Political legitimacy without a (claim-) right to rule

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In the contemporary philosophical literature, political legitimacy is often identified with a right to rule. However, this term is problematic. First, if we accept an interest theory of rights, it often remains unclear whose interests justify a right to rule (the 'grounds of authority' question): either the interest of the holders of this right to rule or the interests of those subject to the authority. And second, if we analyse the right to rule in terms of Wesley Hohfeld's characterization of rights, we find disagreement among philosophers about what constitutes the conceptual core of political authority: a power-right or a claim-right to rule (the 'nature of authority question'). In this paper I show that both of these are problematic for a number of reasons. First, if we think that it is only the interests of the holders of a right to rule that justify the possession of authority, the conceptual core of authority must consist in a claim-right. However, this understanding of authority biases our thinking about legitimacy in favor of democratic exercises of power. Second, if we hold such a decisively democratic view of legitimacy, we confront an impasse with respect to addressing global collective action problems. Although it is clear that political authority is necessary or useful for solving these issues, it is doubtful that we can establish global institutions that are democratically authorized anytime soon. The paper suggests an alternative 'Power-Right to Command View' of political legitimacy that avoids the democratic bias and allows thinking about solving global problems with the help of global service authorities.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)291-307
Number of pages17
JournalRes Publica
Issue number3
Early online date13 Mar 2015
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2015


  • Democracy
  • Global Justice
  • Legitimacy
  • Authority
  • Hohfeld


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