BC Social Studies Lesson Plans

Legitimacy of the State

Grade 11


Legitimacy of the State

Big Idea

Examining questions in philosophy allows people to question their assumptions and better understand their own beliefs. (from Philosophy 12)

Essential Question

What makes a law legitimate? Is it every okay to disobey the law?

Learning Standards Content

Students are expected to know the following:

  • fundamental nature of knowledge, existence, and reality (adapted from Philosophy 12)

Curricular Competencies

Students are expected to be able to do the following:

  • Make reasoned ethical judgments about people, places, events, phenomena, ideas, or developments and determine appropriate ways to respond (ethical judgment)

Core Competencies

I can discuss the basis of law and the state in our democratic society

What factors would I consider when obeying/ignoring an existing law?

I have a personal understanding of my rights and obligations as a citizen of a democratic society.

First People's Principles of Learning

Learning involves generational roles and responsibilities.

Think Pair Share

  • What life would be like without laws or police or courts?
  • Why is it illegal for teenagers to Drink? Drive? Smoke? Get married?
  • Why must we obey laws?
  • When is it acceptable (or even laudable?) to disobey the state?


Carousel Activity

  • Post around the room “Quotations about Government, the State, and Democracy”:
    • Giving every man a vote has no more made men wise and free than Christianity has made them good. - H.L. Mencken
    • The government, which was designed for the people, has got into the hands of the bosses and their employers, the special interests. An invisible empire has been set up above the forms of democracy.- Woodrow Wilson
    • A government that is big enough to give you all you want is big enough to take it all away. - Barry Goldwater
    • The oppressed are allowed once every few years to decide which particular representatives of the oppressing class are to represent and repress them. - Karl Marx
  • Have students work in groups to analyze and comment on these quotations.


Part 1: The State

  • Play a round or two of Musical Chairs.
  • After order is restored, suggest life without the State would be like a game of Musical Chairs: “Nasty, Brutish and Short”. (Hobbes)
  • Show the slideshow “The State”. Use the questions and talking points in the notes of the slides to engage students in discussion.
  • Have students consider the balance of freedom with equality and security. Ask: If there were no laws or government and people had the freedom to do whatever they wanted, would society be fair and safe? Who would benefit from absolute freedom? Who would be vulnerable and lose out?


Part 2: Types of Government

  • Review “Types of Government” and engage students in a discussion of the pros and cons of each type of government.
  • Organize students in pairs or triads and provide each with a copy of the “Democracy Ranking Chart”. After students have had time to complete their rankings, have students share their rankings. Where groups disagree, facilitate a conversation about the criteria for being considered democratic.


Part 3: Rules for Society

  • Organize students in groups of 5 or 6 and provide each group with a copy of the “Desert Island Activity”. Have each group imagine that they are on a deserted island and they are tasked with creating a list of basic rules for their island society.
  • Afterwards, have groups share their rules.
  • Debrief activity by drawing attention to areas of similarity and difference. Point out which groups chose democracy and which chose other forms of government. What are the benefits and problems or each?


Part 4: The Social Contract

  • Show the slideshow “The Social Contract
  • Point out that the social contract is a useful fiction because it shows how a state could have started, and if it could have been created in a moral way (fair, consensus) it gives the state its moral justification. It claims to be the kind of state you would have chosen in the first place, were you there at the beginning. The social contract tells us that the existence of the state is justified but also tells us what that the democratic state is the ideal.
  • Have students reflect on the following questions in a written response:
    • Explain the basis of law and the state in our democratic society
    • What factors would you consider when deciding whether to obey or criticize an existing law?
    • What are your rights and obligations as a citizen of a democratic society?
    • If you were creating a new state from scratch what laws would you put in place? Why should people agree to obey them?
  • Have students write a class constitution that will govern how they and the teacher will conduct themselves. Students will decide the content of this constitution by establishing a social contract.
  • The first step is for students to answer the following questions which will form the basis of the class constitution:
  • My favorite teacher always used to…
  • I believe that as a student I am responsible for…
  • I don’t like it when other students in my class…
  • I would like you to know that…
  • Collate the responses by grouping together similar answers and noting how many times students give the same or similar responses. For example, a student’s comment that expresses a dislike for others talking out of turn would be placed under the general heading of respect.
  • Organize students into groups of 4 or 5 and distribute the collated responses to the questions. Have each group create a document that organizes their rules into three categories of rights and obligations:
    • the teacher
    • the citizen-student
    • the civil classroom
  • Each team must negotiate and to reach consensus on their top three rules for each category.
  • Reconvene the entire class and invite each group to report on its choices. At this stage, the students should critique each proposed rule. As they negotiate the articles of their constitution, the following problems inevitably arise and must be addressed:
    • How many rules should each article have?
    • Should rules be chosen by a simple majority, a two-thirds majority, or unanimity?
    • Does majority rule quash minority rights?
    • Who’s going to enforce the rules?
    • Can the constitution be amended later in the class?
  • Students generally have strong opinions on all these matters, and they often will be willing to try to convince each other of their positions. Remind them that everyone, including the teacher, will have to live with the rules they choose.
  • Hold a constitutional convention in which students will ratify their constitution.

Blatter, Joachim. 2018. “Legitimacy.” Encyclopædia Britannica.



Davis. James. 2016. “Social Contract Theory: Creating a Cooperative Learning Environment.” PLATO: Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization.



“The Enlightenment: John Locke.” 2015. The Oxford Observer.



“The Enlightenment: Social Contract.” 2015. The Oxford Observer.



Fabienne, Peter. 2017. "Political Legitimacy", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/legitimacy/


“Forms of Government.” [n.d.] Boundless Political Science.



“The Legitimacy of Government.” 2020. Encyclopædia Britannica.



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Last Reviewed

March 01, 2023

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