Criteria for Assessing Political Legitimacy

It is important to identify criteria for assessing political legitimacy, to provide clarity when commenting on government performance

Fabienne Peter produced a concise analysis in a Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article in summer 2017, Political Legitimacy, which is summarised below.  It identifies several schemes, proposed by different authors, for establishing, describing and evaluating legitimacy.

She cited Max Weber’s “three inner justifications, hence basic legitimations of domination”, in paragraphs 7-10 in his lecture Politics as a Vocation, as providing a descriptive classification of reasons why a political system might be accepted: the “traditional” power of a monarch, the “charismatic” appeal of a revolutionary leader, or the “legality” of a system of rules.  There are authoritarian examples of all three of these types (6.3.1).  Democratic legitimacy (6.3.2) depends more on its “legality”: its institutions and frameworks of rules.

She also identified three groups of writers who have sought to establish ‘normative’ criteria for assessing political legitimacy, to provide a reasoned justification of 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).  The latter is a measure on a sliding scale rather than an absolute criterion, and it incorporates other requirements.

●  Jeremy Bentham proposed a Utilitarian criterion, whereby the legitimacy of governance is determined by its beneficial consequences: ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’.  This is consistent with maximising acceptability, but – as noted by Michael Sandel, in chapter 2 of his book Justice – Utilitarianism might threaten the rights of certain individuals in some circumstances, so it doesn’t comply with the 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).

These principles are used to justify political ideologies and approaches (6.2.1), rather than political systems.

She 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.”

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 (



This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/6352.htm.