Euan MacDonald – Legitimacy as Liberty

Political Theory Research Group seminar series:  23 Mar 2016

Photo: William M. Connolley

Photo: William M. Connolley

“People often talk about ‘legitimacy’ without knowing what it exactly means”, said Euan MacDonald at the very beginning of the PTRG seminar last week, and this is exactly what motivated him to write the paper ‘Legitimacy as Liberty’. His aim, in short, was to specify as precisely as possible what this word means, rather than engaging in the substantial discussion of what makes something legitimate.

In his paper, Euan defines legitimacy as a liberty in the Hohfeldian sense. To predicate legitimacy of an action φ by agent A is to state that A has, relative to B, under a given normative order a liberty to φ. He justifies this definition for two reasons: the “fittingness” and “usefulness”. The first is that it largely “fits” the ways people use the term: the definition passes the test of several linguistic puzzles he puts forward. The second reason is that it helps us move forward some theoretical debates about legitimacy.

The ensuing discussion centred mainly on two points: namely, the tenability of his definition and the methodology adopted in the paper. Against his right-based definition, some participants argued the term “legitimacy” should be duty-based: a government has to fulfil some duties in order to gain legitimacy. Another question concerning the definition was the lack of certain substantial criteria for judging whether an action is legitimate or not. An interesting but difficult situation would be the one in which an actor who can be seen as legitimate under a given normative order – say, a democratic government – may pass a law which is illegitimate under the same normative order. Regarding the methodology of the paper, one commentator denied that the author was actually doing a descriptive analysis of the concept which aims to capture the unifying features of legitimacy; rather it was stipulative: the author justifies his definition in his own language and from certain normative positions. The author responded well to these questions sequentially. Also, he admitted that the paper is part of the broader project in progress which investigates the “legitimacy crisis” in global governance, and so that the paper was drafted inevitably to serve to address the problems of the mentioned crisis. Nevertheless, the discussion was inspirational and productive.

Written by Chiming Zhong


Euan MacDonald is a Lecturer in Jurisprudence at the University of Edinburgh.