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.
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