Allegiance Essay

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Allegiance, following Scottish philosopher David Hume, can be defined as loyalty and obedience to magistrates. Allegiance, however, can be owed not just to leaders and states, but to a range of institutions, ideals, and people. Examining the concept of allegiance raises questions such as to whom or what is allegiance owed; from what does allegiance derive; is allegiance absolute; can one have multiple allegiances or is there one that supersedes all others; and what happens if allegiances conflict? Once such questions are raised, it is clear that allegiance has a long history in Western and Eastern philosophies, religions, and politics. In the ancient world, questions of allegiance are examined and expressed in Sophocles’ Antigone, the Confucian notion of filial piety, Plato’s dialogues on the trial and death of Socrates, Diogenes the Cynic’s declaration that he is a citizen of the world, and Jesus’ edict to “render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God what are God’s.” In the modern era, questions of allegiance become intertwined with the social contract theory of English philosopher John Locke, which posits consent as the source of allegiance, and the contrasting views of Hume and English philosopher and statesman Edmund Burke, who suggest that one owes allegiance to one’s state, customs, and traditions not because one promised but because they were inherited from previous generations and provide stability and continuity in the present. And in the contemporary era, themes of allegiance are explicit in debates surrounding nationalism, patriotism, civil disobedience, and conscientious objection.

To Whom Or To What Is Allegiance Owed?

Allegiance can be owed to institutions such as nation-states or churches, as well as to the ideals and principles, such as liberty, democracy, or a particular faith, that institutions embody and represent. Besides institutions, allegiance also can be owed to persons, such as political or religious leaders, or even to fellow compatriots, believers, ethnics, or to all of humanity. In addition to external entities, allegiance can be pledged internally to one’s conscience which, in turn, may be guided by higher laws derived from nature, reason, or religion.

Like American philosopher Henry David Thoreau, pastor Martin Luther King Jr., Indian spiritual and political leader Mohandas Gandhi, and other conscientious objectors, one may ultimately decide to disobey civil laws and statutes if they violate one’s deeply held sense of justice. As such, civil disobedience is an expression of allegiance to a higher law that transcends civil laws and ensures that one is not complicit in the injustice they oppose. Thus, allegiance to a state can conflict with allegiance to one’s conscience, as well as to subnational units (e.g., a local community) or to supranational entities and ideals (e.g., diasporas or loyalty to humanity).

On What Is Allegiance Founded?

Allegiance can be founded on chosen or unchosen sources, with classical and contemporary liberals defending the former and communitarians the latter. Chosen allegiance derives from consent (either express or tacit) that is central to social contract theory. Express consent, following Locke and English revolutionary Thomas Paine, is a promise one makes to grant authority to and obey a government provided that, in return, the government protects the liberties, rights, and common good of its citizens. Free will is a central element of express consent and can be found in the oath recited at naturalization ceremonies in the United States, in which new citizens pledge their allegiance to the Constitution and foreswear their former national allegiances. Tacit consent also produces allegiance, but does so indirectly, as in Socrates’ explanation that he implicitly promised to obey the laws of Athens when he chose to live there and benefit from its protection. Tacit consent may be reinforced through socialization rituals, such as when millions of public schoolchildren in the United States begin their school day with the Pledge of Allegiance or when their French counterparts are prohibited from displays of religious identity in order to reinforce a secular national identity.

Unchosen allegiance, in contrast, derives not from a promise but from social necessity, birth, and traditions. The traditions that form the community or nation into which one is born give that person predetermined identities and duties of allegiance prior to the exercise of free will. Upon maturing, communitarians allow that persons may continue to adhere to those identities, traditions, and allegiances or may modify them within limits, but they are likely to remain deeply constitutive of their identity. Some political and ethno religious identities and allegiances are passed on in this fashion. Politically, communitarians and conservatives often echo Burke’s defense of custom, tradition, and the “little platoons” that give people their sense of history and social obligations. Ethno religiously, this can be found in allegiance to one’s group that may be held in higher regard than allegiance to one’s state, especially if the group is subject to persecution or discrimination by the state.

Is Allegiance Singular Or Plural; How Is Conflict Resolved?

Contemporary y liberal theorists generally suggest that loyalty to a state rests on adherence to a set of unifying civic principles and ideals that diverse people can consent to, but add that individuals can have a multiplicity of identities, social roles, groups, and institutions to which they owe allegiance.

Depending on the context, individuals can modify and alter the priority of these allegiances. Thus, multiple allegiances are not inherently problematic because this reflects the multiple identities of the self. If there is a conflict between two or three entities to which individuals owe allegiance (e.g., one’s country, faith, or ethnic group), contemporary liberals generally allow individuals the freedom to choose which one is primary, and if necessary defend their right to engage in civil disobedience even in subtle forms such as abstaining from reciting the Pledge of Allegiance for religious reasons.

For communitarian and conservative theorists, individuals typically do not have unlimited freedom to decide which allegiance takes priority if their allegiance to the state conflicts with an allegiance to some other entity or belief. As a result, states are typically granted the authority to compel compliance with the laws or limit the rights of those who wish to engage in civil disobedience. Further, communitarian and conservative theorists generally suggest that loyalty to a state rests on a thicker set of shared moral values, and they add that individuals have a limited ability to modify their identities and allegiances. Because subnational or supranational allegiances are potentially disruptive, they must be subsumed under a unifying national allegiance. This is one reason why John F. Kennedy was asked whether his Roman Catholic faith would supersede his allegiance to the Constitution if he were elected president of the United States. However, despite some tensions caused by plural allegiances, the federalist structure of Canada and the European Union allow subnational, national, and supranational allegiances to coexist.


  1. Hume, David. “Of the Original Contract.” In Hume’s Moral and Political Philosophy, edited Henry D. Aiken, 356–372. New York: Hafner, 1948.
  2. Locke, John. Second Treatise of Government, edited by Richard Cox. Arlington Heights, Ill.: Croft Classics, 1982.
  3. Nussbaum, Martha. For Love of Country: Debating the Limits of Patriotism, edited by Joshua Cohen. Boston: Beacon, 1996.

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