February 28, 2024


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Legal Theory Lexicon: Legitimacy


Legitimacy. It’s a phrase substantially bandied about by learners of the regulation. “Bush v. Gore was an illegitimate choice.” “The Supreme Court’s implied basic legal rights jurisprudence lacks legitimacy.” “The invasion of Iraq does not have a respectable foundation in international regulation.” We have all read text like these uttered numerous instances, but what do they necessarily mean? Can we give an account of “legitimacy” that helps make that idea meaningful and unique? Is “legitimacy” one strategy or is it several distinctive notions, united by relatives resemblance somewhat than an underlying conceptual framework?

This entry in the Authorized Theory Lexicon principle will take a look at the idea of legitimacy from various angles. As constantly, the Lexicon is aimed at regulation learners, specially initial-year regulation learners, with an fascination in lawful principle.

Normative and Sociological Legitimacy

Let’s begin with the distinction among normative legitimacy and sociological legitimacy. On the one hand, we discuss about legitimacy as a normative idea. When we use “legitimacy” in the normative sense, we are building assertions about some part of the rightness or wrongness of some action or institution. On the other hand, legitimacy is also a sociological idea. When we use legitimacy in the sociological sense, we are building assertions about legitimacy beliefs–about what attitudes people today have. Although these two senses of legitimacy are linked to one another, they are not the very same. That’s for the reason that an institution could be perceived as respectable on the foundation of wrong empirical beliefs or incorrect benefit premises. The opposite can be true as very well: a controversial court docket choice (Roe, Bush v. Gore, and so on.) could have been perceived as illegitimate, even if it experienced been a respectable choice.

Process and End result

Legitimacy is a challenging idea but one issue is quite crystal clear.  The legitimacy of an consequence is unique from its correctness.  Or to set it otherwise, a lawful norm can be illegitimate but just, on the one hand, or morally negative but respectable, on the other hand.  One way to articulate this strategy is to distinguish among method values and consequence values.  Legitimate is typically thought to connect to the method by which a lawful norm is made, while justice attaches to the lawful norm itself.  Thus, a democratic method can generate a respectable but unjust lawful norm.

Conceptions of Normative Legitimacy

Principles and Conceptions–The distinction among normative and sociological legitimacy is critical, but, by itself, it does not get us really far. What does “legitimacy” necessarily mean? How is “legitimacy” distinctive from “justice” or “correctness”? People are deep questions—deserving of a ebook-size solution. My standard plan in the Lexicon series is to steer a neutral course—avoiding controversial assertions about debatable issues of lawful principle. But when it will come to legitimacy, it is tough to adhere to this strategy. The difficulty is not so substantially that legitimacy is the issue of a very well-defined discussion somewhat, the challenge is that the idea of legitimacy is typically sick-defined and undertheorized.

So listed here is the strategy we will use. Let’s borrow the idea/conception distinction for a commencing issue. Let’s hypothesize that there is a standard idea of legitimacy but that this idea is contested—different theorists have distinctive sights about what legitimacy is composed in. Some theorists assume that legitimacy is conferred by democratic treatments other folks may possibly assume that legitimacy is a operate of lawful authorization however other folks believe that legitimacy is linked to justice. Let’s choose a look at four distinctive notions of legitimacy.

Four Conceptions of Legitimacy

Legitimacy as Democratic Process–1 really critical and influential strategy of legitimacy is connected with democratic treatments. Let’s begin with a basic instance. Suppose you belong to a compact-scale firm of some kind—maybe a regulation-university college. The executive of the firm can choose various steps on her very own authority, but there are some issues that will have to be resolved by democratic treatments. For instance, suppose the Dean of a regulation university resolved that all initial-year classes should be taught in compact-groups with cooperative-finding out methods and without the regular scenario process and Socratic questioning. This may be a wonderful innovation. (I’m not declaring it would be.) But if the Dean produced the choice without the input of the college (or a vote of the college), then it is very probably that there would be vociferous opposition to the new firm of the curriculum on the grounds that the Dean’s choice lacked democratic legitimacy.

Let’s choose a far more acquainted instance. Federal judges are not specifically elected. They are appointed for daily life phrases. Although the President (who nominates federal judges) and the Senate (which confirms them) are both elected bodies, the judges who sit at any supplied time have an indirect and diffuse democratic pedigree. Moreover, their daily life phrases make them fairly insular. So there is a question of legitimacy about the institution of judicial assessment. Does the actuality that Supreme Court Justices are not elected make it illegitimate for them to invalidate steps taken by elected officials? Of course, which is a major question. For our reasons, the critical issue is that the question itself is one about democratic legitimacy.

Legitimacy as Authorized Authority–A further conception of respectable seems to focus on lawful authority. For instance, when President Truman purchased the seizure of the metal mills for the duration of the Korean War, there was not question but that he experienced been elected in 1948. But regardless of the actuality that Truman was elected democratically, there was still a question about the legitimacy of his action. Even if his action was democratic, it may possibly not have been lawful. When an formal functions outdoors her sphere of lawful authority, we occasionally say that listed here choice was “illegitimate.” When we use “legitimacy” in this way, we look to be relying on the strategy that legitimacy is connected to lawful authority. Actions that are not lawfully approved are regularly termed “illegitimate” while steps that are lawful are occasionally noticed as respectable for that explanation.

Legitimacy as Dependability–Nonetheless another principle ties legitimacy to the dependability of the method that provides the choice. To see the issue of the “reliability conception” of legitimacy, we need to have to phase back again for a moment. There is a difference among the “correctness” or “justice” of a choice, on the one hand, and its “legitimacy” on the other. Without a doubt, this seems to be a vital function of “legitimacy.” We assume that an incorrect choice can even so be respectable, while a accurate choice can deficiency legitimacy.

Dependability theories accept this “gap” among legitimacy and justice, but insist that there is even so a solid connection among the two. The strategy is that legitimacy necessitates a choice building method that satisfies some threshold requirement of dependability. So tossing a coin would not be a respectable process for deciding lawful disputes. Even if the coin toss arrived out the right way and the social gathering that would have received in a honest demo did get the coin toss, the choice that resulted from the flip of a coin would be criticized as illegitimate.

1 critical instance of a dependability principle of legitimacy is found in Randy Barnett’s ebook, Restoring the Lost Constitution. Barnett argues that the legitimacy of a structure relies upon on its dependability in generating just outcomes. A respectable structure assures a tolerable level of justice. A structure that does not present these a ensure is illegitimate—or so Barnett argues.

The Liberal Basic principle of Legitimacy Let’s do one far more principle of legitimacy. John Rawls’s has sophisticated what he termed “the liberal theory of legitimacy.” Listed here is how Rawls states the theory:

[O]ur workout of political electric power is fully appropriate only when it is exercised in accordance with a structure the necessities of which all citizens as totally free and equivalent may possibly fairly be expected to endorse in the gentle of ideas and ideals suitable to their common human explanation.”

Unpacking Rawls’s theory could choose a total report, but permit me make three observations:

  1. The unique function of the theory is that it helps make explanations depend. That is, the theory bases legitimacy on reasonable endorsement “in the gentle of ideas and ideals suitable to . . . common human explanation.” Viewers of earlier lexicon entries will note that Rawls’s is referring her to his strategy of general public explanation.
  2. The theory does not have to have that citizens truly endorse the constitutional necessities. Alternatively, the requirement is that citizens “may fairly be expected to endorse” the constitutional necessities. In other text, the constitutional necessities will have to be justified by general public explanations in these a way that the justification is one that reasonable citizens could be expected to settle for.
  3. Citizens are asked to endorse the constitutional necessities “as totally free and equivalent”. That is, the theory assumes a sure political conception of citizens as totally free and equivalent associates of culture. The explanations are resolved to citizens conceived in this way, and not to citizens as they are, if that involves their rejection of the idea that every and just about every citizen should be regarded as a totally free and equivalent member of culture.

Rawls’s liberal theory of legitimacy issue us in the path of a total relatives of ideas about legitimacy. Rawls’s theory is tied to his strategy of general public explanation, but we can envision other theories of legitimacy that involve distinct kinds of explanations as legitimating or exclude groups of explanations as illegitimate.

Competing compared to Complementary Conceptions

We began our investigation of various conceptions of legitimacy with the performing hypothesis that these would be “competing conceptions,” i.e., that only one of these theories of legitimacy could be accurate for a supplied area of software. Now, let us choose a second look at that assumption.

Is it truly the scenario that the various conceptions of legitimacy contend with one another? There is another possibility—that some (or all) of these conceptions are complementary. For instance, we may say that a supplied judicial choice has legitimacy in the sense that it was produced by lawfully approved officials, but that the very same choice lacks democratic legitimacy, for the reason that it was produced by unelected judges opposite to the will of democratically elected legislators. If this way of chatting is smart, then it may possibly be the scenario that the various conceptions of legitimacy do not contend with one another, but somewhat exist in some kind of complementary partnership.


We have barely scratched the surface, but I hope this entry has supplied you foods for thought about the strategy of “legitimacy.” My very own sense is that one should be really cautious about deploying the strategy of legitimacy. Mainly because legitimacy has distinctive senses and is undertheorized, it is really easy to make statements about legitimacy that are ambiguous or theoretically unsound.

Associated Lexicon Entries

  • Authorized Theory Lexicon 009: General public Explanation
  • Authorized Theory Lexicon 016: Favourable and Normative Authorized Theory
  • Authorized Theory Lexicon 018: Justice
  • Authorized Theory Lexicon 028: Principles and Conceptions

Methods on the Online

  • Fabienne Peter, Political Legitimacy, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2010).


  • The Psychology of Legitimacy: Rising Perspectives on Ideology, Justice, and Intergroup Relations (John T. Jost & Brenda Key eds. Cambridge College Press, 2001).
  • Frederick M. Barnard, Democratic Legitimacy: Plural Values and Political Energy (McGill-Queen’s College Press 2001).
  • Carl Schmitt, Legality and Legitimacy  (Jeffrey Seitzer trans., Durham (North Carolina): Duke College Press, 2004).
  • Steven Wheatley, The Democratic Legitimacy of Worldwide Legislation (Research in Worldwide Legislation) (Hart Publishing 2010).

(This entry was past revised on February nine, 2020.)