What rules should regulate cooperation between democratic citizens when they are divided not only by a pluralism of comprehensive religious and moral doctrines but also by differing political conceptions of justice? Such rules may be unjust, yet legitimate, while more just rules by our lights may be illegitimate. This position merits attention for at least two reasons. It offers a reasonable reconstruction of John Rawls’ latest conceptualization of political legitimacy, and it may shed light on current discussions of legitimacy deficits and political legitimacy crises.
Over the last decades, there has been a marked proliferation of talk about legitimacy, but the concept itself has remained contested and under-theorized. All of the political philosophy’s central concepts are contested, but when we disagree about legitimacy there seems to be “less agreement about what we are disagreeing about”. 1 This article argues that debates about legitimacy in political philosophy and law can benefit from taking a second look at Rawls’ texts on political liberalism, and especially his latest texts. How can this be, when Paul Weithman and others maintain that “what Rawls has to say about legitimacy is maddeningly brief and vague”?2 Rawls’ scattered comments about legitimacy can be pieced together in a more systematic way, or so I argue here.
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