Criteria for Assessing Political Legitimacy   

(This is a current extract from the Patterns of Power Repository.  An archived copy of this page is held at http://www.patternsofpower.org/edition02/6352.htm)

Much has been written on the subject of defining political legitimacy, including the identification of criteria for determining whether a particular system or government is legitimate, and Fabienne Peter produced a concise summary of this material.[1]  She made a distinction between descriptive classification, such as that provided by Max Weber,[2] and three groups of writers who have sought to establish normative criteria (i.e. to provide a rationale to justify a standardised set of principles):

·      Locke and Rousseau, among others, took people’s consent to be the key criterion for legitimacy.  In this book, though, consent is only one component of the wider concept of ‘acceptability’ (2.3.3).  The latter is a measure on a sliding scale rather than an absolute criterion, and it incorporates other requirements (2.1).

·      Jeremy Bentham proposed a Utilitarian criterion, whereby the legitimacy of governance is determined by its beneficial consequences: ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’.  At first sight this appears to be consistent with this book’s objective of maximising acceptability but, as many writers have pointed out,[3] Utilitarianism might in some circumstances threaten the rights of certain individuals – so it doesn’t comply with acceptability’s requirement for inclusivity (2.5).

·      Rawls, following Kant, tried to establish a standard of justice based on public reasoning as a basis for identifying normative criteria for legitimacy.  A philosophical definition of ‘justice’, though, is not a sufficient basis for establishing acceptability in a real society (2.3.1).

Fabienne Peter identified Jürgen Habermas and David Beetham as writers who sought to combine descriptive and normative elements:

“They criticize the usefulness of the descriptive concept as defined by Weber for neglecting people's second order beliefs about legitimacy—their beliefs, not just about the actual legitimacy of a particular political institution, but about the justifiability of this institution, i.e. about what is necessary for legitimacy. ….They also criticize the strictly normative concept for being of only limited use in understanding actual processes of legitimation.”

This book includes a search to identify “actual processes”, as well as an attempt to establish a “normative concept” of negotiated acceptability, so Beetham’s model is used – as described below (

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[1] The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article, Political Legitimacy, by Fabienne Peter, provides a very useful survey of the literature on this topic.  It identifies several schemes, proposed by different authors, for establishing, describing and analysing legitimacy. It was available in November 2012 at http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2010/entries/legitimacy/.

[2] As previously noted (, Max Weber’s “three inner justifications, hence basic legitimations of domination” are in paras. 7-10 of his lecture Politics as a Vocation, which was available in May 2014 at http://anthropos-lab.net/wp/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/Weber-Politics-as-a-Vocation.pdf.

[3] Michael Sandel, for example, highlighted the possible threats which Utilitarianism poses to individual liberty in chapter 2 of his book Justice.