Research

Legitimacy

For a long time, debates about legitimacy were overshadowed by debates about justice, or were assimilated to 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 account of legitimacy in the literature is missing. Such a view bases legitimacy on justice, rather than consent, democracy, or public justification. My D.Phil. thesis is an attempt to cast some light on the contours of such a view, and the resources available to its defenders.

A Rationalist Theory of Legitimacy
In this thesis, I argue for rationalism, the claim that political legitimacy should be distributed such that justice is promoted best.

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.

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Political Anti-Intentionalism
There has been little debate in political philosophy about whether the intentions of governments matter to the legitimacy of their policies. This paper fills this gap. First, I provide a rigorous statement of political anti-intentionalism, the view that intentions do not matter to political legitimacy. I do so by building on analogous debates in moral philosophy. Second, I sketch some strategies to defend political anti-intentionalism, which I argue are promising and available to a wide range of theories of legitimacy. Third, I show that the distinction has implications for debates surrounding neutrality and political liberalism.

Disagreement, Political Legitimacy, and Indirect Instrumentalism
Political instrumentalism claims that the right to rule should be distributed such that justice is promoted best. Most contemporary political philosophers dismiss this position quickly, as they think it fails in the face of pluralist societies characterised by deep disagreements. I argue that instrumentalists should distinguish two levels of normative thinking about legitimacy, the critical and applied level. An indirect instrumentalism which acknowledges this distinction can answer the disagreement objection, and should be considered more seriously in the literature.

Work in progress. Email me for a copy.

Authority

Exciting new work on the nature of authority by David Enoch and others changes how we ought to think about political authority. I suspect that, once we understand authority correctly, philosophical anarchism will turn out to be a much more appealing view.

Coordination cannot establish Political Authority
One of the most common arguments in favour of the state's authority is that without the coordinating hand of political institutions, we could not achieve important moral benefits. I argue that if we understand authority correctly, then coordination cannot even in principle establish that coordinators have political authority.

Rights

A task for any theory of legitimacy is to outline the relationship between individual rights and collective aims. That is, to what degree can individuals veto or override the pursuit

Three Queries for the Interest Theory of Rights
The interest theory of rights, understood as a theory about how basic moral rights are justified, justifies rights on the basis of the role they play in protecting and promoting interests. I argue that the theory suffers from three unclarities regarding (i) how interests are individuated, (ii) how trade-offs are adjudicated, and (iii) how we interpret what it means to “promote” an interest. I suggest some ways in which these unclarities can be resolved, and how they show strengths and weaknesses of the interest theory.
Work in progress. Email me for a copy.

Democracy

Another competing theory of legitimacy focusses on democracy as the primary element in legitimising power. I believe, however, that most theorists overvalue democracy, in the abstract but especially in the concrete. In particular, the nature of real-world democracies should make us highly sceptical about the intrinsic value of democracy.

The Strong Demands of Political Competence
What would be required for someone to count as politically competent, i.e., to be able to make competent decisions in politics, especially elections? I argue that existing approaches vastly underestimate how demanding it is to be politically competent. We see that only a tiny sliver of the population are competent once we understand the concept and demands of competence correctly. This should lead us to develop an ethos of epistemic humility.
Work in progress. Email me for a copy.

Public Justification

Justificatory liberalism claims that public justification to every citizen is central to legitimacy. I think this view is mistaken for a variety of reasons.

Political Liberalism and Peer Disagreement
Political liberalism claims that public justification is necessary for legitimacy. Common arguments for this position are based on moral arguments. I explore and reconstruct an alternative argument on the basis of peer disagreement, recently suggested by Fabienne Peter. I highlight several problems with Peter’s argument, and suggest a general reason why any argument from peer disagreement to political liberalism is likely to fail.
Work in progress. Email me for a copy.
Against Justificatory Liberalism
In this thesis I argue that we should give up justificatory liberalism: the claim that it is a necessary condition for the legitimacy of a law that it is publicly justifiable.

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).

B.Phil. Thesis (original)
B.Phil. Thesis (reformatted for better readibility)

Supererogation

In previous work, I tried to develop a broadly Kantian account of supererogation.

Disjunctive Duties And Supererogatory Sets Of Actions
I develop a ‘duty-plus’ approach to supererogation based on a simple intuition: if I am required to do x or y, doing x and y is a candidate for, though not necessarily, supererogation. This is an appealing view to take, located midway between two extreme positions, supererogationism and rigorism. I give a precise statement of the view through the notion of disjunctive duties, and discuss the commitments a duty-plus theorist should make, independent from the Kantian context in which this position is often discussed. I also advocate the novel claim that we should take supererogation as a property of sets of actions, rather than single actions. The latter view suffers from problems in cases of concurrent acts and accumulative supererogation.