Stanford philosopher examines the legitimacy of political power

When applying ancient philosophic thought to contemporary issues like surveillance and health care reform, Stanford Humanities Center fellow Amanda Greene finds that claims to political legitimacy lie at the heart of many political debates.

Linda A. Cicero Amanda Greene

Amanda Greene draws on insights from ancient philosophy to examine how democratic governance contributes to political legitimacy today.

When the Supreme Court recently ruled that Hobby Lobby and other closely held corporations are exempt from federally mandated contraceptive coverage, critics claimed the controversial decision undermined the legitimacy of the Supreme Court. On the other hand, many U.S. citizens believe mandatory health care coverage is itself illegitimate because it infringes on important economic freedoms.

"Both sides are concerned with the scope of legitimate state authority, and they disagree about when the state can coerce its citizens," said Amanda Greene, a 2013-2014 Geballe Dissertation Prize fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center.

In her work, Greene draws on insights from ancient philosophy, especially the ideal of respect for freedom that emerges in the late political thought of Plato, to examine how democratic governance contributes to political legitimacy today.

Among the topics she investigates is whether organizations like NATO, the World Trade Organization and Oxfam should rightly wield global power and influence. Her analysis has been influenced by her international development experience, from designing public health projects in rural India to devising economic development projects in indigenous Australia.

Greene has conducted research on the legitimacy of foreign development aid as a scholar with the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society and has taught Stanford courses on justice, the moral limits of markets and the politics of public service.

In an interview, Greene gives readers an insight into what a philosopher's work entails and the resonance of her findings.


How did you become interested in political legitimacy?

I have always been intrigued by various conceptions of politics, various ways of construing how individuals can get along with each other even when their interests conflict. If a community establishes and enforces a particular system of rules and official powers – what I call a political order – what gives this system the normative force and standing that we tend to assign it?

As a philosopher, I became unsatisfied with the following prominent answers: A political order is legitimate because it is democratic, because it respects freedom and equality, because it leads to the best welfare outcomes, because it arises from a hypothetical social contract, etc. None of these seemed like the right kind of answer to the difficult problem of why some people have significant power to direct and limit the actions of others in the name of the common good. Instead, I develop a new account of political legitimacy based on quality consent. It combines a concern for quality governance outcomes with an emphasis on the free consent of individual subjects.


How do you define political legitimacy?

I think people would be surprised to learn that while legitimacy is something that everyone says they want, it is actually very hard to identify when and why legitimacy has been achieved. It is not just a matter of perception – we cannot just say that a state is legitimate when it is perceived to be legitimate. Nor can we say a state is legitimate when it acts according to established laws. Fascist regimes of the 20th century illustrate that it is possible to achieve legality and popular approval without being morally legitimate. What is surprising is the degree to which we invoke assessments of legitimacy and illegitimacy when there is virtually no agreement about its moral basis.


What drives you to study this topic?

Disputes about political legitimacy actually underlie the deepest political problems of our time. Domestically, we can see that debates about health care, surveillance and mass incarceration all rely on implicit presumptions about the rightful exercise of state power. Movements such as the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street claim to fight against injustice, but they also challenge the fundamental legitimacy of the current political order in the United States.

Internationally, the debates about intervention and human rights, for example, in Syria, must wrestle head-on with unresolved problems about when the sovereign status of a state can be overridden for moral reasons. Regional organizations such as the European Union and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations continue to hear the legitimacy of their economic decisions challenged by member states. Around the world, all political leaders claim to rule with legitimacy. Often those claims are challenged, but without a clear idea of what counts as legitimate and what counts as illegitimate. Certain parties could afford to be clearer about this, including policymakers, investors, aid agencies, etc. Companies seeking to do business in a country, diplomats seeking to negotiate an armistice and policymakers seeking to negotiate global standards for trade need to know what standards a state must meet in order to be legitimate.


What tools do philosophers use when examining issues that span from ancient history to contemporary events?

While philosophers make use of research in the natural and social sciences, our primary task is to analyze thought. Arguments are our tools as well as our raw materials, and so – rather than comparing historical sources or applying models to data – we apply thought to thought itself.

For example, in one stream of my research, I have been closely examining the political thought of Plato at the end of his life, when he seems to have shifted away from his argument in the Republic that only those who truly possess knowledge are fit to rule. I have come to think that in his final and unfinished treatise, the Laws, Plato elevates a new dimension to establishing a good political order: respecting the freedom of individual subjects. But Plato's argument for the relationship between human wisdom and political freedom is complex and nuanced, and so I analyze his arguments in order to articulate insights that illuminate contemporary political issues.


What are the main questions you examine?

I focus on the question of what makes political power legitimate, across a wide range of contexts. I am concerned with the power exercised by various entities, such as national governments, local governments, international organizations and non-governmental organizations. I am less interested in why certain laws are constitutional – though this is important – than in whether the entire political order is morally legitimate in the first place.

I take seriously the problem posed by the philosophical anarchist: Why must we be subjected to a political order in the first place? But I also assume that the difficulties of human nature and social cooperation make it more or less necessary to establish some system of social order. Given the apparent need for some kind of order, I explore the different ways of providing moral justification for the established forms of political rule that we find both today and in the past. For example, what makes the overall political order in the United States legitimate?

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