Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Carol Gould

Committee Members

Virginia Held

Jesse Prinz

Sibyl Schwarzenbach

Steven Cahn

Subject Categories

Ethics and Political Philosophy


global governance, democratic theory, political philosophy, political representation


The phrase “political obligation” has rarely suggested for theorists what it might for the person in the street, namely, the kinds and magnitudes of obligations held by our political representatives, as opposed to obligations held by citizens. In a related way, despite the existence of widespread expectations of political representatives, a theoretical account of these expectations and their normative import are subjects that have received surprisingly little attention. In what follows I develop an account of obligations and duties specifically belonging to political representatives. I argue that the relevant obligations derive in the first instance not from particular political or legal frameworks but from the moral relation introduced when one person represents another, or a group of persons, and in a complimentary way from the ethical relation introduced in an institutional setting where certain roles come to have expectations attached to them. The quasi-promissory relation thus introduced generates obligations for political representatives. Principle among these, I argue, is the obligation to advocate for the interests of their constituents. I thus defend the familiar—but often criticized—view that the main activity of political representation is interest advocacy, but offer an account of interests sufficiently robust to make sense of the sorts of obligations at stake.

I will go on to argue that the magnified influence of those occupying representative roles results in the magnification of their general duties (borrowing traditional language, for reasons I will explain). Political representatives have general duties owed to all other persons just like the rest of us do, but, as with the rest of us, what counts as a reasonable notion of the content of these duties depends upon circumstance. Demands imposed by general duties upon those occupying representative roles should reasonably be thought to be significantly greater than the demands posed by such duties upon average citizens. Further, I defend the view that being the bearer of such magnified general duties and obligations to constituents is integral to and partially constitutive of being a political representative; upholding such duties and obligations to a relevant threshold is integral to representing well.

Finally, I explore how the normative framework here developed with respect to political representation might be applied in the international domain. While representative roles in the context of international affairs are complex and often controversial, I argue that certain normative elements familiar from domestic circumstances still obtain. Interests, carefully considered and qualified, should still form the main content of a representative’s agenda. A circumspect account of these interests, however, must take account of unprecedented connectivity, of evolving circumstances in geopolitics and of the state of the natural environment. With this interpretation of interests in place, I defend the view that the interests of constituents and non-constituents harmonize more often—and conflict less frequently—than is often assumed to be the case, particularly from the perspective of International Relations, but also in a number of philosophical accounts of state sovereignty. Other things equal, as a consequence of general duties obtaining it is among a constituent’s interests that the interests of non-constituents are not compromised. It follows from this that political representatives can be partial to those they represent only in limited ways, and that the interests of non-constituents are also relevant to the activity of representatives.