Philosophy Ph.D. Dissertations


Why the Law matters to you: Citizenship, Agency, and Public Identity

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)



First Advisor

Fred Miller, PhD

Second Advisor

Albert Dzur, PhD (Committee Member)

Third Advisor

Neil Englehart, PhD

Fourth Advisor

David Shoemaker, PhD (Committee Member)

Fifth Advisor

Michael Weber, PhD (Committee Member)


This dissertation presents an answer to the question of why modern legal institutions and the idea of citizenship are important for leading a free life. The majority of views in political and legal philosophy regard the law merely as a useful instrument, employed to render our lives more secure and to enable us to engage in cooperate activities more efficiently. The view developed here defends a non-instrumentalist alternative of why the law matters. It identifies the law as a constitutive feature of our identities as citizens of modern states. The constitutivist argument rests on the (Kantian) assumption that a person’s practical identity (her normative self-conception as an agent) is the result of her actions. The law constitutes these identities because it maintains the external conditions that are necessary for the actions performed under its authority. Modern legal institutions provide these external prerequisites for achieving a high degree of individual self-constitution and freedom. Only public principles can establish our status as individuals who pursue their life plans and actions as a matter of right and not because others contingently happen to let us do so. The first part of the dissertation looks at a competing account of the modern state. Chandran Kukathas’s book The Liberal Archipelago calls into question the importance of being a citizen of a legal system. Law conflicts with pluralism about the right and the good and imposes its norms on all subjects, whose conscience might command otherwise. The remainder of the dissertation is an attempt to challenge Kukathas’s account. In the second part the constitutivist account is developed as the two Neo-Kantian conceptions of practical identity and self-constituting action are discussed and combined. The result is the public identity claim, which submits that the external principles that make our actions possible are a necessary part of our identity as practical agents in the presence of others. The third part applies this abstract claim to the institution of the law. The modern state, with its genuine feature of creating and administering publicly established and enforceable norms, exemplifies the external principles in a way that allows self-constitution to take on a particularly advanced form.