Bernard Williams’ “basic legitimation demand” (BLD) — some thoughts

I’ll be making a series of posts on Bernard Williams’ essay “Realism and Moralism in Political Theory.” (David R. and Derek B. and I have read and discussed this recently.)  My purpose is pretty narrow: to get some idea of the content (and normative status) of what BW calls the basic legitimation demand (BLD). According to BW, when a state, in addition to adequately solving the “Hobbesian” problem of providing basic security (“the first political question”), meets BLD, it is legitimate (it comes to be permitted to make and enforce laws within some range of possible laws).  

Of note, in contrast to Rawls’ liberal principle of legitimacy, BLD is supposed to apply generally –  not just to liberal states or to states in conditions that are ripe for liberal constitutional democracy.  According to BW, at least in principle and in some historical contexts, non-liberal states can be legitimate and BLD is meant to explain how this could be (or is or was) so.  I don’t think Rawls denies this, but neither does he formulate or justify a general principle for state legitimacy. I’m interested in BW’s attempt at doing so.  I have some thoughts.



(1) BW (p. 4): “Meeting BLD can be equated with there being an “acceptable” solution to the first political question.”

By ‘acceptable’ I think BW means to convey several things.  First, acceptability is an agent-centered element, not an agent-neutral element or a moral element.  So an acceptable solution is acceptable to each relevant agent (for BW, each agent under the power of the state).  And being acceptable to an agent is akin to her (reasonable enough, not obviously inappropriate) interests not being frustrated too much.  However, this characterization, with its “objective” reading of acceptability, is inadequate.

(2) BW (p. 4): “…BLD implies a sense in which the state has to offer a justification of its power to each subject.”

We might, then, interpret BLD as saying this, in part:  if a state is to be legitimate, its regime of coercion has to, while solving the basic security problem, be both (a) objectively acceptable to each under its power and (b) adequately justified as acceptable, by the state, to each under its power.

For plausibility, I would tweak the second “justify to” condition to allow the work to be done by the state simply standing ready to justify its regime of coercion to each if skeptical questions arise, people resist or protest, etc.  Perhaps once such skeptical questions are asked or protests made actual address and justification might then be required for legitimacy. I think BW would welcome this clarification/addition. (And I think he accepts or would accept condition [a] as well, but I’m not 100% sure.)

(3) It is clear that BLD is normative or action-guiding for the state in some way (not merely a course of action such that, if the state does it, relevant permission to coerce is generated).  It seems that, on BW’s view, states have strong reason to meet BLD and at least usually have more reason to meet BLD than not to. (BW at least flirts with denying that BLD is a moral principle, but my focus here is on the content of BLD – and in particular the content of the “justify to” condition – not on the nature or particular flavor of its normative status.)

Here is what, I think, we can say about the “justify to” condition: the justification has to adequately address the agent-centered concerns or reasons (at least the valid ones, the objective ones, the ones that are “reasonable enough”) of each person under the power of the state.  Roughly, the state needs to at least be able and ready to make a good enough case to each person under its power that its coercive regime is not too deleterious to their interests. (BW might deny that the state has a moral duty to do this and, despite the name of the BLD, that those under the power of the state might issue valid moral demands that it meet BLD.)

Since, regardless of the details in formulating BLD, what will suffice for adequate justification will differ quite a bit in different historical and institutional circumstances, there is no very specific general formula for how states satisfy BLD.  Or so, I think, BW would say.

However, we should want at least some more details about what the features of the adequate justification here are.  What reasons/features can it not have, what reasons/features must it have? Are there any objective conditions that rule out the state giving adequate justification of its power to a person under its power?  How, if at all, do moral considerations (e.g., considerations of fairness or justice) figure into this justification? Williams goes on to speak to some of these questions a bit, but I’ll leave it here for now.

Given the difficulty of BW’s writing, I’ve used some of my own words and taken some interpretive liberties.  I’m curious if they seem right as interpretations or at least make good sense as charitable amendments to the core view. Brief, to-the-point thoughts?

7 thoughts on “Bernard Williams’ “basic legitimation demand” (BLD) — some thoughts

  1. I find each of these formulations kind of curious:

    And being acceptable to an agent is akin to her (reasonable enough, not obviously inappropriate) interests not being frustrated too much.

    Roughly, the state needs to at least be able and ready to make a good enough case to each person under its power that its coercive regime is not too deleterious to their interests.

    I’ve italicized the parts I find particularly curious.

    Clearly, on Williams’s view, the state has to justify itself to agents concerned about their own interests. But why would an agent concerned about her own interests be satisfied with a justification that offered such half-hearted appeals to self-interest? It’s as though the state’s response to skeptical (egoist) challenge was:

    Obey me; yes, I’ll frustrate some of your interests, but I won’t frustrate your interests all of them. Good enough, right?


    Clearly, I, the State, am legitimate: obedience to my dictates will, of course, be deleterious to your interests, but won’t wreck every single one of them. Who could ask for more?

    But it seems to me that an egoistically motivated agent could ask for more. Why wouldn’t an agent whose egoism was half-indulged not demand that the state go all the way and actually promote her interests? Why think that stopping short at “kinda promoting some of your interests” is good enough?

    Williams clearly has a conception of interests, and/or of the state, that implies that justification requires some appeal to someone’s interests, but not too much of one. But I wonder whether this is a stable or defensible conception of justification. Either the state promotes everyone’s interests, or occasionally requires sacrifice of some interests. In the first case, it’s inadequate to say that the state “sorta” promotes your interests; it has to be shown to promote them–really promote them. In the second case, it’s no objection that the state fails to promote your interests (to the point where it subverts them all, e.g., by getting you killed); sometimes you have to sacrifice those interests to the state, because that’s just what the state demands.

    Williams’s formulations strike me as wanting to have things both ways at once. There’s an appeal to self-interest plus the “recognition” that appeals to self-interest are potentially subversive of the state. The result is a half-hearted appeal to self-interest in political justification. It seems to me that too much is being left inexplicit about the nature of interests and of political justification. In any case, we need a motivation for thinking about justification this way.


    • That’s helpful. What I meant to capture in these formulations was some degree of vagueness regarding how strong the appeal to the subject’s private or agent-centered interests has to be in the sort of justification or justificatory effort that BLD requires (or requires that the state stand ready to give). But the formulations do come across as minimizing this condition. Also perhaps Williams has something a bit more specific in mind that requires only what the legitimacy-skeptical egoist would regard as insufficient appeal to the agent-centered normative reasons of subjects. It might be worth teasing out where, more precisely, Williams lands on this.

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  2. What does it mean for the state to be adequately justified to each of its subjects?

    a) If it means that the state actually succeeds (or would succeed, if questions arose) in winning acceptance from every subject, then it’s hard to see how any real-life state is going to pass the test.

    b) If instead it means that the state has a justification to offer that every subject would accept *if he or she were reasonable*, then how is this test different from the objective, agent-neutral test?

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    • Though BW seems to think that actual acceptance can do important legitimating work, I find him obscure on this (and many other) points and I don’t think he holds [a]. I interpret him more along the lines of [b] (though I do not reference hypothetical acceptance, I see no harm in putting the point in this way). However, [b] is different from the coercive regime that the state would attempt to justify to each subject being, in fact, acceptable (in a way that might be beyond the rational and basic moral sensibility reach of some or all subjects). I’d call this latter condition or test an objective acceptability condition or test and I don’t think this is BW’s condition or test (and, in my comment below, I back off any such objective acceptability condition being any necessary part of the state meeting BLD). But I’m not sure that this is what you meant by ‘objective, agent-neutral test’ (particularly the ‘agent-neutral’ part).

      I mean to leave ‘adequately justified’ pretty schematic. At least for now, I’ll characterize it as having to “adequately address” the merely agent-centered concerns or normative reasons of the subject (though there would of course be other necessary conditions, including the very general condition of citing important-enough conditions of general utility to all that the state’s coercive regime would achieve or achieve uniquely well). I’ll fill in more as I go along…


  3. It occurs to me that BW might not endorse [a], the objective acceptability element of the BLD (after all, he seems to endorse the idea that, in the past, literal mythology was sufficient for satisfying BLD). I suspect that, for BW, objectively faulty justifications (say with false premises or bad reasoning), if regarded as adequate by both parties, can satisfy BLD (maybe imperfectly, high-grade legitimacy requiring objective acceptability as well?). Interestingly, his case of the “radically disadvantaged” subgroup among subjects – such a subgroup cannot be given any good and sufficient reason not to revolt, he says, and therefore BLD cannot be satisfied – describes facts on the ground not folks’ attempts to cognize them (apparently conditions of objective unacceptability that are obvious enough that the state is unable to offer, or the subjects unable to take up, the kind of justification that BLD requires). I think this case, which I did not mention in my post, threw me off. One might square (and combine) the objective and subjective/rational conditions of my formulation via a concept of reasonableness in justification that includes both (i) accounting for obvious-enough facts and (ii) some false premises, bad reasoning, etc. In which case, we spell out BLD in terms of the state standing ready to provide justification of the right sort that is sufficiently reasonable (and perhaps would or should be regarded as such by those under the power of the state). I like this approach, but I’m not sure that this is how BW formulates his view. In any case, I think I should reformulate my interpretation of BLD in terms of one reasonable-justification condition, making it clear that reasonableness allows for objective or correctness elements like accounting for obvious relevant facts and seeing obviously valid inferences (so that the “radically disadvantaged group” case makes sense). Of course, this will not capture any of the more fine-grained elements of BW’s view here. But it will allow BLD to be met, in certain historical conditions, via accepted but false mythologies (and I think you need this to get BW’s view right).


  4. Another thing that occurs to me is that it is important to keep in mind is that BW’s “justify to” condition (unlike Rawls’) is not focused on differences in (reasonable) moral outlooks and what this implies about what kinds of justifications (of the state’s coercive regime, by the state) are acceptable to this or that person or group subject to state power. BW speaks of the acceptable ways of solving the first problem of politics, but, as indicated, I think ‘acceptable’ here is used to indicate attention to the private interests of those subject to state power (and might in this context be interpreted objectively, as referring to conditions of fact not of belief or reasons in justification). I think the salient point of contact between BW’s framework and the political liberal framework here would be BW’s concept of justifications that “make sense” (MS) to people. However, the relevant context here for BW seems to be things like how moral progress happens and the “relativism of distance” (the inaptness of our judging, say, ancient Inca culture and politics in terms of present-day liberal standards that they would not even understand) — not pluralism in moral worldviews among people trying to live together in a single society. However, if there are groups in a society whose moral frameworks do not MS to each other fully, this seems similar to the context of pluralism and possible overlapping consensus that Rawls is addressing. In any case, we should not be looking to the term ‘acceptable’ to find commonality in the approaches.


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