Skip to main content Accessibility help


  • Anna Stilz (a1)


While self-determination is a cardinal principle of international law, its meaning is often obscure. Yet international law clearly recognizes decolonization as a central application of the principle. Most ordinary people also agree that the liberation of colonial peoples was a moral triumph. This essay examines three philosophical theories of self-determination’s value, and asks which one best captures the reasons why decolonization was morally required. The instrumentalist theory holds that decolonization was required because subject peoples were unjustly governed, the democratic view holds that decolonization was required because subject peoples lacked democratic representation, and the associative view holds that decolonization was required because subject peoples were unable to affirm the political institutions their colonial rulers imposed on them. I argue that the associative view is superior to competing accounts, because it better reflects individuals’ “maker” interests in participating in shared political projects that they value. The essay further shows that if we accept the associative view, self-determination is not a sui generis value that applies to decolonization alone. Ultimately, our intuitions about decolonization can be justified only by invoking an interest on the part of persistently alienated groups in redrawing political boundaries. The same interest may justify self-determination in additional cases, such as autonomy for indigenous peoples, or greater independence for Scotland or Quebec.



Hide All

2 For the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, see For the International Covenant on Economic and Social Rights, see

3 Cassese, Antonio, Self-Determination of Peoples: A Legal Reappraisal (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 65.

4 See Avishai Margalit and Joseph Raz, “National Self-Determination,” in Raz, Joseph, Ethics and the Public Domain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994).

5 All states are, as a matter of historical fact, initially imposed by force. Charles Tilly emphasizes this point in his important work on the origins of national states in Europe. See Tilly, Charles, “War Making and State Making as Organized Crime,” in Bringing the State Back In, ed. Evans, Peter, Rueschmeyer, Dietrich, and Skocpol, Theda (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 169; 184.

6 From 1884 until 1908, the Congo was Leopold’s private property, after which it became a colony of the Belgian state. See Hochschild, Adam, King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1999).

7 Buchanan, Allen, Justice, Legitimacy, and Self-Determination (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 247.

8 Ibid., 126–29.

9 Ibid., 352. Buchanan does hold that “where institutional resources exist for democratic authorization of government,” such procedures must be utilized if the state is to be fully legitimate (ibid., 254). I consider this extension in the next section.

10 Ibid., 351.

11 Ibid., 264–5.

12 Ibid., 357. Buchanan suggests that self–determination may also be appropriate where states have engaged in serious and persisting violations of intrastate autonomy agreements.

13 For a similar critique, see Ypi, Lea, “What’s Wrong with Colonialism,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 41, no. 2 (2013): 168.

14 See Crawford, Neta, Argument and Change in World Politics: Ethics, Decolonization, and Humanitarian Intervention (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 236–39.

15 Quoted in Cooper, Frederick, Decolonization and African Society: The Labor Question in French and British Africa (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 27.

16 For useful discussion, see Crawford, Argument and Change, 260–89.

17 For similar distinctions, see Beitz, Charles, Political Equality (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989); Habermas, Jürgen, Between Facts and Norms (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996).

18 Plamenatz, John, On Alien Rule and Self-Government (London: Longmans Green, 1960), 1.

19 There was some Indian political representation on local and provincial councils, but no nationwide democratic legislature.

20 Waldron, Jeremy, Law and Disagreement (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 238–39.

21 Beitz, Political Equality, 109–110.

22 Christiano, Thomas, The Constitution of Equality (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 46.

23 Libya did have an organ of political representation under Qaddafi — the General People’s Congress. However, real power remained with Qaddafi himself: there was no right to form political parties or contest elections.

24 See Ypi, “What is Wrong with Colonialism?” 180, for an argument that agreement is required for fair political association. One might question whether, on the democratic view, we ought to be indifferent between a right to have one’s vote taken into account alongside the votes of 72 million others (in Franco-Libya) or 6 million others (in Libya). But the annexation of Libya would not greatly dilute the average Libyan’s probability of changing a collective decision, and that probability would not be less than that of the inhabitants of many other nation-states, say Germany or the United States. An individual’s power to affect a collective result is minuscule in any large representative democracy.

25 For related discussion of the democratic “boundary problem,” see Abizadeh, Arash, “On the Demos and its Kin: Nationalism, Democracy, and the Boundary Problem,” American Political Science Review 106, no. 4 (2012): 867–82; Goodin, Robert, “Enfranchising All Affected Interests, and Its Alternatives,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 35, no. 1 (2007): 4068 ; and Miller, David, “Democracy’s Domain,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 37, no. 3 (2009): 201228.

26 See Shepherd, Todd, The Invention of Decolonization (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006), 1954.

27 See Ranlegh, John, A Short History of Ireland (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983).

28 Hegel, G. W. F., Philosophy of Right, ed. Wood, Allen; trans. Nisbet, H. B. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 313.

29 For a brief overview of this history, including the Queen’s statement of abdication, see www.hawaii––soa.html.

30 See Kutz, Christopher, Complicity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000); Bratman, Michael, Faces of Intention (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

31 Kutz elaborates a minimalist conception of joint action that is appropriate to large and diffuse groups, such as a citizenry (Kutz, Complicity, 90–96). I elaborate a theory of citizenship as joint intentional action at greater length in Anna Stilz, Liberal Loyalty: Freedom, Obligation, and the State (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009), chap. 7.

32 Raz, Joseph, The Morality of Freedom (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986), 208–9; Jones, Peter, “Group Rights and Group Oppression,” Journal of Political Philosophy 7, no. 4 (1999), 353–77.

33 Quoted in Wellman, Christopher, “Friends, Compatriots, and Special Obligations,” Political Theory 29, no. 2 (2001): 217–36.

34 The objector might further reply that “talk is cheap”: citizens who aren’t participatory or knowledgeable might say they care about a political project, but perhaps they don’t care very much. Ultimately, this is an empirical question. If the objector is right and most citizens take an Einsteinian view of politics, then we should expect no outcry at benevolent annexation, since individuals’ basic rights and interests would be protected by the annexer. Yet I believe most citizens would strongly protest in such a scenario. The objector is right, however, that if most people are indeed Einsteinians, there would be much weaker objections to continued imperial rule (as long as the regime was reformed, if necessary, to ensure greater justice and democracy).

35 See Keohane, Robert, “Political Authority after Intervention: Gradations in Sovereignty,” in Humanitarian Intervention, ed. Holzgrefe, J. L. and Keohane, Robert (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

36 Walzer, Michael, “The Moral Standing of States: A Response to Four Critics,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 9, no. 3 (1980): 211.

37 If a group cannot establish minimally just institutions, even with aid, then they may not claim self-determination. For a similar view, see Altman, Andrew and Wellman, Christopher, A Liberal Theory of International Justice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 195.

* Special thanks to Arash Abizadeh, Niko Kolodny, Alex Levitov, Jacob Levy, Catherine Lu, Karuna Mantena, Richard Miller, Christopher Morris, Cara Nine, Massimo Renzo, Julie Rose, Jennifer Rubenstein, Melissa Schwartzberg, Laura Valentini, Leif Wenar, Lea Ypi, Jake Zuehl, Matt Zwolinski, and to audiences at Freie Universität Berlin, Georgia State, Johns Hopkins, Maryland, McGill, Osgoode Hall, University of Louisville, and Yale. Work on this publication was completed while I was a visiting fellow at the RSSS School of Philosophy at the Australian National University in Summer 2013.


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed