Normativity in Realist Legitimacy

Date01 August 2021
AuthorBen Cross
Publication Date01 August 2021
Political Studies Review
2021, Vol. 19(3) 450 –463
© The Author(s) 2020
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1478929920917834
Normativity in Realist
Ben Cross
Political realists reject the view that politics is applied morality. But they also usually claim that
judgements about political legitimacy are normative. Where, then, does this normativity come
from? So far, realists have given two answers: ‘concessive realism’, which identifies legitimacy as
a norm internal to political practice while delegating to morality the task of explaining why this
practice is valuable; and ‘naturalist realism’, which holds that alternatives to legitimate politics
are not ‘real options’ for anyone. I argue that concessive realism should be rejected because it
neglects the importance of the realist critique of morality. I also argue that naturalist realism
should be rejected because alternatives to legitimate politics remain ‘real options’ for some
people. I conclude with some thoughts on how a plausible account of the normative force of
realist legitimacy should proceed.
political legitimacy, political realism, Bernard Williams, political naturalism
Accepted: 18 March 2020
Proponents of realist theories of legitimacy and their critics usually agree that political
legitimacy is a normative concept.1 This means that the fact that an institution is or isn’t
legitimate gives people some kind of reason to do or not do something. Typically, a judge-
ment that an institution is legitimate is taken to provide at least a prima-facie reason for
refraining from revolutionary action (Simmons, 1999). Realists may be somewhat more
cautious about automatically inferring the existence of such a reason from the fact that an
institution is legitimate (Cross, 2019: 7–9). Still, they will usually grant that a legitimate
institution is one which we have some reason to support or at least not overthrow.
As with many of our normative concepts, we should find it of some interest to ask why
the concept of legitimacy should have such a normative status. Here, the moralist critic of
realism has a relatively simple answer: we have reason to support legitimate institutions
because they satisfy certain moral desiderata. For a moralist like Charles Larmore (2017:
Wuhan University, Hubei, China
Corresponding author:
Ben Cross, Wuhan University, Hubei 430072, China.
917834PSW0010.1177/1478929920917834Political Studies ReviewCross

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