Philosophy Ph.D. Dissertations


Individual Sovereignty and Political Legitimacy

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


Philosophy, Applied

First Advisor

Fred Miller


Natural rights liberalism configures individuals’ areas of moral freedom in terms of both ownership and enforcement rights. These rights are taken to entail not only liberties or permissions to act in particular ways, but also obligations on the part of others not to interfere with such liberties. The state, however, threatens its subjects with the infliction of harm should they decide to exercise the full range of their enforcement rights. The state also taxes its subjects in order to fund the costs involved in the collective provision of enforcement services. Thus, within natural rights liberalism, the problem of political legitimacy amounts to the problem of explaining why the state’s characteristic infringements upon individuals’ rights could be morally permissible. The theoretical challenge lies in the fact that, according to natural rights liberalism, the areas of moral freedom defined by individuals’ natural rights are taken to have especially stringent borders. Those borders are immune, in particular, to consequentialist and paternalistic rationales of infringement. This dissertation argues that this challenge is best met by an appeal to individuals’ “samaritan” rights. The holders of these particular rights are individuals who, by no fault of their own, face a perilous situation, and they hold their rights against those who have the capacity to place them out of peril at a reasonable cost. Christopher Wellman has already noted the implications of individuals’ samaritan rights for the problem of political legitimacy. The purpose of this dissertation is to further develop Wellman’s insights, and argue that the resulting moral framework is a promising approach for dealing with the problem of political legitimacy, particularly within the tradition of natural rights liberalism.