Philosophy 213 - 11.3.4 Max Weber and Descriptive Legitimacy

Legitimacy can be descriptive (an explanation of authority) or normative (a justification for authority). Hobbes and Locke tackled issues of normative legitimacy. A descriptive account of legitimacy can be found in sociologist Max Weber’s (1864–1920) influential essay “Three Types of Legitimate Rule,” in which he identifies three sources of legitimacy: traditional, charismatic, and rational-legal.

Traditional Legitimacy

Traditional legitimacy, not surprisingly, relies on tradition, or long-standing practice, to determine authority. Once a system is deemed legitimate, power is granted to certain individuals based either on inheritance or a belief that they are given rule through divine right. Al-Farabi’s idea of a supreme ruler is one such example. Perhaps the most common form of traditional legitimacy, however, is monarchy: a system in which the state is ruled by a single individual, usually for the duration of their lifetime. In an absolute monarchy, the right to rule usually is grounded in the notion that the monarchy was established by God and derives its authority from God (known as the divine right of kings). As such, the monarchies in medieval Europe, for example, were not beholden to any form of constitutional authority. In a constitutional monarchy, the head of state is subject to a constitution.

Charismatic Legitimacy

Charismatic legitimacy is granted to an authority figure who has tremendous social appeal. Citizens of society grant these figures power to speak and act on their behalf due to their perceived ability to understand and empathize with the people they represent. Charismatic figures may or may not hold official government positions. Nelson Mandela (1918–2013) is an example of a charismatic authority figure who held great influence as an anti-apartheid activist even prior to becoming president of South Africa. Weber maintained that this is the most unstable form of authority because it is dependent on the individual and can be lost through death or a failure to live up to expectations.

A photograph of South African President Nelson Mandela standing with U.S. President Bill Clinton.
Figure 11.6 Two leaders often described as charismatic: South African president Nelson Mandela (center) with US president Bill Clinton (left). Prior to serving as the first Black president of South Africa, Mandela spent 27 years in prison for leading the anti-apartheid movement. (credit: “Philadelphia Freedom Festival & Awards” by Robert McNeely/White House Photograph Office/Clinton Digital Library, Public Domain)

Rational-Legal Legitimacy

Finally, rational-legal legitimacy comes from belief in the government itself rather than a specific individual. A leader is justified in upholding laws and setting policy as long as they are working within the established structure. Modern representative democracies are examples of this form of authority. Individuals are elected to hold positions within the government for a specified period of time, or term. When the term is over, the position is turned over to another elected individual. While people may not always have faith in the individual elected to office, they retain faith in the legitimacy of the office itself. Weber saw this form of legitimacy as the most stable.

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The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax