Mini-Workshop on Civil Disobedience and Political Protests

Friday, June 24 — Dugald Stewart Bldg, University of Edinburgh

This will be a pre-read workshop with commentaries.  Attendees are expected to read the papers in advance. The will be available 7-10 days in advance. For more information or to indicate interest in attending, contact

The Speech-Act of Protest

Matthew Chrisman (Edinburgh) and Graham Hubbs (Idaho)

Commentator: Rowan Cruft (Stirling)

Focusing on basically just liberal democracies, there is a huge space between the extremes of civil democratic participation and sedition—the place of “political protest.” Our question in this paper is how to tell when such protests are politically legitimate. By “politically legitimate” we mean to place our question in the political sphere of overlapping consensus, which we take to be neither a matter of actual law or ultimate morality. This is because we think a protest may be a legitimate move in political discussions even if it is illegal or ultimately morally forbidden; and a protest can be illegitimate even if it is actually legal or ultimately morally permissible. There are prominent liberal and republican answers to our question, which we consider in the paper. But our proposal seeks to improve on these by treating protests as speech acts of a particular sort (done with specific intentions), which as such have felicity conditions. Helpfully, we think, these conditions can be probed in order to evaluate whether various elements of a protest is politically legitimate.

Justice and Legitimacy in Non-ideal Circumstances

Zofia Stemplowska (Oxford) with Adam Swift (Warwick)

Commentator: Lukas Slothuus (Edinburgh)

‘Ideal’ theories of justice are widely criticised for being impractical, with theories of legitimacy sometimes offered as practical solutions. The paper has three aims. First, we expose as illicit the suggestion that appeals to legitimacy standardly offer a practical, real-world solution in the face of disagreement about ideal justice. There is plenty of idealization in much theorizing about legitimacy, particularly in theorizing about democratic legitimacy. If our ways of making political decisions are no more legitimate than the content of those decisions is just, then political or procedural solutions to problems of injustice are as practically irrelevant as the ideal theories of justice they sometimes seek to replace. Second, we offer a general conceptual map of the various connections, and disconnections, between the two ideas – justice and legitimacy – and suggest that the dominant picture in the literature is messy and confusing. We propose a simpler picture where (social) justice and (political) legitimacy are kept properly distinct. Third, we cast doubt on the conventional view that only grave injustice can outweigh legitimacy, with reasons of justice otherwise being outweighed by reasons of legitimacy. We suggest, instead, that justice and legitimacy should simply be seen as (sometimes) conflicting values, with no general presumption that legitimacy yields more weighty reasons than justice. We defend that claim even for circumstances where legitimacy is perfectly or fully realized – as a matter of “ideal theory”. Once we descend to the level of actually existing, non-ideal circumstances, where the legitimacy at stake is far from ideal, it is even easier to accept that the unilateral pursuit of justice by groups or individuals could be permitted or even required even if it goes against decisions reached through (imperfectly) legitimate procedures.

Civil Disobedience and Public Interest

Daniele Santoro (LUIS-Rome)

Commentator: Guy Fletcher (Edinburgh) 

Civil disobedience is often justified by appealing to democratic values. Civil disobedients counterbalance the excess of executive power, highlight flaws in democratic procedures, and testify to the rights of minorities against the potential tyranny of majorities. In some versions of this argument, its justification refers to the notion of ‘public interest’. Yet, political theorists have shown scant attention, in the current debate, to the task of clarifying this notion.  In this paper I argue that a proper understanding of this notion is crucial in justifying the democratic function of dissent.

I distinguish between two broad characterisations of ‘public interest’. According to the first characterisation — call it the aggregate view — ‘public interest’ is the sum of non-competing individual interests of the members of a polity.  National defence and clean air are instances of public interest according to this view, for they are non-excludable, non-rivalrous goods in which individual interests have an equal share.

Yet, the aggregate view is unsatisfying in many ways, for public interest is not necessarily an interest over which individual members of a polity converge. Natural resources whose pool is depleted over long-term exploitation, the provision of social services when financial resources are limited, and also the safeguard of constitutional freedoms in times of emergency are all examples of goods over which individual or group interests may compete and come into conflict.

Can we make sense of a notion of public interest that does not appeal to the interests everybody has an equal share in? In what sense can an interest of a party be in the ‘public’ interest? I outline a different characterisation of public interest — the all-purposive view — and present two arguments in support of it.

First, something is in the public interest means inter alia that there is a presumptive interest of members of a ‘public’ in being informed about a given matter. Admittedly, this is only a presumptive interest:  a public may dismiss the information as irrelevant, or simply be unconcerned with it. Still, the justification of an act performed in the public interest lies in the presumption of the potential public value of the information.

The second aspect concerns the content of public interest. I propose a characterisation of public interest as consisting of the set of rights that are all-purposive for the attainment of any social benefit. Public interest in this second sense does not consist in any specific distribution of social benefits, but in the core set of rights that supervise the arrangement of those benefits.

A right is part of the core set constituting public interest when its obstruction or restraint precludes the enjoyment of any other right that figures in that set. We can define the core set of rights that constitute public interest as those rights which enable the enjoyments of more substantive rights or particular social benefits. For instance, the right to free speech is one such right.

I will conclude by exploring how the all-purposive view can justify some specific instances of civil disobedience, namely whistleblowing and the disclosure of governmental secrecy.

For more information or to indicate interest in attending, contact