A comparative analysis on Kant, John Stuart Mill and John Locke views on political authority and legitimacy – Part 2

A comparative analysis on Kant, John Stuart Mill and John Locke views on political authority and legitimacyPart 2


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Stuart Mill and application of Liberty

Unlike Locke’s and Kant’s views on the necessity of applying coercion, Mill advocates for liberty.  According to Halliday () Mill is of the view that ‘if a matter was indeed a matter of opinion, then no question of force, sanction or coercion could properly arise’ (p. 120).  On the contrary, dealing with such matters requires individuals to be accorded the right to express their opinion.  Mill affirms that deliberation constitutes a fundamental element in enacting legitimate political authority because it leads to the generation of ideas that are essential in enhancing the effectiveness of political authority (Gabrielson, Hall & Meyer 2015). Nonetheless, Mill cautions that in spite of allowing room for deliberation, it is imperative for the political authority to ensure that partisan interests, which might threaten legitimacy, are kept in check.

In spite of this view, Mill asserts that despotism constitutes a legitimate approach to governance if it is applied in dealing with barbarians. However, Mill cautions that the legitimacy of despotism is limited to whether it actually contributes to the achievement of the intended end.  In addition to these views, Mill argues that it is illegitimate to restrict an individual person’s liberty. Nevertheless, Mill supports the restriction of liberty, especially in situations whereby if it is applied it might contribute to harm to others, which is underlined by Mill’s harm principle.  According to Lacewing (2001) Mill’s harm principle stipulates that ‘the only purpose, for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community against his will, is to prevent harm to others’ (p. 1).

According to Knowles (2009), John Locke asserts that political authority held by political institutions and governments should be limited. Additionally, political authority should be exercised with the objective of preserving the people’s lives and property, enhancing public good, and enhancing the effectiveness with which individuals prosecute their natural rights.  In his opinion, Locke asserts that the application of sovereign political authority that amounts to a violation of these rights is illegitimate.  Thus, if individuals that hold political authority exceed the limits set by law, they act ultra vires or beyond their legal capacity (Knowles 2009).  On the basis of this aspect, Locke argues that the people governed by such authority have the right to rebel.  Therefore, according to Locke, political authority should be intrinsically self-limiting.  According to Knowles (2009), Locke’s argument on the legitimacy of political authority is that it should be characterized by certain restrictions.

This aspect is aligned with Kant’s perspective that an individual’s rights should be restricted. Kant’s argument in advocating for the restriction of individual liberty is underlined by the fact that some individuals may negatively affect other peoples’ well-being in the quest to pursue their personal ends. In support of Kant’s view on the restriction of individual freedom, Ripstein (2004) argues that ‘any right of a person, independently of whether it is respected or has been violated, implies a restriction for others’ (p.4).  Therefore, Kant’s support for the application of coercion in enacting legitimate political authority is not only aimed at ensuring that the governed follow the stipulated laws but it is also aimed at defending individual rights.

Mill argues that political authority should not use coercion but should regulate or influence people’s behavior for their own benefit.  As opposed to the use of force, Mill argues that powerful political agents can apply constraining powers such as resorting to the use of legal penalties. Mill’s justification for the application of legal penalties is underlined in the view that it is associated with stigma.  According to Knowles (2009), Mills asserts that ‘the chief mischief of legal penalties is that they strengthen the social stigma that is really effective’ (p.56).  One of the methods that Mill advocates entails imprisonment and denying individuals a means of earning. These measures are likely to successfully compel individuals to comply with the law.

Right to revolution, utilitarianism, and democracy

Revolution also constitutes a fundamental component of political authority and legitimacy.  Kant, Mills, and Locke have developed varied perspectives with regard to the right to revolution. According to Locke and Mills, the head of a civil state is obliged to comply with the governance and legal issues consented to by the people. However, in the event that the head of state violates the constitutional requirements, his legitimacy ceases to exist. On the basis of this aspect, the people can resort to revolution in the quest to pressure the head of state to cease the accorded political power.  According to Forster (2008), Locke is of the opinion that ‘political authority is a trust that can be forfeited’ (p. 255).  In making this assertion, Locke supports the concept that if a government receives its political authority through divine law, such a government can similarly lose its political authority through divine law.  These views affirm that political authority is artificially established.  On the contrary, it is the people who have consented to the establishment of a political authority who possess natural authority (Floistad 2015). Thus, people can enact their natural authority by undertaking a revolution.

Contrary to the views held by Locke, Kant objects to individuals’ right to revolution.   Irrespective of the existence of a sovereign civil state, Locke asserts that the governed are obliged to comply with the laws.  This aspect contradicts the fact that the governed have a right to engage in a revolution. Thus, Locke’s assertion on the civil state’s right to revolution is limited by the fact that they are bound by public law.  In line with his support for the concept of coercion in enacting public authority and legitimacy, Kant argues that the public obligation of the civil state to obey the stipulated laws and regulations does not cease despite the head of the civil state’s non-compliance with the laws. Therefore, Kant is of the opinion that the right to revolution is limited by political authority.  According to Kant, the right to revolution is domiciled within the powers held by the head of the political authority.  This highlights the fact that individuals in political authority may curtail individuals’ right to revolution.  Kant  (1999) stresses that political authority may insist that ‘a citizen must have, with the approval of the ruler himself, the authorization to make publicly known his opinion on what is in the ruler’s arrangement that seems to him to be a wrong against the commonwealth’  (p. 273).  Despite the fact that individuals Kant supports the fact that the political authority may exercise its power by restricting individuals’ freedom to engage in revolution, the political authority continues to hold authority.


Contrary to Kant’s emphasis on the political authority’s capacity to restrict the civil state from exercising its freedom of revolution, John Stuart Mill and John Locke support the concept of utilitarianism, which postulates that individuals act in a way that they believe that will culminate in the best possible outcome.  In relation to this aspect, Locke and Mill argue that political authority should provide individuals the right to engage in a revolution in order to achieve the intended political outcome. Locke’s views on legitimate political authority are based on the principle of utility. Locke emphasizes that the legitimacy of political authority is dependent on morality. Conversely,   Mill argues that it is essential for a balance to be established between utilitarianism and the protection of liberty. Healy (2016) Mill corroborates that ‘individual freedom and the right to participate in politics are necessary for the self-development of individuals’ (p. 65).


Political authority is an essential determinant of the form of government adopted by a particular society.  Democracy is one of the notable forms of governance. In modern society, the legitimacy of most political authorities is based on the extent to which the parties charged with the responsibility of governing apply democracy in enacting their authority.  According to Estlund (2008), governments’ legitimacy is founded on the fact that they should be accountable to the people.  Bardes, Shelley, and Schmidt (2008) emphasizes that ‘today, in much of the world, the people will not grant legitimacy to a government unless it is based on democracy’ (p. 5). On the basis of the concept of utilitarianism, Locke and Mill support the view that legitimate political authority should provide the governed people with democracy. This means that people should be provided an opportunity to contribute to governance.  According to Bardes, Shelley and Schmidt (2008), democratic decision-making is considered to be a critical aspect in enhancing political legitimacy. Despite the fact that democracy is considered to be a critical component of modern political philosophy, not all political thinkers support the view that democracy is a critical element of political legitimacy (Jaggar 1983). The extent to which democracy is considered to be an essential element in promoting political legitimacy depends on the intended outcome. Bardes, Shelley, and Schmidt (2008) assert that if democracy does not contribute to the attainment of a better outcome, it cannot be considered to be relevant in promoting the development of political legitimacy.  Locke and Mill are of the opinion that democracy is a fundamental element in enacting political authority and legitimacy. Locke supports the integration of direct democracy in enhancing governance by a legitimate political authority.  Under the direct democracy model of governance, all the eligible people in the society contribute to making laws that govern the society by debating and voting on the laws. Thus, this form of governance is based on a high degree of participation (Bardes, Shelley & Schmidt 2008). Despite the fact that John Staurt Mill supports the application of democracy in enacting legitimate political authority, John Staurt Mill departs from Locke’s assertion on the relevance of applying direct democracy. On the contrary, John Stuart Mill advocates for the application of representative democracy, which is enacted by conducting a referendum.  Mill states that the best approach through which a legitimate political authority can enhance the sovereignty of the civil state is by controlling power. Mill argues that represented democracy increases the extent to which individual citizens are provided an opportunity to share their opinion on a particular fundamental issue of governance. In supporting the significance of representative democracy, Mill challenges the feasibility of direct democracy (Bardes, Shelley & Schmidt 2008).  Mill affirms that granting the right to revolution is one of the core components in ensuring that the governed have liberty in making political decisions.


The research paper reveals the existence of a significant degree of congruency and variation with reference to the theme of political authority and legitimacy between the three political thinkers.  One of the major differences relates to the source of political authority and legitimacy. Locke and Mill identify the existence of consent between members of society as one of the fundamental sources of political authority and legitimacy. Thus, the two thinkers base their argument on the source of political authority and legitimacy on the social contract theory. Thus, political authority derives its power from the people, which makes political authority to be an artificial concept. On the basis of this argument, Locke and Mill assert that the legitimacy of political authority is derived from the constitutional and legal power held by the governed.

Contrary to their views on the source of political authority, Kant argues that political authority arises from the civil state.  In accordance with the social contract theory, Locke and Mill are of the view that political authority arises from the existence of consent amongst the governed. Thus, the political authority does not have the right to apply coercion in enacting the rules and regulations formulated. However, Kant departs from this view by affirming that coercion is a critical component in exercising legitimate political authority. Kant supports the rationale for applying coercion by affirming that it is necessary in order to enhance society’s conformity with the stipulated rules and regulations.  Locke and Mill are opposed to the application of coercion by political authority.

Locke argues that the application of coercion amounts to the infringement of individuals’ freedom and rights. However, Locke asserts that coercion may be applied in some situations but has to be within the stipulated laws and regulations. This means that the application of coercion in enhancing observance of laws and regulations should be limited.  Mill asserts that people should not be compelled to act in a particular way against their will. In his view, Mill asserts that such an act infringes on one’s liberty.  In spite of his support of the concept of liberty, Mill is of the opinion that liberty should be controlled. Mill’s assertion on the need to regulate liberty is underlined by the fact that some individuals might exploit liberty negatively hence harming society. Mill thus asserts that the application of the harm principle is critical in cautioning other people from other peoples’ actions that might be undertaken in the disguise of liberty.

Kant, Locke, and Mill have varying opinions with regard to the right to revolution, democracy, and utilitarianism. Locke and Mill support the view that individuals should be provided the right to engage in revolution while Kant argues that political authority has the power to control an individual’s engagement in revolution. With regard to democracy, Mill and Locke support the application of representative and direct democracy. In their view, these forms of democracy provide individuals an opportunity to participate in making political authorities. Conversely, Kant argues that the public has a political obligation to comply with the stipulated rules and regulations despite holding varying views on the rules. Thus, Kant supports the view that political authority should limit the degree of democracy among the governed.


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