Oxford law professor delivers guest lecture on state legitimacy

Dr. Thomas Adams, Oxford Law giving a lecture at Osgoode Hall Law School
Oxford Professor Thomas Adams delivers his lecture during the Osgoode event.

It was a meeting of legal minds from Oxford and Osgoode.

In a special guest lecture Sept. 20, University of Oxford legal philosopher Thomas Adams and about 70 Osgoode students and faculty attending in person and online wrestled with the meaning and scope of state legitimacy.

The lively event, part of the Osgoode Speakers Series, was based on a paper by Adams titled Legitimacy and the Authority of the State.

In both his lecture and paper, Adams argued that political legitimacy is wrongly identified with the use of authoritative power because legitimacy presupposes the existence of authority. But the central concern of political legitimacy, he contended, is who may exercise authority – whereas the justified use of authority concerns how it is exercised.

“When a government is legitimate, this imposes a duty both on subjects and outsiders not to overthrow or undermine that regime for the sake of any other,” Adams told a packed audience in Osgoode’s Faculty Commons Room and his online listeners.

“But it neither justifies the existence of the wider coercive apparatus within which that government functions – that’s the state – nor, perhaps more importantly, does it render in any way justified the exercise of power by that institution. So legitimacy in this sense, I’m going to argue, is a narrow ideal but one that nonetheless has fundamental importance for the operation of the political system.”

In introducing Adams, Professor Emily Kidd White said she was heartened to see the turnout for the event and the audience’s serious interest in questions about authority and the legitimacy of the state.

“I feel these questions have a natural home here at Osgoode and at York University with our rich history of work in political and legal philosophy,” she said.

“I’m really proud of this long tradition of sharp questions and pressure-packed arguments about laws, authority and legitimacy that is still produced by our political and legal philosophers, our empiricists and our social theorists here on the faculty,” she added, “with these questions finding new urgency in work done through these halls on questions of Indigenous sovereignty.”

Adams is an associate professor at the Faculty of Law at the University of Oxford and a Tutorial Fellow at St Catherine’s College, the largest college within Oxford. He works in the philosophy of law, with special interest in questions relating to social ontology, as well as theoretical aspects of constitutional and administrative law.