Legal Sovereignty and Value Pluralism in the United Kingdom

  • Leanne Cochrane

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This thesis asks what a commitment to ethical value pluralism (EVP) can contribute to the current understanding of sovereignty in United Kingdom (UK) constitutional law. It is this ethical approach that serves as the core contribution to the current sovereignty debates.

The thesis considers whether criticisms of the dominant philosophical underlay of legal sovereignty, namely liberal universalism, can provide insight into current UK divisions over the concept. These divisions exist in the public sphere surrounding where legal sovereignty should lie, such as with ‘Brexit’ and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), and in legal opinion over where legal sovereignty does lie, such as with Parliament or in the rule or law, or indeed ‘the people’. Two related criticisms of liberal universalism form the bedrock on which the thesis seeks to make its contributions: a rejection of abstract universalism and of ethical monism. Ultimately, these criticisms take the thesis towards the view that a commitment to EVP might provide direction for the de-escalation of division over legal sovereignty.

EVP, for these purposes, is understood to be the idea that human ends are multiple, can conflict and are sometimes incommensurable. This idea is distinct from relativism and corresponds with an internal and embedded essentialism. The thesis takes care to demonstrate this relationship and therefore the normativity within EVP, by understanding universal values in terms of truly human ways of interacting (the ‘human faculties’ approach). On this foundation, it progresses to identify certain process-orientated values, which derive from the ways in which human beings live, to sit comfortably with EVP, such as the familiar ‘self-creation’ and ‘practical reason’, and the slightly less familiar ‘empathy’ and ‘affiliation’. The thesis suggests that these values should form part of a UK constitutional value statement directing human and institutional interactions at this level and potentially beyond. Equally, by understanding universalism as embedded, a set of ‘other’ more substantive values are expected to exist as hierarchical within a constitution, such as human rights, but these values are established by political contestation and ultimately agreement.

Otherwise, the thesis focuses on the UK’s internal constitutional structures and suggests that an embrace of EVP should amend the direction of the current constitutional flow. A direction which has in recent years been towards a more philosophically monist national legal system. EVP is best understood as rejecting any one claim to absolute sovereignty and instead supports a distributed sovereignty both within and beyond state boundaries, with a greater emphasis on ‘shared rule’. It is suggested that the UK’s current devolution structures have the potential to support an internal constitutional pluralism structure, more reflective of the norms of EVP. Finally, while the process values ought to also direct an increased egalitarian liberalism within the UK by re-balancing the constitution towards empathy and affiliation, values that speak to the dependant and society-based nature of humans, the most important contribution of EVP is the process and character it fosters before final decisions result.
Date of AwardDec 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen's University Belfast
SponsorsNorthern Ireland Department for the Economy
SupervisorGordon Anthony (Supervisor) & Eithne Dowds (Supervisor)


  • ​pluralism
  • value pluralism
  • sovereignty
  • United Kingdom
  • values
  • process values
  • human rights
  • normativity
  • hierarchies of norms
  • Isaiah Berlin
  • Martha Nussbaum
  • human faculties
  • legal pluralism
  • constitutional pluralism
  • devolution
  • ​agonistic respect

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