What I’m interested in (academically)
Legitimacy is one of the ‘essentially contested’ concepts in political philosophy about which there is little clarity. For a long time, debates about legitimacy were overshadowed by debates about justice, or were identified with discussions about authority and obedience. I think that legitimacy is an interesting topic in its own right, and that many of the existing approaches to it are mistaken.
In particular, I believe that a clear instrumentalist (but non-consequentialist) account of legitimacy in the literature is missing. Such a view bases legitimacy on justice, rather than consent or public justification. My D.Phil. thesis is an attempt to cast some light on the contours of such a view, and the philosophical ressources available to its defenders.
In chapter 1, I define legitimacy as the permission to rule. I deny that political institutions generally enjoy authority, which is the moral power to directly impose duties on others. I then describe how legitimate political institutions without authority are possible in principle.
In the second chapter, I outline a major problem for rationalism. If individuals have strong, moral rights, then it seems that political institutions cannot legitimately operate without their subjects’ consent. I describe the key assumptions in this argument, and discuss a series of unconvincing proposals in the literature to escape it. In chapter 3, I argue that we can solve the problem if we look at theories of the moral justification of rights. There are two major such theories, the interest theory and the status theory. I outline the interest theory, and argue that it allows for non-consensual but legitimate political institutions. In chapter 4, I describe a Kantian claim about the nature of rights, according to which our rights are fully realised only if there are political institutions. If we accept this thought, then non-consensual political institutions can be legitimate on the status theory as well.
In chapter 5, I outline what it means to promote — rather than respect — justice, and argue that the promotion of justice enjoys primacy over other values. At first sight, rationalism appears to have very radical implications, given that it asks us to base legitimacy on justice. In chapter 6, I argue that this impression is mistaken. We should often pursue justice indirectly, for example, through methods which focus on legal validity or democratic procedure rather than justice.
Before I decided to focus on the issue of legitimacy, I was (and still am) interested in justificatory liberalism, which sees public justification to every citizen as central to legitimacy. My interest in this topic is part of a greater research interest in the various forms of contractualism in moral and political philosophy, as part of which I would see the justificationists.
My argument proceeds in three stages. First, I give an intuitive motivation for justificatory liberalism in the introduction (ch. 1). Then, I sketch the most plausible version of justificatory liberalism, and distinguish different forms of it (ch. 2). I analyse the central notion of “public justification”, which I interpret through the idea that all citizens could reasonably accept a law. What citizens could reasonably accept is a mix of moral, epistemic and counterfactual considerations, and is constrained by internalism. I also argue that justificatory liberalism is analytically independent from claims about justificatory neutrality and duties of civility.
In the second stage (chs. 3 & 4), I argue that justificatory liberalism falls prey to the Basic Problem. There is reasonable disagreement about virtually all laws, policies, and institutional arrangements. But if we accept justificatory liberalism, then few if any non-trivial laws will be legitimate. This contradicts a liberal commitment to anti-anarchism, according to which many such laws are legitimate. I then discuss a number of solutions to the Basic Problem that justificatory liberals have proposed (ch. 4): actual agreements, procedural meta-agreement, the special nature of the political, moralised agreement, and comparative agreement. While these solution attempts are sophisticated, they all fail.
I discuss the implications of this result in the third stage (ch. 5). In reply to the Basic Problem trilemma, we must ask which liberal commitment we ought to give up – justificatory liberalism, reasonable disagreement, or anti-anarchism. I argue on principled grounds that the latter two are central (moral) principles of liberal thought, while the former is not. In particular, equal respect – the core notion in all liberal views – does not require justificatory liberalism. Thus, we should give up justificatory liberalism.
This argument leaves open many interesting questions that surround justificatory liberalism. I outline some questions for further research in my concluding chapter (ch. 6).
Supererogation is actually one of the very first topics I became interested in as a student. It’s a curious issue - supererogation is not quite a major topic in normative ethics, but it tends to crop up unexpectedly. In this paper, I try to give a simple account to provide a location for supererogation in the normative landscape.