AJPS Author Summary – Injustice Abroad, Authority at Home? Democracy, Systemic Effects, and Global Wrongs

In the following blog post, the author summarizes the forthcoming American Journal of Political Science article titled “Injustice Abroad, Authority at Home? Democracy, Systemic Effects, and Global Wrongs”.

Injustice Abroad, Authority at Home? Democracy, Systemic Effects, and Global WrongsMany people – inside and outside academia – believe that democratically made laws have a special claim to moral authority. The fact that a law is traceable to democratic procedures that give an equal vote to each citizen means that disobeying it is failing to respect the equality of our fellow citizens. Therefore, we should normally follow the directives of such a law even when we disagree with its substance.

In my American Journal of Political Science article, “Injustice Abroad, Authority at Home? Democracy, Systemic Effects, and Global Wrongs,” I explore a fundamental but overlooked puzzle about this conception of democratic authority. The puzzle begins from the firm judgement that even a government that keeps democratic procedures intact loses its general authority, if it enacts abhorrent major laws. This judgement means that the moral failure of some laws can dissolve the moral authority of other laws – even ones that are quite distinct in their content. But how can we explain these systemic effects of specific laws? I confront this challenge by introducing a global perspective into the discussion of political authority. I begin by suggesting that we should only adopt an account of systemic effects that can explain how the worst global conduct dissolves a government’s general authority. And, after developing such an account, I use it to reflect on thornier global cases.

The argument I construct connects to ongoing political events in at least two ways. First, my account of the systemic effects of flawed laws puts center-stage the ubiquitous phenomenon of abuse of elected office. To give just a few current examples from around the world, accusations regarding abuse of democratic power are hovering above the entire political class in Brazil, including the country’s President; such accusations have already led to the impeachment of South Korea’s President; similar accusations may very well lead to criminal proceedings against Israel’s Prime Minister; and – last but not least – may also lead to impeachment proceedings against the President of the United States. My argument builds on our convictions regarding such abuses of office, to advance our thinking about the systemic implications of democratic laws that are profoundly morally flawed: I contend that we should think about such laws too as an abuse of political power.

Second, in considering the moral implications of laws that bear most immediately on outsiders rather than on citizens, my argument also explains why deeply troubling laws and policies that have received enormous public attention actually warrant this attention. The recent travel ban pursued by the Trump administration, clearly targeted to prevent the entry of Muslims into the United States, is perhaps the most obvious example. The claims I defend suggest that policies of this sort have wide-ranging repercussions for the Trump administration’s moral claim to authority, notwithstanding whatever democratic credentials it may have. But similar repercussions follow for any other administration around the world whose laws and policies blatantly mistreat outsiders.

About the Author: Shmuel Nili is a post-doctoral research fellow at the Australian National University’s Research School of the Social Sciences (School of Philosophy) and, starting in September 2017, he will be an assistant professor of political science at Northwestern University.  Nili’s article “Injustice Abroad, Authority at Home? Democracy, Systemic Effects, and Global Wrongs” is now available for Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.