A comparative analysis of Kant, John Stuart Mill, and John Locke views on political authority and legitimacy – Part 1

A comparative analysis of Kant, John Stuart Mill, and John Locke views on political authority and legitimacyPart 1

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Politics is a fundamental component of society. Amongst the goals of politics is to promote the attainment of a vision of a good society.   However, achieving this outcome depends on the success with which different political aspects are taken into consideration.  Some of the core political aspects relate to authority and legitimacy. Authority may be inherent within social systems or political structures (Sheldon). According to Huemer (2012), political authority entails ‘the hypothesized moral property in virtue of which governments may coerce people in certain ways not permitted to everyone else and in virtue of which citizens must obey governments in situations in which they would not be obligated to obey anyone else’ (p. 5).  Political authority is based on the practical dimension. This means that individuals or governmental bodies characterized by political authority can get individuals to act in a certain manner because of the power that they have been accorded by virtue of their authority.

Knowles (2009) defines practical authority as the power to give orders and commands.  Alternatively, political authority can be defined within the context in which an individual has the capacity to make laws and maintain law and order that citizens are required to adhere to. Sheldon (2001) asserts that authority entails setting rules and standards.  Thus, political authority constitutes a critical aspect of fostering social order, prosperity, and peace.  In spite of the relevance of authority in modern society, Sheldon (2001) argues that the challenge lies in how to establish a just and respectable authority. Huemer (2012) further asserts that authority is comprised of two main elements that include political legitimacy and political obligation. Sheldon (2001) asserts that political legitimacy entails the right that a particular government possesses in relation to making laws that are subsequently enforced on the citizens through coercion. Thus, political legitimacy examines the extent to which a particular government’s conduct is aligned with the stipulated laws.

Alternatively, Huemer (2012) is of the view that political legitimacy involves the right of a government to formulate and enforce laws even through coercion. Thus, political legitimacy entails the right to rule or govern (Coicaud 2002).  Knowles (2009) asserts that consent is an essential element with reference to legitimacy because it underlines whether one has a right to govern. Political institutions affect societies that they have political legitimacy over. For example, decisions by political institutions can threaten society’s stability through the emergence of wars and conflicts. Legitimacy leads to the establishment of a rights-based relationship between those with political authority (the governors) and the governed (Coicaud 2002).  This paper entails a comparative analysis of the views of different philosophical thinkers that include Kant, John Stuart Mill, and John Locke with reference to the theme of political authority and legitimacy.

Legitimacy and justification of political authority

Social contract

The concept of social contract stipulates that individuals’ liberties should be limited in order to protect and maintain order and peace in society (Tan 2003). Tan (2003) further emphasize that the ‘limits to authority are built into the very legitimacy of authority in practice’ (p. 188). According to Bardes, Shelley, and Schmidt (2008), ‘every government must have authority that is, the right and power to enforce its decisions’ (p. 5).  One of the elements that underline a government’s authority entails its capacity to control its armed forces. Bardes, Shelley, and Schmidt (2008) emphasizes that ‘people accept the government’s right to establish rules and laws’ (p. 5). This means that acceptance of authority leads to the creation of legitimacy. Similarly, enacting authority without legitimacy creates a recipe for problems. This aspect is underlined by the case of Iraq whereby a significant proportion of the Iraqi population was pleased by the end of Saddam Hussein’s rule. However, Iraqis were displeased by the subsequent occupation of the country by the US-led Coalition Provision Authority. This indicates that they did not accept the legitimacy of the political authority imposed.

According to Knowles (2009), legitimate political authority leads to the creation of political obligations.  Locke accentuates that by consenting to the views of a political entity, an individual subjects himself or herself to the stipulated obligations.   John Locke is of the view that all individuals in society have equal rights.  According to Goldie and Wokler (), Locke is of the opinion that ‘men being, as has been said, by nature all free, equal, and independent, no one can be put out of this estate, and subjected to the political power of another without his consent’ (p. 13).  Individuals can only be subjected to the political authority of a particular civil state if they unite and consent to be governed by certain laws.

Locke emphasizes that political authority and legitimacy are based on social contract theory. According to Goldie and Wokler (), the social contract theory postulates that ‘political legitimacy and authority emanate from the consent of the governed, and are the artificial product of the voluntary agreement of free and equal moral agents’ (p. 347).  Locke is one of the philosophical thinkers who support the assertion that political authority and legitimacy are derived from consent.  Locke argues that the consent given by individuals to the political body under ideal conditions is binding. This means that political authority and legitimacy are dependent on a sequence of individuals’ voluntary acts as opposed to natural political authority. If the legitimacy of political authority is created through consent, then it means that the individuals who consent are willing to be governed and subjected to such authority (Clarke & Foweraker). The establishment of the constitution is one of the ways through which individuals can obtain legitimate political authority. Galligan and Versteeg (2013) assert that the constitution is comprised of rules that regulate how the governing institutions established in a country relate to the people.  Locke supports the application of the constitution as one of the agreements on which the people give consent to the principles of governance proposed by government institutions.

In his opinion, natural law cannot be sufficient in ruling a society because it cannot enforce itself in the event that it is violated.   On the contrary, political authority pre-exists in an individual’s state of nature. Thus, gaining political authority entails establishing voluntary agreements with free moral agents (Femia).

In relation to the legitimacy of political authority in a civil state, Locke asserts that the legitimacy of such authority depends on whether the civil state’s authority has been transferred in the right way.  According to Femia (2006), individuals who have given their consent through a social contract to a political authority is subject to adhere to the stipulated laws.  Similarly, John Stuart Mill emphasizes that liberalism, which underlines the significance of developing consent, forms the ground for achieving political authority and legitimacy. Additionally, Mill argues that constitutional government forms the foundation on which legitimate political authority can deliver human rights (Amstutz 2013).

Contrary to Locke’s view that political authority is created as a through state of nature, Kant asserts that political authority arises from a civil state (Gaus & D’Agostino 2013). In addition to these views, Kant is of the perception that legitimacy is dependent on how the interpretation of the social contract. Kant objects to Locke’s assertion that a civil state is usually established through acts of violence. In his opinion, the social contract is hypothetical and is aimed at setting the standards on what amounts to legitimate political authority.

The goal of political legitimacy

One of the core purposes of the concept of political authority is to justify the application of coercive power. Kant justifies the application of coercive power in enacting legitimate political authority within a civil state. With reference to the social contract theory stipulated by Locke, Kant is of the view that coercion is a requisite element in enacting political authority. Additionally, Kant asserts that political authority does not arise from a state of nature.  The political authority that is established under the social contract can be threatened by the state of nature. Such occurrences might limit a state’s capacity to protect its citizens. According to Locke, once a sovereign political authority is in place, it can authorize the use of force in order to ensure that the citizens are optimally protected. Under such situations, the governed individuals have a duty to obey the authority.

Another fundamental aspect that explains the relationship between legitimacy and political authority is that it provides individuals with the right to exercise power. Through coercion, political authority leads to the creation of political obligations that individuals are required to obey.  Thus, legitimacy enables political institutions the opportunity to demonstrate their power.

Application of coercion in enacting legitimate political authority 

Kant, Mill, and Locke’s views on the application of coercion

Kant argues that political authority is created through the establishment of political institutions within a civil state. According to Halliday (2003), this assertion is contrary to Locke’s views that political authority ‘pre-exists in individuals in the state of nature’ (p.454).  Kant further argues that an individual’s political authority is not created from a voluntary act which is the basis of the social contract theory, whereby individuals come together in pursuit of a particular common goal. On the contrary, Kant emphasizes that the pre-civil state resulted in moral obligations.  The application of coercive political power by the civil state is a fundamental step in promoting moral order. This arises from the fact that it strengthens the extent to which citizens comply with the stipulated rules and regulations.  The overall outcome is that application of coercion leads to the elimination of impartiality in complying with the stipulated laws and regulations or the free-riding problem.  Thus, Kant considers coercion to be a prerequisite for strengthening public justice.

Amstutz (2013) is of the view that ‘if a just global order is to be secured in the world, states themselves have to be governed responsibly, which could occur only if regimes were based on limited, constitutional authority’ (p. 54).  According to Kant, the justification for the application of coercion in enacting political authority arises from the fact that people’s inclination to follow the law is influenced by two main aspects. First, people perceive the law as a moral and legitimate obligation that they are required to follow. For example, people avoid acting in certain ways such as injuring others because it is unethical (Bardes, Shelley & Schmidt 2008). Alternatively, people’s inclination to follow the law arises from the fact that they associate defiance of the law with punishment. Thus, Kant considers coercion as a critical aspect that individuals in political authority should apply in order to enhance conformity amongst the governed.   According to Kant, coercion increases observance of law amongst lawless people. In spite of the fact that the application of coercion in the enactment of political authority can amount to contravention of an individual’s rights and freedom, Kant asserts application of coercion is also necessary in ensuring that it limits individuals from violating other people’s rights. However, in applying coercion, Kant cautions that the political authority has to act within the law.

Kant advocates for the importance of autonomy in enacting legitimate political authority.  Kant argues that one person’s will cannot be applied to sufficiently determine the will of another without committing injustice to the other party.   Contrary to Locke’s view on consent as a foundation of legitimate political authority, Kant accentuates that it is not possible to successfully enact a law on the basis of a coalition of will of all private parties. This means that it is difficult to ensure that all parties in the society cannot agree on a particular issue of governance.  Kant asserts that despite that all individuals cannot agree with the stipulated laws and regulations, the law should be observed by all citizens, even if they do not agree with it (Reidy & Riker 2008).  Similar to Kant’s views on the application of coercion, Locke supports the view that ‘legitimacy does not exclude authoritative use of prerogative power’ (Grant 2010, p. 63). However, the legislative sovereign may in some situations be required to apply the consensually based laws in order to execute law of nature with the objective of demanding the subjects to obey the laws.

Locke supports the view that punishment is an integral aspect of enacting political authority. Locke argues that despite the fact that people have the right to engage in delightful personal acts, the power to punish individuals who violate the law resides with the state.  This aspect explains Locke’s rationale for supporting the application of power or coercive force. Locke asserts that the application of coercion should be multifaceted. Thus, the punishment meted on individuals who violate the law should be both forward and backward-looking. With reference to forward-looking, Locke argues that the purpose of punishment should be to deter crime and to protect society from actions of individuals that might result in actions that might harm society. Additionally, forward-looking punishments should be aimed at ensuring that criminals are adequately rehabilitated. On the other hand, the backward rationale of the political authority resorting to punishment is to ensure that the perpetrators who engage in criminal activities receive the necessary retribution.  Unlike Kant who supports the application of coercion in compelling individuals to comply with the laws and regulations stipulated by the political authority, Locke’s rationale for applying punishment is based on the need to ensure restraint and reparation.  Thus, Locke’s justification of punishment by the political authority is to protect the society while Kant argues on the importance of applying coercion in order to enforce compliance. Locke’s emphasis on the need to apply force in order to enhance the development of peace and order in society is supported by Sofaer (2009) who accentuates that ‘the legality of an action does not necessarily establish its legitimacy’ (p.105). This means that a civil state that is committed to being guided by legitimacy may be required to look beyond the opinion of other parties on its adherence to legality and apply force in order to ensure adequate protection of its sovereignty. This aspect is underlined in the case of NATO’s bombing in Serbia in an effort to ‘stop it from expelling Muslim Kosovars which was considered illegal, as the action was neither approved by the Council nor justifiable as self-defense’ (Soefer  2009, p. 105).  In spite of the illegality of this action, it was legitimate because it was aimed at protecting the violation of fundamental human rights. This aspect indicates that the determination of the legality or legitimacy of an action undertaken by a particular political authority cannot be unilateral.  This means that the determination of the legitimacy of a particular issue is relative.

Thus, there is a significant degree of congruency between Locke and Kant with regard to the deployment of force in order to ensure that the legitimate political authority maintained control of power.  However, according to Locke, the extent to which the political authority should apply power in enacting authority is determined by the Constitution. In summary, Kant and Locke are in support of the application of coercion by political authority in order to promote justice. However, the application of coercion should be within the law.


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