Critical moments: How do events affect how we should judge the legitimacy of political authorities?
In what ways do historical and current events affect how we should judge the legitimacy of political authorities?
- Thomas Fossen
- NWO VENI
Popular uprisings in the Middle East and shifting sovereignty in the EU make the question of political legitimacy as pressing today as ever. But how can we judge whether or not the authorities we face are legitimate (in a normative sense)?
This project focuses on a crucial aspect of legitimacy that political philosophers often overlook: the significance of events. In what ways do historical and current events affect how we should judge the legitimacy of political authorities? For example, how did the revolution of Tahrir Square affect what counts as a good judgment of the subsequent Egyptian regime?
Events hardly appear on the radar of current political philosophy. Many philosophers think that we should answer the question of legitimacy by appealing to moral principles such as consent, self-government, or human rights. Although they disagree strongly about which principles are correct, they share the assumption that judging legitimacy in practice is a matter of applying such principles. But this approach has a blind spot for political events.
The present project shifts the focus from general principles to the activity of judging legitimacy in medias res. This new perspective draws on recent “pragmatist” philosophy, and argues (against what is commonly assumed) that narrating and contesting events in engagement with others can affect what constitutes a good reason for or against the legitimacy of authorities. If this is true, then existing theories of legitimacy miss something crucial: events can affect not only facts about a case, but also norms of legitimacy.
In practical terms, this novel perspective on political legitimacy will illuminate a question that we all face (implicitly or explicitly) in political life. But the results will also be highly relevant for methodological debates in political philosophy and help to address conceptual issues about legitimacy in history and the social sciences.