Legitimacy is one of the most fundamental values in contemporary political analysis, but also one of the most contested. Controversies surrounding the meaning and content of the value of legitimacy within sovereign states have been long pursued within rich traditions of liberal and democratic thought. But the democratic and liberal conceptions and standards of legitimacy developed for states are widely challenged as unsuitable for many global governance contexts. Diverse alternative standards have been proposed and developed in these contexts – such as accountability, experimentalist problem-solving, and human rights protection. Yet such ad hoc standards currently lack systematic conceptual or justificatory frameworks, of the kind that could affirm their intuitive appeal and help resolve political disagreements about their content and application.
In this talk (drawn from an ongoing book project) I respond to these political challenges by sketching a new ‘collective agency’ account of global political legitimacy, which incorporates interdependent conceptual, justificatory, and institutional arguments. I first show how this account can help resolve some persistent conceptual puzzles concerning the relationship of normative legitimacy to sociological legitimacy on the one hand, and to moral ideals of justice on the other. I further show how it can account convincingly for many widely held intuitions about global political legitimacy that are not captured adequately by established democratic or liberal theories. More specifically, it can: explain when and why democracy is, and is not, a condition for legitimacy; explain the special legitimizing role of human rights; recognize the primacy of social and economic empowerment as a condition for legitimacy; and account systematically for wide variability in standards of legitimacy for different institutional types and governance contexts.