Date of Award


Embargo Period


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Procedural approaches to political legitimacy have become increasingly popular amongst liberals. According to such an approach, the legitimacy of a state decision is primarily derived from the processes followed in order to make that decision and not from the quality of the decision itself. The processes that liberals have in mind are typically those found within a system of democratic institutions. These electoral and legislative procedures are supposed to allow the state’s constitutive members to reach legitimately binding agreements on how the state should exercise its power. In response to this trend in liberalism, this dissertation has two goals. The first is to argue that formal results in the social decision sciences seriously question the viability of these procedural approaches. The second goal, however, is to argue that these results do not necessitate complete abandonment of procedural approaches but require liberals to more carefully specify the sorts of agreements that legitimacy requires and what procedures may reliably produce such agreements. I ultimately agree that procedures are important for liberalism but they require more careful understanding and defense. In order to carry this project out, this dissertation is divided into five chapters. In the first two chapters, I outline a fairly standard account of liberalism while arguing that it contains a serious tension that liberal democratic institutions are supposed to resolve. The second chapter in particular seeks to explain the various ways in which the procedural aspects of democracy are particularly appealing in this respect. In the third chapter, I then present Arrow’s famous impossibility result along with other formal result from social choice theory suggesting that in certain situations there simply is no correct procedure for legitimate outcomes that the liberal state may employ. The fourth chapter responds to this concern by maintaining that there exists a symmetry between how an individual person and the liberal state make decisions, and that insights into individual decision making sheds light on how it may be done by a group of people in a liberal democracy. Finally, in the fifth chapter, I move in this direction by presenting an account of the sort of agreements between individuals that legitimacy ought to be grounded upon. Ultimately, procedures like voting remain an important aspect of liberal democracy for authorizing state action, though not necessarily for the reasons that many liberal democrats endorse.