This paper is forthcoming in Philosophy & Public Affairs.


The essay develops a conception of practical authorities that ties their legitimacy to the particular nature of the social practice or institution in which practical authorities invariably operate, and the terms of the subjects’ participation in that practice. The main argument of the paper draws on the distinction between what it takes to have practical authority and what would make it legitimate. The general idea is that what it takes to have practical authority is always determined by a social or institutional practice, and thus the legitimacy of any given authority crucially depends on the nature of the practice and the terms of participation in it. One result of this argument is that there is no single general principle that determines the conditions of the legitimacy of authorities. In some cases, legitimacy depends on consent, in other cases, it does not; either way, it is the nature of the practice or institution in which a practical authority operates that crucially determines the authority’s legitimacy.

The main argument of this essay is preceded by a clarification of the nature of authoritative directives and the obligatory nature of the reasons to comply with a legitimate directive. I argue that the obligation to comply is not directional (viz., owed to the authority), and that it does not involve the kind of moral accountability that we normally associate with directional obligations.


Constitutional Law | Jurisprudence | Law and Politics | Legislation

Date of this Version

September 2011