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The Ethics of Secession and a Normative Theory of Nationalism

  • Margaret Moore


The three major normative theories of secession are just-cause theories, choice theories, and national self-determination theories. Just-cause and choice theories are problematic because they view secession in terms of the application of liberal theories of justice or a liberal principle of autonomy, without regard for the dynamics of nationalist mobilitization and national politics. National self-determination theories can be supported by a collective autonomy argument. This is related to a particular view of the relationship between collective self-government and territory.



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1. Philpott, Daniel, “In Defense of Self-Determination” (1995) 105 Ethics 352 at 370.

2. Details of the groups expelled by Stalin, in the former Soviet Union are found in Robert Conquest, The Nation Killers: The Soviet Deportation of Nationalities (London: Macmillan, 1970).

3. Buchanan begins his book by gesturing in favour of group rights. See Buchanan, Allen, Secession: The Morality of Political Divorce from Fort Sumter to Lithuania and Quebec (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1991) at 7-8 . It is surprising that this ends up playing very little role in the overall design of his theory.

4. International law has tended to endorse an administrative boundaries conception, at least in the post-Second World War period.

5. Nationalism typically involves two kinds of projects: national self-determination projects and nation-building projects. For a discussion of the relationship between the two, and the extent to which they cut across each other, see my Nationalist Arguments, Ambivalent Conclusions” (1999) 82:3 The Monist 469.

6. In Wayne Norman's elaboration (and defence) of just-cause theory, he cites five kinds of injuries to a group that are considered to give just-cause: “(i) that it has been the victim of systematic discrimination or exploitation, and that this situation will not end as long as the group remains in the state; (ii) that the group and its territory were illegally incorporated into the state within recent-enough memory; (iii) that the group has a valid claim to the territory it wants to withdraw from the state; (iv) that the group's culture is imperiled unless it gains access to all of the powers of a sovereign state; (v) that the group finds its constitutional rights grossly or systematically ignored by the central government or the supreme court.” See Norman, W., “Ethics of Secession as the Regulation of Secessionist Politics” in Moore, M., ed., National Self-Determination and Secession (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998) 34 at 41.

7. Buchanan, , supra note 3 at 154-55.

8. Norman, , supra note 6 at 41.

9. Conversely, another group may be economically and socially marginalised, the victim of widespread abuses, and unjust treatment, and not be nationally mobilized. Such a group may not seek to remove themselves from the state because they are in such a weak position that the prospect of “going it alone” is not an attractive one.

10. Buchanan, , supra note 3 at 109.

11. Ibid. at 55.

12. See Buchanan, Allen, “What's So Special about Nations?” in Couture, J., Nielsen, K. & Seymour, M., eds., Rethinking Nationalism: Canadian Journal of Philosophy Supplementary Volume 22 (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 1998) 283 at 302-3.

13. Norman, , supra note 6 at 36.

14. Barry, B., Democracy and Power: Essays in Political Theory 1 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991) 156 at 162 .

15. See Philpott, , supra note 1; See Wellman, C.H., “A Defence of Secession and Political Self-Determination” (1995) 24:2 Phil. & Publ. Affairs 142; See also Beran, Harry, “A Liberal Theory of Secession” (1984) 32 Pol. Stud. 21-31.

16. Rainer Bauböck denies that this is a problem. He writes: “The first paradox of plebiscitary selfdetermination need not arise as a practical problem as long as all groups involved accept given borders as starting lines. National self-determination demands are rarely claims for the largest possible territory where a group can muster a majority, but refer more often to a particular and well-defined territory which the group regards as its historic homeland.” See Bauböck, Rainer, “Self-determination and self-government” (March 19, 1999) [unpublished] at 16 . He cites the partition of Ireland in 1920 as a counter-example, because the six provinces of Northern Ireland did not correspond to the historic region of Ulster and included areas with Catholic majority. Indeed, its only rationale seems to have been that this permitted the Protestant Unionists the largest area in which they were still a stable majority. However, I think that this isn't a single counter-example, but indicates a general problem with overholding states, of which the Protestant Unionists are an example (they identified with Britain). Indeed, if Bauböck's optimistic view were correct, we wouldn't expect states to so vehemently resist secession (and many of them do), nor would we expect states to try to keep groups within their territory, and under their jurisdiction, especially when the state encompasses land beyond its so-called “historical” territory. Bauböck is too optimistic: aggrandizement is a problem, especially for the overholding state, which is accustomed to a certain territory, accustomed to borders of a certain shape, and for the majority ethnic or national group in the state, which is accustomed to a pre-eminent position within that state.

17. See O'Leary, Brendan, “Determining Our Selves: On the Norm of National Self-Determination” (Paper presented to the International Political Science Ass'n, Berlin, August 1994) at 13.

18. Philpott, , supra note 1 at 362-63.

19. See Buchanan, , “Democracy and Secession” in Moore, , supra note 6 at 14.

20. There were other members of the “Militia” scattered throughout west Texas. See Texan Separatism: The Mountain RepublicThe Economist 339:7969 (8 June 1996) 33 , and Texas: The Alamo, AgainThe Economist 343:8015 (3 May 1997) 25.

21. This point is made in a different way by Norman, , supra note 6 at 37 : “Choice theories are, in effect, nationalist theories shorn of the moral complications of ethnicity. Groups do not have to prove they are nations in order to qualify for a right to secede, and this allows choice theories to avoid entirely the problem of explaining why some very apolitical cultural traits should take on such enormous moral weight in arguments for secession.” I take this to be exactly right.

22. Wellman, , supra note 15 at 161.

23. Ibid. at 161-62.

24. McGarry, J., “Orphans of Secession” in Moore, , supra note 6 at 218.

25. Wellman, , supra note 15 at 163 n. 25.

26. Patten, Alan, “Democracy and Secession.” Unpublished paper presented to the Conference on Secession and Stability, University of Western Ontario (1998) at 16.

27. This distinction between individual and autonomy argument, as they apply to theories of secession, is adapted from Patten, ibid.

28. See Miller, David, “Membership and Justice” in Avineri, S. & de-Shalit, A., eds., Communitarianism and Individualism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992).

29. See Hurka, Thomas, “The Justification of National Partiality” in McKim, R. & McMahan, J., eds., The Morality of Nationalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997) 139 at 140.

30. See Miller, David, On Nationality (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995) at 85-87 ; Kymlicka, Will, Multicultural Citizenship (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995) at 8, 82-83 ; Tamir, Y., Liberal Nationalism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993) at 6, 76 ; Margalit, A. & Raz, J., “National Self-Determination” in Kymlicka, W., ed., The Rights of Minority Cultures (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995) 79.

31. See Galston, William A., Liberal Purposes: Goods, Virtues, and Diversity in the Liberal State (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991) at 241-56; Callan, E., Creating Citizens; Political Education and Liberal Democracy (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997) at 103-10; Barry, , supra note 14 at 174-75.

32. Mill, J.S., “Considerations on Representative Government” in Utilitarianism, On Liberty and Considerations on Representative Government (London: Everyman Library, 1994) at 394 . For a contemporary, and less nuanced, version of this argument, see Lind, Michael, “In Defense of Liberal Nationalism” (1994) 73 Foreign Affairs 87. For a discussion of this argument, see my Normative Arguments for Liberal Nationalism: Democracy, Justice and Nationalism” in Nations and Nationalism (forthcoming 7/1 (Jan. 2001)).

33. Norman, Wayne, “Prelude to a Liberal Morality of Nationalism” in Brennan, S., Isaacs, T., & Milde, M., eds., A Question of Values: New Canadian Perspectives in Ethics and Political Philosophy (Atlanta, GA: Ridopi 1997) at 12-13.

34. This objection is implicit in Brubaker, Rogers, “Myths and Misconceptions in the Study of Nationalism” in Moore, supra note 6, 233. However, it is explicitly (and helpfully) reformulated by Bauböck, in “Self-determination and self-government”, supra note 16 at 10.

35. Brubaker, , ibid. at 238.

36. Ibid. at 256.

37. Ibid. at 240.

38. This model is consistent with the one advocated by Bauböck, , supra note 16 at 10-11.

39. This point is from Bauböck, , ibid. at 10.

40. As Bauböck has argued, “The existence of political boundaries is a necessary condition for self-government to flourish. But a right to change them so that all groups…. can achieve a maximally exclusive and comprehensive form of self-government undermines this very condition and is therefore ultimately self-defeating”. Bauböck, , ibid. at 11.

41. See here my discussion in “Territorial Dimensions of Self-determination”, supra note 6.

42. Of course, most territory, if one goes back far enough, was probably acquired unjustly. This is why a statute of limitations is necessary.

43. See “ China's Uighurs: A Train of Concern”, The Economist 354:8157 (12 February 2000) 40.

44. Most definitions of nations include both subjective attachment (to co-nationals) and attachment to territory. See here Miller's, five-part although quite open-ended criteria for defining a national community in Miller, , supra note 30 at 27. There is a similar emphasis on both national mobilization and subjective attachment in Smith, A. D., National Identity (New York and Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1991) at 14.

45. Reference re Secession of Quebec, [1998] 2 S.C.R. 217.

46. The three questions are: (1) Under the Constitution of Canada, can the National Assembly, legislature or government of Quebec effect the secession of Quebec from Canada unilaterally? (2) Does international law give the National Assembly, legislature or government of Quebec the right to effect the secession of Quebec from Canada unilaterally? In this regard, is there a right to self-determination under international law that would give the National Assembly, legislature or government of Quebec the right to effect the secession of Quebec from Canada unilaterally? (3) In the event of a conflict between domestic and international law on the right of the National Assembly, legislature or government of Quebec to effect the secession of Quebec from Canada unilaterally, which would take precedence in Canada?

47. Buchanan, , supra note 3 at 21-24.

48. Ibid. at 21.

49. This was a serious problem in the October 30, 1995 referendum. The salient part of the referendum question asked: “Do you agree that Quebec should become sovereign, after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership… Yes or No.” Not only is this problematic because it introduced strategic decision-making, instead of basing decisions on first-order preferences, but there is a great deal of unclarity about what being ‘sovereign’ actually involved. Polls in Quebec indicated that many more people were in favour of Quebec being ‘sovereign’ than Quebec becoming ‘a sovereign country’ and federalists in the Quebec legislature argued (unsuccessfully) for the latter formulation.

50. Kolstoe, Paul, Russians in the Former Soviet Republics (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1995) at 11, 186.

This began as a conference paper at the University of Western Ontario; I wish to thank Michael Milde for inviting me, and thank organisers and participants for the helpful comments that they made. I am also grateful to the University of Waterloo/Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada research grant for the financial support that is necessary to scholarly research and writing of this kind. Finally, I am grateful to Patti Lenard for research assistance.

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