Governments make lots of mistakes. These mistakes often involve the imposition of unjust laws on citizens. Perhaps surprisingly, many people believe government officials can act permissibly when they impose unjust laws on citizens, and that such officials typically have rights against being interfered with when imposing such unjust laws. What, if anything, justifies this conclusion? I argue that many leading theories of political morality do not provide a satisfactory answer to this question. Part of the problem, I suggest, is that justice and legitimacy are too often treated as distinct values. Adopting this picture makes the phenomenon of legitimate injustice puzzling and difficult to understand. The view I aim to explore rejects this picture. On this alternative view, political legitimacy isn’t an independent value at all—it’s one part of what justice requires.
Jonathan Quong is Professor of Philosophy and Law at the University of Southern California. He taught previously at the University of Manchester. He is currently acting co-editor for Philosophy & Public Affairs, an associate editor for Ethics, and an area editor for Pacific Philosophical Quarterly.