotic or nationalist ones. And I also fear that liberals are increasingly drawn to question the value of loyal citizenship in favor of a more cosmopolitan vision. On both fronts, then, there is something to be said.

This book has been several years in the making, and in the process, I have accumulated debts to friends and colleagues that I cannot hope to properly repay. The book developed out of a dissertation that was written in Harvard University’s Department of Government under the supervision of Richard Tuck. For his restrained guidance and penetrating criticisms—and even more for providing me the model of a truly gracious intellectual life—I am very grateful. Both Nancy Rosenblum and Sharon Krause read the whole manuscript carefully and provided comments and

This remark has been attributed to a US naval commander—Stephen Decatur—in an
1816 toast and was revived by Senator Carl Schurz from Illinois in an 1872 Senate speech.

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