John Rawls on Political Legitimacy
John Rawls’s presentation of his famous principle of legitimacy raises a number of exegetical and philosophical questions which his texts leave unresolved. The key to their solution lies in a claim Rawls makes about the character of political power. Rawls uses language familiar from social contract theory to describe that power, saying that it is the power of the public as a corporate body. This chapter considers but ultimately rejects the suggestion that Rawls’s treatment of legitimacy is Lockean. Rather, Rawls follows Kant in thinking that talk of a contractual incorporation is best understood as a way of expressing fundamental moral claims about the object of a constitution, about citizens’ standing, and about legislators’ duties. These are the claims that do the real work in Rawls’s account of legitimacy. To show this, the chapter lays out Kant’s conception of the social contract and argues that we can draw on that conception to understand Rawls’s account of political legitimacy. It then spells out the philosophical pay-offs of the reading offered here by showing how it solves some textual puzzles and how Rawls’s account differs from others that have recently been defended in political philosophy. The chapter concludes by mentioning some lingering questions about Rawlsian legitimacy.
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