Genealogies of Political Authority

Hello all. I’ve recently published an article that may be of interest to readers of Public Reason, in particular those of you who are interested in questions relating to the normative status of political authority. I’m currently planning a sequel to the piece in which I expand upon some of the central arguments, so I would greatly appreciate some feedback, if any of you could spare the time. A brief summary follows.

The article begins with an interpretation of Nietzsche’s thought that emphasizes his preoccupation with genealogy as a critical method and his insistence that modern forms of political authority pose a peculiar threat to the emergence of the sovereign individual. In the second section of the article, I distill these reflections into a theory about legitimate political authority. My argument is that there are certain requirements that govern the accounts that state officials may give in order to justify their decisions to citizens. I derive these requirements from a series of thought experiments and call them the requirements of legitimate political reasoning. They are: (1) the requirement of right reasons, that is, publicly offered reasons must track the reasons that were actually operative in the decision-making behind closed doors; (2) the requirement of procedural propriety, that is, the account must not appeal to reasons that are inappropriate or extraneous to the decision in question; and (3) the transparency of reasons requirement, that is, within reasonable limits, the account should consist of the full set of reasons that are appropriate to the decision in question, without any concealment of reasons for political purposes.

I then apply these requirements, by way of example, to several controversial political contexts: the Iraq war, Israel’s ground assault on the Gaza Strip known as Operation Cast Lead, and the recent reclassification of cannabis in the criminal law of the United Kingdom. The overall thrust of the argument is that when political decision-makers make public pronouncements in defense of their actions which do not conform to these requirements, citizens are entitled to resist the reasoning of the state as illegitimate. In such cases, what citizens discover is that the state is attempting to coerce them without proper authority. The theory is Nietzschean in spirit, since it takes seriously the threat to individual autonomy posed by the operation of the modern state apparatus itself, and is genealogical in orientation, asserting that an investigation into the origins of a political decision might help impugn it at an epistemic level. It thereby arms the citizen with a critical weapon with which to challenge the authority of the state.

The article, entitled “Nietzsche, Genealogy and Political Authority,” can be found in the January 2011 edition of the journal Polity. Click here.

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About Craig French

I'm a graduate student (ABD) in the Department of Government at Georgetown University. I am interested in global justice and democratic theory, particularly questions relating to the normative status and legitimacy of political authority.
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