Justice and Legitimacy in Contemporary Liberal Thought

MATT SLEAT
SOCIAL THEORY AND PRACTICE 41.2 (2015): 230-252

Abstract: This article explores and critiques the relationship between justice and legitimacy in contemporary liberal thought. The first half sets out the extent to which liberalism demands the same necessary and sufficient conditions of justice and legitimacy, and in doing so obscures their evaluative distinctiveness. It then offers an interpretation of the deeper theoretical assumptions that result in this unsatisfactory conflation, arguing that the primacy that liberal theory has given to justice, understood as a moral concept, has resulted in a failure to appreciate the deeply multifaceted political nature of legitimacy. The suggestion is then made that it is only through recognizing this nature, including the different (political) circumstances in which the demand for legitimation arises and the needs to which it responds, that this theoretical impasse can be overcome. The article ends on the more radical thought that this may require liberal theory to displace justice as the first (moral) virtue of political systems and replace it with the (political) virtue of legitimacy.