Fabienne Peter, "Democratic Legitimacy" (Routledge, 2011)


Winston Churchill said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others. The quip reveals an interesting dimension of democracy: it's hard to beat, but it's also hard to love. Democracy is hard to love because it sometimes requires us to acquiesce and live by decisions, rules, and laws that we oppose. In fact, democracy sometimes requires us to accept political outcomes that we take to be demonstrably sub-optimal, mistaken, and even unjust. In short, when democracy decides, even those in the minority are required to comply. And those who refuse or fail to comply can be forced into compliance. This is what we mean when we talk about the legitimacy of democratic governance: democratically-produced collective decisions place a moral claim even on those who disagree, and the democratic state may enforce compliance with such results. But democratic legitimacy is philosophically puzzling. It seems that the fact that a given outcome gained the support of a majority provides a very weak reason for compliance among those in the minority. Contemporary democratic theorists have thus turned to the idea of public deliberation as a necessary element of democratic legitimacy. Deliberative democrats hold that voting must be preceded by open processes of public deliberation. This reason-recognizing element is supposed to explain both the bindingness of democratic outcomes and the permissibility of the use of force to gain compliance. In Democratic Legitimacy (Routledge, 2011), Fabienne Peter explores the philosophical problems associated with democracy and deploys a series of compelling criticisms of standard accounts of legitimacy. She then develops an original and fascinating version of deliberative democracy, once which combines epistemic and procedural considerations.

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Robert Talisse

Robert Talisse is the W. Alton Jones Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University.

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