Reinterpreting Liberal Legitimacy

University dissertation from Uppsala : Uppsala universitet

Abstract: This thesis is an inquiry into the Liberal Principle of Legitimacy, formulated by John Rawls in his later writings. According to this principle, the exercise of political power is legitimate only if it is justifiable to all citizens. This view can be interpreted in different ways, and I argue that the presently most popular way of doing so faces serious problems. The aim is to identify and defend a more plausible version of the principle, which overcomes these problems, and yet preserves the most essential and appealing features of the approach. Among the most central issues for how to interpret the principle are how to understand the notion of justifiability to a person, and who should be included in the group of persons referred to as "all citizens". On the currently received view, only justifiability to those who count as "reasonable" matter, and justifiability to these persons is understood in non-moral terms, as being determined by what is accessible to them, given the beliefs that they happen to hold. I argue that we have good reasons to reject both of these suggestions. We should instead spell out justifiability to a person in terms of what could be reasonably accepted in a moral sense, which allows us to retain the appealing idea that legitimacy is dependent on justifiability to all citizens over whom political power is exercised. I further suggest that we can use the original position – Rawls’s version of the social contract – to determine what is justifiable to all in this sense. I defend this suggestion against the expected objection that it will not be able to take reasonable pluralism – the assumption of deep disagreement between citizens – into account, by explaining why we should sharply distinguish this principle of political legitimacy from the theory of Political Liberalism. This distinction also contributes to my response to the objection, raised against this principle, that it is self-defeating. That my suggested interpretation allows us to convincingly respond to this line of criticism is yet another reason as to why it is preferable to the standard view.

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