Lexington Books, London, 2017. 207 pages. ISBN 9781498518963.
One of the most fundamental questions in political philosophy is, how do we legitimize state interventions? That is, how can we justify that legally coercive interventions are morally right? Philip Shadd takes this question as a starting point for his book Understanding Legitimacy. In this book, the author does not develop a list with criteria and conditions for coerced state action. Instead, he presents a philosophical framework “that will illuminate the type of conditions that legitimate coercion satisfies, the type of reasons by which it is justified” (2). The book is based on the author’s dissertation and is written from a neo-Calvinist point of view. Basically, Shadd claims that the currently dominant philosophical framework of justificatory liberalism (JL) fails and that neo-Calvinism can address the problems of this framework. According to Shadd, the neo-Calvinist tradition provides a more viable philosophical framework for political legitimacy.
Shadd starts his analysis by defining the core criteria of political legitimacy as a basis for discussing the usefulness of philosophical accounts of legitimacy. He identifies three considered convictions (Shadd borrows this concept from John Rawls) which “we” hold to be essential for an account of legitimacy. First, real-world use of legal coercion is legitimate, even when there is disagreement between people about the interventions. Second, legitimacy is conditional upon protecting basic rights. Third, legally coercing people on paternalistic grounds is illegitimate. Unfortunately, Shadd does not discuss why these are the most important and shared convictions about legitimacy—he simple assumes that they are. The rest of the book analyzes which approach—JL or neo-Calvinism—stays closest to these convictions.
The first part (out of three) of the book is dedicated to the account of justificatory liberalism. Chapter 2 contains an exegesis of JL. Here, Shadd’s analysis communicates mostly with the work of John Rawls, although he also refers to the work of other authors, such as Gerald Gauss and Thomas Nagel. According to Shadd, the central categories for a philosophical account of legitimacy from JL include consent, procedures, and self-legislation. Crucial for JL is that legitimate legal coercion is explained “in terms of reasons all reasonable people can accept” (20). Political power is only legitimate if it is accounted for “on the basis of reasons that no one can reasonably reject” (22). It has to be a unanimous acceptance of legal coercion. More particularly, there has to be unanimity about the reasons used to legitimate the exercise of power. Furthermore, to determine what is justified, this approach leaves “real-world” persons behind and turns instead to a hypothetical procedure.
In chapters 3–5, Shadd provides an internal critique of JL, demonstrating how JL fails to fulfill its own conditions. Each chapter discusses a problematic consequence for JL and targets one of the three above-identified considered convictions. The first problem is not only that JL leads to the conclusion that legal coercion is illegitimate, but also that all state activity becomes de-legitimized because it is always contested by one or more individuals. JL’s condition of unanimity is not met in the real world. The second problem is that JL “undercuts legitimacy-conditional basic rights” (8). Basic rights are independent of procedures, objective, and contentful, while JL approaches them oppositely, as based on procedures and consensus of the group. Therefore, JL’s proceduralism is risky for the securing of basic rights, because it focuses on procedures and therefore popularity. The third problem is formulated more cautiously as a “worry,” and concerns the possibility that JL has unavoidably paternalistic elements. JL’s switch from real-world humans to a hypothetical procedure suggests that real-world humans cannot be trusted in determining what kind of interventions are justified. Moreover, JL is interested in what is good for a particular person rather than in what is just. This makes JL paternalistic, according to Shadd.
In the second part of the book, Shadd presents his neo-Calvinist alternative. Chapter 6 provides an outline of neo-Calvinist thought. It starts with a brief overview of Reformed social and political thinking from John Calvin to the present. Next, it highlights central tenets of the neo-Calvinist worldview as articulated since Kuyper, such as the equality of all people, man’s accountability before God, the cultural mandate, the necessity of government because of sin, the creational norms for cultural development, the concept of sphere sovereignty, the separation of church and state, and public justice as purpose of the state. Based on this outline, Shadd articulates a neo-Calvinist philosophical account of legitimacy in chapter 7. His main sources for articulating this philosophical framework are Abraham Kuyper, Jonathan Chaplin (including his reformulation of Dooyeweerd), Nicholas Wolterstorff, and Lambert Zuidervaart. Crucial to the neo-Calvinist account of legitimacy is “that legitimacy is about the prevention of basic wrongs” (9). Legal coercion is necessary because of sin. When conditions for legitimate actions are violated, they “are violations of natural rights” (from individuals or institutions). These kinds of rights and wrongs are connected to “basic human flourishing” and “represent an exogenous normative standard” (115). These concepts are the cornerstones of Shadd’s neo-Calvinist philosophical framework of legitimacy.
The third part of the book is a confrontation of the JL account and the neo-Calvinist account of legitimacy. In chapters 8–10, Shadd shows how neo-Calvinist thinking can solve the three identified problems with JL concerning the three main elements of our understanding of legitimacy, arguing that a neo-Calvinist approach provides a philosophical account that makes sense of the earlier-mentioned shared convictions about legitimacy. First, Shadd replaces the notion of consent with objective, morally binding natural rights of individuals and institutions that have to be respected. Regardless of the level of consent, it is legitimate for states to intervene when basic rights are violated. Moreover, as one of society’s institutions, the state itself has a right, to wit, “a natural right and duty to enforce public justice” (144). Second, the next question is about how to determine which basic rights are legitimate-conditional. Instead of JL’s risky proceduralism, Shadd argues that neo-Calvinism’s focus on “the flourishing tie” can help determine which natural rights are indeed basic rights, because eventually people’s convictions about basic rights are embedded in a “substantive view about human flourishing.” Third, regarding his worry about paternalism in JL, Shadd argues that neo-Calvinism can steer clear of paternalism. Neo-Calvinist justification of legitimacy is based on public justice, and the standard for public justice is based on an exogenous standard: “The divine creational order, of which legitimacy-related norms are a part, is objective and applies to all” (176). It thereby takes the opposite way of JL’s (allegedly) paternalistic approach of hypothetic procedures of people’s subjectively understood interests. Therefore, according to Shadd, neo-Calvinism escapes paternalism.
Understanding Legitimacy is well written, clearly structured, and, above all, a relevant study. Shadd addresses an urgent question that is not only philosophically relevant, but also relevant for real-world politics. We live in times of pervasive state interventions with “good intentions” (e.g., prevention policies, anti-terrorism policies) while basic rights seem to be under pressure (e.g., the problem of privacy, the rule of law). This situation calls for clear frameworks that can help identify which kinds of policies are (il)legitimate. Shadd shows that the neo-Calvinist tradition can provide such a philosophical framework. Therefore, this book can help political thinkers to think more accurately about the justification and boundaries of state interventions. Furthermore, by bringing the neo-Calvinist approach and the JL account together in debate, Shadd puts the neo-Calvinist tradition into the mainstream secularized domain of political theory. In other words, he gives a refreshing articulation of political legitimacy for neo-Calvinist thinkers while providing secularized mainstream political theory with an extra “reservoir of conceptual insights and resources” (7). This ambition makes the book even more worthwhile.
At the same time, however, questions remain about the way Shadd presents the neo-Calvinist tradition. For readers who are not familiar with neo-Calvinist social and political philosophy he provides a good introduction, but for those readers who are familiar with Reformational political and social philosophy, the book (especially its second part) can be confusing. The author makes several remarkable choices. I want to mention three issues.
First, Shadd speaks consistently about the neo-Calvinist tradition, which he explicitly contrasts with Reformational philosophy. For Shadd, neo-Calvinism is a social theory, while Reformational philosophy, “though not indifferent to social issues, represents a broader, systematic philosophy” (84). But is neo-Calvinism really primarily a social theory? Does Shadd want to distance himself from Reformational philosophy? Why the need for such sharp distinctions; and are these distinctions even real?
Second, Shadd positions Wolterstorff outside the neo-Calvinist tradition. He sees Wolterstorff as sympathetic to this tradition, but, as Shadd says, “he fails to typify the specific neo-Calvinist version of Christian social thought on which I focus” (85). I am not convinced by this typification of Wolterstorff, because in his political philosophy Wolterstorff stays close to Kuyper (and to Dooyeweerd). Even more peculiar is the fact that Wolterstorff’s work is one of the main sources on which Shadd bases his own neo-Calvinist account of legitimacy; and in that account notions of rights and wrongs and flourishing play an important part—concepts that are perhaps even more frequently used by Wolterstorff than by Kuyper.
A third and final concern is about the presentation of Shadd’s neo-Calvinist approach in relation to other Christian and secular traditions in theorizing legitimacy. Understanding Legitimacy is very antithetical: JL is totally problematized whereas neo-Calvinist theory seems perfect. Shadd does not seem bothered at all by theological criticism regarding neo-Calvinism from such political theologians as Stanley Hauerwas, Oliver O’Donovan, and James Smith. Shadd also emphasizes the gap between Christian and secular political thinking. In his final remarks, he argues that the root of the problem of JL’s account is that it is grounded in popular sovereignty instead of God’s sovereignty. He stresses that we cannot make sense of legitimacy in categories such as natural rights and basic human flourishing without theistic thinking. I am afraid that this kind of argument rather closes the door that he wants to open.