Archive Civic Polity Nota Bene Simon Kennedy

Legitimacy vs. the good

In a 1973 article on the social contract tradition, Patrick Riley notes an important distinction in how we understand “the state”.1 He notes that “the mere excellence of an institution would no longer be enough; it would now require authorization by individual men understood as “authors”‘.2 Riley then notes the key distinction in the conception of the state: ‘[Ideas] of the “good” state increasingly gave way to ideas of the “legitimate” state.3

This is an important thing to keep in mind as we consider how to think about a Christian politics. It is overwhelmingly the case today that the mere assent of the majority (or the assent of the correct portion of the demos) “legitimises” the actions of the state or laws. And, of course, there is some truth to this: quod omnes tangit ab omnibus approbetur (what touches all should be approved by all). But the consent of the majority does not make something good.

Christians believe in a true good, a good beyond what is technically legitimate. The good state, the good of politics, is not found primarily in legitimacy. In light of this, Christians need to think beyond the received social contractarian tradition in determining “the good.” We need to think beyond procedural justice or fairness and consider what the scriptures and our traditions might offer us in terms of philosophy, political thought and ethics. These tools move us beyond the banal political solutions which liberal contractarianism itself offers.

It may be that legitimacy by contractarian means is a part of that vision for the good. But I suspect that the procedural will merely be a small part of achieving the political good. It won’t determine what the good actually is, as such. We need to raise our eyes beyond the legislature. We need to think harder than we have about what goodness is. And I think we are only just getting started.

  1. Patrick Riley, ‘How Coherent is the Social Contract Tradition?’, Journal of the History of Ideas, vol. 34, no. 4, pp.543-562
  2. Ibid., p.545
  3. Ibid.

By Simon Kennedy

Simon is a PhD candidate at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, University of Queensland. He resides in Geelong, Victoria with his wife and four children.