Review of Abner S. Greene, Against Obligation: The Multiple Sources of Authority in a Liberal Democracy
Abner S. Greene, Against Obligation: The Multiple Sources of Authority in a Liberal Democracy (Harvard University Press 2012)
Don’t be alarmed by his book’s sweeping title: Abner Greene isn’t suggesting that we chuck Contracts from the law school syllabus. Rather, he has three particular sorts of supposed obligations in his crosshairs: a moral obligation always to obey the law (also known as political obligation), an obligation to defer to “the past” – be it “original meaning” or simply judicial precedent – in constitutional jurisprudence, and an obligation by public officials to be bound by the Supreme Court’s reading of the Constitution. A surprising number of theories propose the existence of such obligations in “content-independent” form – and Greene refutes them methodically, even relentlessly, one after another. One of the achievements of this book is that he manages to sound more reasonable than radical while doing so.
But while the book’s subtitle, “The Multiple Sources of Authority in a Liberal Democracy,” suggests a broader viewpoint, this book is embedded within an entirely American discourse. A reader outside the US, or even one of a comparativist bent within it, might well wonder whether Greene’s arguments are as airtight as they seem, whether they’re as controversial as he may think they are, or even what sort of philosophy this kind of book is really about.