1. Development and Influence
Legal positivism has a long history and a broad influence. It has antecedents in ancient political philosophy and is discussed, and the term itself introduced, in mediaeval legal and political thought (see Finnis 1996). The modern doctrine, however, owes little to these forbears. Its most important roots lie in the conventionalist political philosophies of Hobbes and Hume, and its first full elaboration is due to Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) whose account Austin adopted, modified, and popularized. For much of the next century an amalgam of their views, according to which law is the command of a sovereign backed by force, dominated legal positivism and English philosophical reflection about law. By the mid-twentieth century, however, this account had lost its influence among working legal philosophers. Its emphasis on legislative institutions was replaced by a focus on law-applying institutions such as courts, and its insistence of the role of coercive force gave way to theories emphasizing the systematic and normative character of law. The most important architects of this revised positivism are the Austrian jurist Hans Kelsen (1881-1973) and the two dominating figures in the analytic philosophy of law, H.L.A. Hart (1907-92) and Joseph Raz among whom there are clear lines of influence, but also important contrasts. Legal positivism's importance, however, is not confined to the philosophy of law. It can be seen throughout social theory, particularly in the works of Marx, Weber, and Durkheim, and also (though here unwittingly) among many lawyers, including the American “legal realists” and most contemporary feminist scholars. Although they disagree on many other points, these writers all acknowledge that law is essentially a matter of social fact. Some of them are, it is true, uncomfortable with the label “legal positivism” and therefore hope to escape it. Their discomfort is sometimes the product of confusion. Lawyers often use “positivist” abusively, to condemn a formalistic doctrine according to which law is always clear and, however pointless or wrong, is to be rigorously applied by officials and obeyed by subjects. It is doubtful that anyone ever held this view; but it is in any case false, it has nothing to do with legal positivism, and it is expressly rejected by all leading positivists. Among the philosophically literate another, more intelligible, misunderstanding may interfere. Legal positivism is here sometimes associated with the homonymic but independent doctrines of logical positivism (the meaning of a sentence is its mode of verification) or sociological positivism (social phenomena can be studied only through the methods of natural science). While there are historical connections, and also commonalities of temper, among these ideas, they are essentially different. The view that the existence of law depends on social facts does not rest on a particular semantic thesis, and it is compatible with a range of theories about how one investigates social facts, including non-naturalistic accounts. To say that the existence of law depends on facts and not on its merits is a thesis about the relation among laws, facts, and merits, and not otherwise a thesis about the individual relata. Hence, most traditional “natural law” moral doctrines--including the belief in a universal, objective morality grounded in human nature--do not contradict legal positivism. The only influential positivist moral theories are the views that moral norms are valid only if they have a source in divine commands or in social conventions. Such theists and relativists apply to morality the constraints that legal positivists think hold for law.
2. The Existence and Sources of Law
Every human society has some form of social order, some way of marking and encouraging approved behavior, deterring disapproved behavior, and resolving disputes. What then is distinctive of societies with legal systems and, within those societies, of their law? Before exploring some positivist answers, it bears emphasizing that these are not the only questions worth asking. While an understanding of the nature of law requires an account of what makes law distinctive, it also requires an understanding of what it has in common with other forms of social control. Some Marxists are positivists about the nature of law while insisting that its distinguishing characteristics matter less than its role in replicating and facilitating other forms of domination. (Though other Marxists disagree: see Pashukanis). They think that the specific nature of law casts little light on their primary concerns. But one can hardly know that in advance; it depends on what the nature of law actually is.
According to Bentham and Austin, law is a phenomenon of large societies with a sovereign: a determinate person or group who have supreme and absolute de facto power -- they are obeyed by all or most others but do not themselves similarly obey anyone else. The laws in that society are a subset of the sovereign's commands: general orders that apply to classes of actions and people and that are backed up by threat of force or “sanction.” This imperatival theory is positivist, for it identifies the existence of legal systems with patterns of command and obedience that can be ascertained without considering whether the sovereign has a moral right to rule or whether his commands are meritorious. It has two other distinctive features. The theory is monistic: it represents all laws as having a single form, imposing obligations on their subjects, though not on the sovereign himself. The imperativalist acknowledges that ultimate legislative power may be self-limiting, or limited externally by what public opinion will tolerate, and also that legal systems contain provisions that are not imperatives (for example, permissions, definitions, and so on). But they regard these as part of the non-legal material that is necessary for, and part of, every legal system. (Austin is a bit more liberal on this point). The theory is also reductivist, for it maintains that the normative language used in describing and stating the law -- talk of authority, rights, obligations, and so on -- can all be analyzed without remainder in non-normative terms, ultimately as concatenations of statements about power and obedience.
Imperatival theories are now without influence in legal philosophy (but see Ladenson and Morison). What survives of their outlook is the idea that legal theory must ultimately be rooted in some account of the political system, an insight that came to be shared by all major positivists save Kelsen. Their particular conception of a society under a sovereign commander, however, is friendless (except among Foucauldians, who strangely take this relic as the ideal-type of what they call “juridical” power). It is clear that in complex societies there may be no one who has all the attributes of sovereignty, for ultimate authority may be divided among organs and may itself be limited by law. Moreover, even when “sovereignty” is not being used in its legal sense it is nonetheless a normative concept. A legislator is one who has authority to make laws, and not merely someone with great social power, and it is doubtful that “habits of obedience” is a candidate reduction for explaining authority. Obedience is a normative concept. To distinguish it from coincidental compliance we need something like the idea of subjects being oriented to, or guided by, the commands. Explicating this will carry us far from the power-based notions with which classical positivism hoped to work. The imperativalists' account of obligation is also subject to decisive objections (Hart, 1994, pp. 26-78; and Hacker). Treating all laws as commands conceals important differences in their social functions, in the ways they operate in practical reasoning, and in the sort of justifications to which they are liable. For instance, laws conferring the power to marry command nothing; they do not obligate people to marry, or even to marry according to the prescribed formalities. Nor is reductivism any more plausible here: we speak of legal obligations when there is no probability of sanctions being applied and when there is no provision for sanctions (as in the duty of the highest courts to apply the law). Moreover, we take the existence of legal obligations to be a reason for imposing sanctions, not merely a consequence of it.
Hans Kelsen retains the imperativalists' monism but abandons their reductivism. On his view, law is characterized by a basic form and basic norm. The form of every law is that of a conditional order, directed at the courts, to apply sanctions if a certain behavior (the “delict”) is performed. On this view, law is an indirect system of guidance: it does not tell subjects what to do; it tells officials what to do to its subjects under certain conditions. Thus, what we ordinarily regard as the legal duty not to steal is for Kelsen merely a logical correlate of the primary norm which stipulates a sanction for stealing (1945, p. 61). The objections to imperatival monism apply also to this more sophisticated version: the reduction misses important facts, such as the point of having a prohibition on theft. (The courts are not indifferent between, on the one hand, people not stealing and, on the other, stealing and suffering the sanctions.) But in one respect the conditional sanction theory is in worse shape than is imperativalism, for it has no principled way to fix on the delict as the duty-defining condition of the sanction -- that is but one of a large number of relevant antecedent conditions, including the legal capacity of the offender, the jurisdiction of the judge, the constitutionality of the offense, and so forth. Which among all these is the content of a legal duty?
Kelsen's most important contribution lies in his attack on reductivism and his doctrine of the “basic norm.” He maintains that law is normative and must understood as such. Might does not make right -- not even legal right -- so the philosophy of law must explain the fact that law is taken to impose obligations on its subjects. Moreover, law is a normative system: “Law is not, as it is sometimes said, a rule. It is a set of rules having the kind of unity we understand by a system” (1945, p. 3). For the imperativalists, the unity of a legal system consists in the fact that all its laws are commanded by one sovereign. For Kelsen, it consists in the fact that they are all links in one chain of authority. For example, a by-law is legally valid because it is created by a corporation lawfully exercising the powers conferred on it by the legislature, which confers those powers in a manner provided by the constitution, which was itself created in a way provided by an earlier constitution. But what about the very first constitution, historically speaking? Its authority, says Kelsen, is “presupposed.” The condition for interpreting any legal norm as binding is that the first constitution is validated by the following “basic norm:” “the original constitution is to be obeyed.” Now, the basic norm cannot be a legal norm -- we cannot fully explain the bindingness of law by reference to more law. Nor can it be a social fact, for Kelsen maintains that the reason for the validity of a norm must always be another norm -- no ought from is. It follows, then, that a legal system must consist of norms all the way down. It bottoms in a hypothetical, transcendental norm that is the condition of the intelligibility of any (and all) other norms as binding. To “presuppose” this basic norm is not to endorse it as good or just -- resupposition is a cognitive stance only -- but it is, Kelsen thinks, the necessary precondition for a non-reductivist account of law as a normative system.
There are many difficulties with this, not least of which is the fact that if we are willing to tolerate the basic norm as a solution it is not clear why we thought there was a problem in the first place. One cannot say both that the basic norm is the norm presupposing which validates all inferior norms and also that an inferior norm is part of the legal system only if it is connected by a chain of validity to the basic norm. We need a way into the circle. Moreover, it draws the boundaries of legal systems incorrectly. The Canadian Constitution of 1982 was lawfully created by an Act of the U.K. Parliament, and on that basis Canadian law and English law should be parts of a single legal system, rooted in one basic norm: ‘The (first) U.K. constitution is to be obeyed.’ Yet no English law is binding in Canada, and a purported repeal of the Constitution Act by the U.K. would be without legal effect in Canada.
If law cannot ultimately be grounded in force, or in law, or in a presupposed norm, on what does its authority rest? The most influential solution is now H.L.A. Hart's. His solution resembles Kelsen's in its emphasis on the normative foundations of legal systems, but Hart rejects Kelsen's transcendentalist, Kantian view of authority in favour of an empirical, Weberian one. For Hart, the authority of law is social. The ultimate criterion of validity in a legal system is neither a legal norm nor a presupposed norm, but a social rule that exists only because it is actually practiced. Law ultimately rests on custom: customs about who shall have the authority to decide disputes, what they shall treat as binding reasons for decision, i.e. as sources of law, and how customs may be changed. Of these three “secondary rules,” as Hart calls them, the source-determining rule of recognition is most important, for it specifies the ultimate criteria of validity in the legal system. It exists only because it is practiced by officials, and it is not only the recognition rule (or rules) that best explains their practice, it is rule to which they actually appeal in arguments about what standards they are bound to apply. Hart's account is therefore conventionalist (see Marmor, and Coleman, 2001): ultimate legal rules are social norms, although they are neither the product of express agreement nor even conventions in the Schelling-Lewis sense (see Green 1999). Thus for Hart too the legal system is norms all the way down, but at its root is a social norm that has the kind of normative force that customs have. It is a regularity of behavior towards which officials take “the internal point of view:” they use it as a standard for guiding and evaluating their own and others' behavior, and this use is displayed in their conduct and speech, including the resort to various forms of social pressure to support the rule and the ready application of normative terms such as “duty” and “obligation” when invoking it.
It is an important feature of Hart's account that the rule of recognition is an official custom, and not a standard necessarily shared by the broader community. If the imperativalists' picture of the political system was pyramidal power, Hart's is more like Weber's rational bureaucracy. Law is normally a technical enterprise, characterized by a division of labour. Ordinary subjects' contribution to the existence of law may therefore amount to no more than passive compliance. Thus, Hart's necessary and sufficient conditions for the existence of a legal system are that “those rules of behavior which are valid according to the system's ultimate criteria of validity must be generally obeyed, and ... its rules of recognition specifying the criteria of legal validity and its rules of change and adjudication must be effectively accepted as common public standards of official behavior by its officials” (1994, p. 116). And this division of labour is not a normatively neutral fact about law; it is politically charged, for it sets up the possibility of law becoming remote from the life of a society, a hazard to which Hart is acutely alert (1994, p. 117; cf. Waldron).
Although Hart introduces the rule of recognition through a speculative anthropology of how it might emerge in response to certain deficiencies in a customary social order, he is not committed to the view that law is a cultural achievement. To the contrary, the idea that legal order is always a good thing, and that societies without it are deficient, is a familiar element of many anti-positivist views, beginning with Henry Maine's criticism of Austin on the ground that his theory would not apply to certain Indian villages. The objection embraces the error it seeks to avoid. It imperialistically assumes that it is always a bad thing to lack law, and then makes a dazzling inference from ought to is: if it is good to have law, then each society must have it, and the concept of law must be adjusted to show that it does. If one thinks that law is a many splendored thing, one will be tempted by a very wide concept of law, for it would seem improper to charge others with missing out. Positivism simply releases the harness. Law is a distinctive form of political order, not a moral achievement, and whether it is necessary or even useful depends entirely on its content and context. Societies without law may be perfectly adapted to their environments, missing nothing.
A positivist account of the existence and content of law, along any of the above lines, offers a theory of the validity of law in one of the two main senses of that term (see Harris, pp. 107-111). Kelsen says that validity is the specific mode of existence of a norm. An invalid marriage is not a special kind of marriage having the property of invalidity; it is not a marriage at all. In this sense a valid law is one that is systemically valid in the jurisdiction -- it is part of the legal system. This is the question that positivists answer by reference to social sources. It is distinct from the idea of validity as moral propriety, i.e. a sound justification for respecting the norm. For the positivist, this depends on its merits. One indication that these senses differ is that one may know that a society has a legal system, and know what its laws are, without having any idea whether they are morally justified. For example, one may know that the law of ancient Athens included the punishment of ostracism without knowing whether it was justified, because one does not know enough about its effects, about the social context, and so forth.
No legal positivist argues that the systemic validity of law establishes its moral validity, i.e. that it should be obeyed by subjects or applied by judges. Even Hobbes, to whom this view is sometimes ascribed, required that law actually be able to keep the peace, failing which we owe it nothing. Bentham and Austin, as utilitarians, hold that such questions always turn on the consequences and both acknowledge that disobedience is therefore sometimes fully justified. Kelsen insists that “The science of law does not prescribe that one ought to obey the commands of the creator of the constitution” (1967, p. 204). Hart thinks that there is only a prima facie duty to obey, grounded in and thus limited by fairness -- so there is no obligation to unfair or pointless laws (Hart 1955). Raz goes further still, arguing that there isn't even a prima facie duty to obey the law, not even in a just state (Raz 1979, pp. 233-49). The peculiar accusation that positivists believe the law is always to be obeyed is without foundation. Hart's own view is that an overweening deference to law consorts more easily with theories that imbue it with moral ideals, permitting “an enormous overvaluation of the importance of the bare fact that a rule may be said to be a valid rule of law, as if this, once declared, was conclusive of the final moral question: ‘Ought this law to be obeyed?” (Hart 1958, p. 75).
3. Moral Principles and the Boundaries of Law
The most influential criticisms of legal positivism all flow, in one way or another, from the suspicion that it fails to give morality its due. A theory that insists on the facticity of law seems to contribute little to our understanding that law has important functions in making human life go well, that the rule of law is a prized ideal, and that the language and practice of law is highly moralized. Accordingly, positivism's critics maintain that the most important features of law are not to be found in its source-based character, but in law's capacity to advance the common good, to secure human rights, or to govern with integrity. (It is a curious fact about anti-positivist theories that, while they all insist on the moral nature of law, without exception they take its moral nature to be something good. The idea that law might of its very nature be morally problematic does not seem to have occurred to them.)
It is beyond doubt that moral and political considerations bear on legal philosophy. As Finnis says, the reasons we have for establishing, maintaining or reforming law include moral reasons, and these reasons therefore shape our legal concepts (p. 204). But which concepts? Once one concedes, as Finnis does, that the existence and content of law can be identified without recourse to moral argument, and that “human law is artefact and artifice; and not a conclusion from moral premises,” (p. 205) the Thomistic apparatus he tries to resuscitate is largely irrelevant to the truth of legal positivism. This vitiates also Lon Fuller's criticisms of Hart (Fuller, 1958 and 1969). Apart from some confused claims about adjudication, Fuller has two main points. First, he thinks that it isn't enough for a legal system to rest on customary social rules, since law could not guide behavior without also being at least minimally clear, consistent, public, prospective and so on -- that is, without exhibiting to some degree those virtues collectively called “the rule of law.” It suffices to note that this is perfectly consistent with law being source-based. Even if moral properties were identical with, or supervened upon, these rule-of-law properties, they do so in virtue of their rule-like character, and not their law-like character. Whatever virtues inhere in or follow from clear, consistent, prospective, and open practices can be found not only in law but in all other social practices with those features, including custom and positive morality. And these virtues are minor: there is little to be said in favour of a clear, consistent, prospective, public and impartially administered system of racial segregation, for example. Fuller's second worry is that if law is a matter of fact, then we are without an explanation of the duty to obey. He gloatingly asks how “an amoral datum called law could have the peculiar quality of creating an obligation to obey it” (Fuller, 1958). One possibility he neglects is that it doesn't. The fact that law claims to obligate is, of course, a different matter and is susceptible to other explanations (Green 2001). But even if Fuller is right in his unargued assumption, the “peculiar quality” whose existence he doubts is a familiar feature of many moral practices. Compare promises: whether a society has a practice of promising, and what someone has promised to do, are matters of social fact. Yet promising creates moral obligations of performance or compensation. An “amoral datum” may indeed figure, together with other premises, in a sound argument to moral conclusions.
While Finnis and Fuller's views are thus compatible with the positivist thesis, the same cannot be said of Ronald Dworkin's important works (Dworkin 1978 and 1986). Positivism's most significant critic rejects the theory on every conceivable level. He denies that there can be any general theory of the existence and content of law; he denies that local theories of particular legal systems can identify law without recourse to its merits, and he rejects the whole institutional focus of positivism. A theory of law is for Dworkin a theory of how cases ought to be decided and it begins, not with an account of political organization, but with an abstract ideal regulating the conditions under which governments may use coercive force over their subjects. Force must only be deployed, he claims, in accordance with principles laid down in advance. A society has a legal system only when, and to the extent that, it honors this ideal, and its law is the set of all considerations that the courts of such a society would be morally justified in applying, whether or not those considerations are determined by any source. To identify the law of a given society we must engage in moral and political argument, for the law is whatever requirements are consistent with an interpretation of its legal practices (subject to a threshold condition of fit) that shows them to be best justified in light of the animating ideal. In addition to those philosophical considerations, Dworkin invokes two features of the phenomenology of judging, as he sees it. He finds deep controversy among lawyers and judges about how important cases should be decided, and he finds diversity in the considerations that they hold relevant to deciding them. The controversy suggests to him that law cannot rest on an official consensus, and the diversity suggests that there is no single social rule that validates all relevant reasons, moral and non-moral, for judicial decisions.
Dworkin's rich and complex arguments have attracted various lines of reply from positivists. One response denies the relevance of the phenomenological claims. Controversy is a matter of degree, and a consensus-defeating amount of it is not proved by the existence of adversarial argument in the high courts, or indeed in any courts. As important is the broad range of settled law that gives rise to few doubts and which guides social life outside the courtroom. As for the diversity argument, so far from being a refutation of positivism, this is an entailment of it. Positivism identifies law, not with all valid reasons for decision, but only with the source-based subset of them. It is no part of the positivist claim that the rule of recognition tells us how to decide cases, or even tells us all the relevant reasons for decision. Positivists accept that moral, political or economic considerations are properly operative in some legal decisions, just as linguistic or logical ones are. Modus ponens holds in court as much as outside, but not because it was enacted by the legislature or decided by the judges, and the fact that there is no social rule that validates both modus ponens and also the Municipalities Act is true but irrelevant. The authority of principles of logic (or morality) is not something to be explained by legal philosophy; the authority of acts of Parliament must be; and accounting for the difference is a central task of the philosophy of law.
Other positivists respond differently to Dworkin's phenomenological points, accepting their relevance but modifying the theory to accommodate them. So-called “inclusive positivists” (e.g., Waluchow (to whom the term is due), Coleman, Soper and Lyons) argue that the merit-based considerations may indeed be part of the law, if they are explicitly or implicitly made so by source-based considerations. For example, Canada's constitution explicitly authorizes for breach of Charter rights, “such remedy as the court considers appropriate and just in the circumstances.” In determining which remedies might be legally valid, judges are thus expressly told to take into account their morality. And judges may develop a settled practice of doing this whether or not it is required by any enactment; it may become customary practice in certain types of cases. Reference to moral principles may also be implicit in the web of judge-made law, for instance in the common law principle that no one should profit from his own wrongdoing. Such moral considerations, inclusivists claim, are part of the law because the sources make it so, and thus Dworkin is right that the existence and content of law turns on its merits, and wrong only in his explanation of this fact. Legal validity depends on morality, not because of the interpretative consequences of some ideal about how the government may use force, but because that is one of the things that may be customarily recognized as an ultimate determinant of legal validity. It is the sources that make the merits relevant.
To understand and assess this response, some preliminary clarifications are needed. First, it is not plausible to hold that the merits are relevant to a judicial decision only when the sources make it so. It would be odd to think that justice is a reason for decision only because some source directs an official to decide justly. It is of the nature of justice that it properly bears on certain controversies. In legal decisions, especially important ones, moral and political considerations are present of their own authority; they do not need sources to propel them into action. On the contrary, we expect to see a sourceÑa statute, a decision, or a conventionÑwhen judges are constrained not to appeal directly to the merits. Second, the fact that there is moral language in judicial decisions does not establish the presence of moral tests for law, for sources come in various guises. What sounds like moral reasoning in the courts is sometimes really source-based reasoning. For example, when the Supreme Court of Canada says that a publication is criminally “obscene” only if it is harmful, it is not applying J.S. Mill's harm principle, for what that court means by “harmful” is that it is regarded by the community as degrading or intolerable. Those are source-based matters, not moral ones. This is just one of many appeals to positive morality, i.e. to the moral customs actually practiced by a given society, and no one denies that positive morality may be a source of law. Moreover, it is important to remember that law is dynamic and that even a decision that does apply morality itself becomes a source of law, in the first instance for the parties and possibly for others as well. Over time, by the doctrine of precedent where it exists or through the gradual emergence of an interpretative convention where it does not, this gives a factual edge to normative terms. Thus, if a court decides that money damages are in some instances not a “just remedy” then this fact will join with others in fixing what “justice” means for these purposes. This process may ultimately detach legal concepts from their moral analogs (thus, legal “murder” may require no intention to kill, legal “fault” no moral blameworthiness, an “equitable” remedy may be manifestly unfair, etc.)
Bearing in mind these complications, however, there undeniably remains a great deal of moral reasoning in adjudication. Courts are often called on to decide what would reasonable, fair, just, cruel, etc. by explicit or implicit requirement of statute or common law, or because this is the only proper or intelligible way to decide. Hart sees this as happening pre-eminently in hard cases in which, owing to the indeterminacy of legal rules or conflicts among them, judges are left with the discretion to make new law. “Discretion,” however, may be a potentially misleading term here. First, discretionary judgments are not arbitrary: they are guided by merit-based considerations, and they may also be guided by law even though not fully determined by it -- judges may be empowered to make certain decisions and yet under a legal duty to make them in a particular way, say, in conformity with the spirit of preexisting law or with certain moral principles (Raz 1994, pp. 238-53). Second, Hart's account might wrongly be taken to suggest that there are fundamentally two kinds of cases, easy ones and hard ones, distinguished by the sorts of reasoning appropriate to each. A more perspicuous way of putting it would be to say that there are two kinds of reasons that are operative in every case: source-based reasons and non-source-based reasons. Law application and law creation are continuous activities for, as Kelsen correctly argued, every legal decision is partly determined by law and partly underdetermined: “The higher norm cannot bind in every direction the act by which it is applied. There must always be more or less room for discretion, so that the higher norm in relation to the lower one can only have the character of a frame to be filled by this act” (1967, p. 349). This is a general truth about norms. There are infinitely many ways of complying with a command to “close the door” (quickly or slowly, with one's right hand or left, etc.) Thus, even an “easy case” will contain discretionary elements. Sometimes such residual discretion is of little importance; sometimes it is central; and a shift from marginal to major can happen in a flash with changes in social or technological circumstances. That is one of the reasons for rejecting a strict doctrine of separation of powers -- Austin called it a “childish fiction” -- according to which judges only apply and never make the law, and with it any literal interpretation of Dworkin's ideal that coercion be deployed only according to principles laid down in advance.
It has to be said, however, that Hart himself does not consistently view legal references to morality as marking a zone of discretion. In a passing remark in the first edition of The Concept of Law, he writes, “In some legal systems, as in the United States, the ultimate criteria of legal validity explicitly incorporate principles of justice or substantive moral values …” (1994, p. 204). This thought sits uneasily with other doctrines of importance to his theory. For Hart also says that when judges exercise moral judgment in the penumbra of legal rules to suppose that their results were already part of existing law is “in effect, an invitation to revise our concept of what a legal rule is …” (1958, p. 72). The concept of a legal rule, that is, does not include all correctly reasoned elaborations or determinations of that rule. Later, however, Hart comes to see his remark about the U.S. constitution as foreshadowing inclusive positivism (“soft positivism,” as he calls it). Hart's reasons for this shift are obscure (Green 1996). He remained clear about how we should understand ordinary statutory interpretation, for instance, where the legislature has directed that an applicant should have a “reasonable time” or that a regulator may permit only a “fair price:” these grant a bounded discretion to decide the cases on their merits. Why then does Hart -- and even more insistently, Waluchow and Coleman -- come to regard constitutional adjudication differently? Is there any reason to think that a constitution permitting only a “just remedy” requires a different analysis than a statute permitting only a “fair rate?”
One might hazard the following guess. Some of these philosophers think that constitutional law expresses the ultimate criteria of legal validity: because unjust remedies are constitutionally invalid and void ab initio, legally speaking they never existed (Waluchow). That being so, morality sometimes determines the existence or content of law. If this is the underlying intuition, it is misleading, for the rule of recognition is not to be found in constitutions. The rule of recognition is the ultimate criterion (or set of criteria) of legal validity. If one knows what the constitution of a country is, one knows some of its law; but one may know what the rule of recognition is without knowing any of its laws. You may know that acts of the Bundestag are a source of law in Germany but not be able to name or interpret a single one of them. And constitutional law is itself subject to the ultimate criteria of systemic validity. Whether a statute, decision or convention is part of a country's constitution can only be determined by applying the rule of recognition. The provisions of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. constitution, for example, are not the rule of recognition in the U.S., for there is an intra-systemic answer to the question why that Amendment is valid law. The U.S. constitution, like that of all other countries, is law only because it was created in ways provided by law (through amendment or court decision) or in ways that came to be accepted as creating law (by constitutional convention and custom). Constitutional cases thus raise no philosophical issue not already present in ordinary statutory interpretation, where inclusive positivists seem content with the theory of judicial discretion. It is, of course, open to them to adopt a unified view and treat every explicit or implicit legal reference to morality -- in cases, statutes, constitutions, and customs -- as establishing moral tests for the existence of law. (Although at that point it is unclear how their view would differ from Dworkin's.) So we should consider the wider question: why not regard as law everything referred to by law?
Exclusive positivists offer three main arguments for stopping at social sources. The first and most important is that it captures and systematizes distinctions we regularly make and that we have good reason to continue to make. We assign blame and responsibility differently when we think that a bad decision was mandated by the sources than we do when we think that it flowed from a judge's exercise of moral or political judgement. When considering who should be appointed to the judiciary, we are concerned not only with their acumen as jurists, but also with their morality and politics--and we take different things as evidence of these traits. These are deeply entrenched distinctions, and there is no reason to abandon them.
The second reason for stopping at sources is that this is demonstrably consistent with key features of law's role in practical reasoning. The most important argument to this conclusion is due to Raz (1994, pp. 210-37). For a related argument see Shapiro. For criticism see Perry, Waluchow, Coleman 2001, and Himma.) Although law does not necessarily have legitimate authority, it lays claim to it, and can intelligibly do so only if it is the kind of thing that could have legitimate authority. It may fail, therefore, in certain ways only, for example, by being unjust, pointless, or ineffective. But law cannot fail to be a candidate authority, for it is constituted in that role by our political practices. According to Raz, practical authorities mediate between subjects and the ultimate reasons for which they should act. Authorities' directives should be based on such reasons, and they are justified only when compliance with the directives makes it more likely that people will comply with the underlying reasons that apply to them. But they can do that only if is possible to know what the directives require independent of appeal to those underlying reasons. Consider an example. Suppose we agree to resolve a dispute by consensus, but that after much discussion find ourselves in disagreement about whether some point is in fact part of the consensus view. It will do nothing to say that we should adopt it if it is indeed properly part of the consensus. On the other hand, we could agree to adopt it if it were endorsed by a majority vote, for we could determine the outcome of a vote without appeal to our ideas about what the consensus should be. Social sources can play this mediating role between persons and ultimate reasons, and because the nature of law is partly determined by its role in giving practical guidance, there is a theoretical reason for stopping at source-based considerations.
The third argument challenges an underlying idea of inclusive positivism, what we might call the Midas Principle. “Just as everything King Midas touched turned into gold, everything to which law refers becomes law … ” (Kelsen 1967, p. 161). Kelsen thought that it followed from this principle that “It is … possible for the legal order, by obliging the law-creating organs to respect or apply certain moral norms or political principles or opinions of experts to transform these norms, principles, or opinions into legal norms, and thus into sources of law” (Kelsen 1945, p. 132). (Though he regarded this transformation as effected by a sort of tacit legislation.) If sound, the Midas Principle holds in general and not only with respect to morality, as Kelsen makes clear. Suppose then that the Income Tax Act penalizes overdue accounts at 8% per annum. In a relevant case, an official can determine the content of a legal obligation only by calculating compound interest. Does this make mathematics part of the law? A contrary indication is that it is not subject to the rules of change in a legal system -- neither courts nor legislators can repeal or amend the law of commutativity. The same holds of other social norms, including the norms of foreign legal systems. A conflict-of-laws rule may direct a Canadian judge to apply Mexican law in a Canadian case. The conflicts rule is obviously part of the Canadian legal system. But the rule of Mexican law is not, for although Canadian officials can decide whether or not to apply it, they can neither change it nor repeal it, and best explanation for its existence and content makes no reference to Canadian society or its political system. In like manner, moral standards, logic, mathematics, principles of statistical inference, or English grammar, though all properly applied in cases, are not themselves the law, for legal organs have applicative but not creative power over them. The inclusivist thesis is actually groping towards an important, but different, truth. Law is an open normative system (Raz 1975 , pp. 152-54): it adopts and enforces many other standards, including moral norms and the rules of social groups. There is no warrant for adopting the Midas Principle to explain how or why it does this.
4. Law and Its Merits
It may clarify the philosophical stakes in legal positivism by comparing it to a number of other theses with which it is sometimes wrongly identified, and not only by its opponents. (See also Hart, 1958, Fuesser, and Schauer.)
4.1 The Fallibility Thesis
Law does not necessarily satisfy the conditions by which it is appropriately assessed (Lyons 1984, p. 63, Hart 1994, pp. 185-6). Law should be just, but it may not be; it should promote the common good, but sometimes it doesn't; it should protect moral rights, but it may fail miserably. This we may call the moral fallibility thesis. The thesis is correct, but it is not the exclusive property of positivism. Aquinas accepts it, Fuller accepts it, Finnis accepts it, and Dworkin accepts it. Only a crude misunderstanding of ideas like Aquinas's claim that “an unjust law seems to be no law at all” might suggest the contrary. Law may have an essentially moral character and yet be morally deficient. Even if every law always does one kind of justice (formal justice; justice according to law), this does not entail that it does every kind of justice. Even if every law has a prima facie claim to be applied or obeyed, it does not follow that it has such a claim all things considered. The gap between these partial and conclusive judgments is all a natural law theory needs to accommodate the fallibility thesis. It is sometimes said that positivism gives a more secure grasp on the fallibility of law, for once we see that it is a social construction we will be less likely to accord it inappropriate deference and better prepared to engage in a clear-headed moral appraisal of the law. This claim has appealed to several positivists, including Bentham and Hart. But while this might follow from the truth of positivism, it cannot provide an argument for it. If law has an essentially moral character then it is obfuscating, not clarifying, to describe it as a source-based structure of governance.
4.2 The Separability Thesis
At one point, Hart identifies legal positivism with “the simple contention that it is no sense a necessary truth that laws reproduce or satisfy certain demands of morality, though in fact they have often done so” (1994, pp. 185-86). Many other philosophers, encouraged also by the title of Hart's famous essay, “Positivism and the Separation of Law and Morals,” (1958) treat the theory as the denial that there is a necessary connection between law and morality -- they must be in some sense “separable” even if not in fact separate (Coleman, 1982). The separability thesis is generally construed so as to tolerate any contingent connection between morality and law, provided only that it is conceivable that the connection might fail. Thus, the separability thesis is consistent with all of the following: (i) moral principles are part of the law; (ii) law is usually, or even always in fact, valuable; (iii) the best explanation for the content of a society's laws includes reference to the moral ideals current in that society; and (iv) a legal system cannot survive unless it is seen to be, and thus in some measure actually is, just. All four claims are counted by the separability thesis as contingent connections only; they do not hold of all possible legal systems -- they probably don't even hold of all historical legal systems. As merely contingent truths, it is imagined that they do not affect the concept of law itself. (This is a defective view of concept-formation, but we may ignore that for these purposes.) If we think of the positivist thesis this way, we might interpret the difference between exclusive and inclusive positivism in terms of the scope of the modal operator:
(EP) It is necessarily the case that there is no connection between law and morality.
(IP) It is not necessarily the case that there is a connection between law and morality.
In reality, however, legal positivism is not to be identified with either thesis; both are false. There are many necessary “connections,” trivial and non-trivial, between law and morality. As John Gardner notes, legal positivism takes a position on only one of them; it rejects any dependence of the existence of law on its merits (Gardner 2001). And with respect to this dependency relation, legal positivists are concerned with much more than the relationship between law and morality, for in the only sense in which they insist on a separation of law and morals they must insist also--and for the same reasons--on a separation of law and economics.
To exclude this dependency relation, however, is to leave intact many other interesting possibilities. For instance, it is possible that moral value derives from the sheer existence of law (Raz 1975 , 165-70) If Hobbes is right, any order is better than chaos and in some circumstances order may be achievable only through positive law. Or perhaps in a Hegelian way every existing legal system expresses deliberate governance in a world otherwise dominated by chance; law is the spirit of the community come to self-consciousness. Notice that these claims are consistent with the fallibility thesis, for they do not deny that these supposedly good things might also bring evils, such as too much order or the will to power. Perhaps such derivative connections between law and morality are thought innocuous on the ground that they show more about human nature than they do about the nature of law. The same cannot be said of the following necessary connections between law and morality, each of which goes right to the heart of our concept of law:
(1) Necessarily, law deals with moral matters.
Kelsen writes, “Just as natural and positive law govern the same subject-matter, and relate, therefore, to the same norm-object, namely the mutual relationships of men -- so both also have in common the universal form of this governance, namely obligation.” (Kelsen 1928, p. 34) This is a matter of the content of all legal systems. Where there is law there is also morality, and they regulate the same matters by analogous techniques. Of course to say that law deals with morality's subject matter is not to say that it does so well, and to say that all legal systems create obligations is not to endorse the duties so created. This is broader than Hart's “minimum content” thesis according to which there are basic rules governing violence, property, fidelity, and kinship that any legal system must encompass if it aims at the survival of social creatures like ourselves (Hart 1994, pp. 193-200). Hart regards this as a matter of “natural necessity” and in that measure is willing to qualify his endorsement of the separability thesis. But even a society that prefers national glory or the worship of gods to survival will charge its legal system with the same tasks its morality pursues, so the necessary content of law is not dependent, as Hart thinks it is, on assuming certain facts about human nature and certain aims of social existence. He fails to notice that if human nature and life were different, then morality would be too and if law had any role in that society, it would inevitably deal with morality's subject matter. Unlike the rules of a health club, law has broad scope and reaches to the most important things in any society, whatever they may be. Indeed, our most urgent political worries about law and its claims flow from just this capacity to regulate our most vital interests, and law's wide reach must figure in any argument about its legitimacy and its claim to obedience.
(2) Necessarily, law makes moral claims on its subjects.
The law tells us what we must do, not merely what it would be virtuous or advantageous to do, and it requires us to act without regard to our individual self-interest but in the interests of other individuals, or in the public interest more generally (except when law itself permits otherwise). That is to say, law purports to obligate us. But to make categorical demands that people should act in the interests of others is to make moral demands on them. These demands may be misguided or unjustified for law is fallible; they may be made in a spirit that is cynical or half-hearted; but they must be the kind of thing that can be offered as, and possibly taken as, obligation-imposing requirements. For this reason neither a regime of “stark imperatives” (see Kramer, pp. 83-9) nor a price system would be a system of law, for neither could even lay claim to obligate its subjects. As with many other social institutions, what law, though its officials, claims determines its character independent of the truth or validity of those claims. Popes, for example, claim apostolic succession from St. Peter. The fact that they claim this partly determines what it is to be a Pope, even if it is a fiction, and even the Pope himself doubts its truth. The nature of law is similarly shaped by the self-image it adopts and projects to its subjects. To make moral demands on their compliance is to stake out a certain territory, to invite certain kinds of support and, possibly, opposition. It is precisely because law makes these claims that doctrines of legitimacy and political obligation take the shape and importance that they do.
(3) Necessarily, law is justice-apt.
In view of the normative function of law in creating and enforcing obligations and rights, it always makes sense to ask whether law is just, and where it is found deficient to demand reform. Legal systems are therefore the kind of thing that is apt for appraisal as just or unjust. This is a very significant feature of law. Not all human practices are justice-apt. It makes no sense to ask whether a certain fugue is just or to demand that it become so. The musical standards of fugal excellence are preeminently internal -- a good fugue is a good example of its genre; it should be melodic, interesting, inventive etc. -- and the further we get from these internal standards the less secure evaluative judgments about it become. While some formalists flirt with similar ideas about law, this is in fact inconsistent with law's place amongst human practices. Even if law has internal standards of merit -- virtues uniquely its own that inhere in its law-like character -- these cannot preclude or displace its assessment on independent criteria of justice. A fugue may be at its best when it has all the virtues of fugacity; but law is not best when it excels in legality; law must also be just. A society may therefore suffer not only from too little of the rule of law, but also from too much of it. This does not presuppose that justice is the only, or even the first, virtue of a legal system. It means that our concern for its justice as one of its virtues cannot be sidelined by any claim of the sort that law's purpose is to be law, to its most excellent degree. Law stands continuously exposed to demands for justification, and that too shapes its nature and role in our lives and culture.
These three theses establish connections between law and morality that are both necessary and highly significant. Each of them is consistent with the positivist thesis that the existence and content of law depends on social facts, not on its merits. Each of them contributes to an understanding of the nature of law. The familiar idea that legal positivism insists on the separability of law and morality is therefore significantly mistaken.
4.3 The Neutrality Thesis
The necessary content thesis and the justice-aptitude thesis together establish that law is not value-neutral. Although some lawyers regard this idea as a revelation (and others as provocation) it is in fact banal. The thought that law could be value neutral does not even rise to falsity -- it is simply incoherent. Law is a normative system, promoting certain values and repressing others. Law is not neutral between victim and murderer or between owner and thief. When people complain of the law's lack of neutrality, they are in fact voicing very different aspirations, such as the demand that it be fair, just, impartial, and so forth. A condition of law's achieving any of these ideals is that it is not neutral in either its aims or its effects.
Positivism is however sometimes more credibly associated with the idea that legal philosophy is or should be value-neutral. Kelsen, for example, says, “the function of the science of law is not the evaluation of its subject, but its value-free description” (1967, p. 68) and Hart at one point described his work as “descriptive sociology” (1994, p. v). Since it is well known that there are convincing arguments for the ineliminability of values in the social sciences, those who have taken on board Quinian holisms, Kuhnian paradigms, or Foucauldian espistemes, may suppose that positivism should be rejected a priori, as promising something that no theory can deliver.
There are complex questions here, but some advance may be made by noticing that Kelsen's alternatives are a false dichotomy. Legal positivism is indeed not an “evaluation of its subject”, i.e., an evaluation of the law. And to say that the existence of law depends on social facts does not commit one to thinking that it is a good thing that this is so. (Nor does it preclude it: see MacCormick and Campbell) Thus far Kelsen is on secure ground. But it does not follow that legal philosophy therefore offers a “value-free description” of its subject. There can be no such thing. Whatever the relation between facts and values, there is no doubt about the relationship between descriptions and values. Every description is value-laden. It selects and systematizes only a subset of the infinite number of facts about its subject. To describe law as resting on customary social rules is to omit many other truths about it including, for example, truths about its connection to the demand for paper or silk. Our warrant for doing this must rest on the view that the former facts are more important than the latter. In this way, all descriptions express choices about what is salient or significant, and these in turn cannot be understood without reference to values. So legal philosophy, even if not directly an evaluation of its subject is nonetheless “indirectly evaluative” (Dickson, 2001). Moreover, “law” itself is an anthropocentric subject, dependent not merely on our sensory embodiment but also, as its necessary connections to morality show, on our moral sense and capacities. Legal kinds such as courts, decisions, and rules will not appear in a purely physical description of the universe and may not even appear in every social description. (This may limit the prospects for a “naturalized” jurisprudence; though for a spirited defense of the contrary view, see Leiter)
It may seem, however, that legal positivism at least requires a stand on the so-called “fact-value” problem. There is no doubt that certain positivists, especially Kelsen, believe this to be so. In reality, positivism may cohabit with a range of views here -- value statements may be entailed by factual statements; values may supervene on facts; values may be kind of fact. Legal positivism requires only that it be in virtue of its facticity rather than its meritoriousness that something is law, and that we can describe that facticity without assessing its merits. In this regard, it is important to bear in mind that not every kind of evaluative statement would count among the merits of a given rule; its merits are only those values that could bear on its justification.
Evaluative argument is, of course, central to the philosophy of law more generally. No legal philosopher can be only a legal positivist. A complete theory of law requires also an account of what kinds of things could possibly count as merits of law (must law be efficient or elegant as well as just?); of what role law should play in adjudication (should valid law always be applied?); of what claim law has on our obedience (is there a duty to obey?); and also of the pivotal questions of what laws we should have and whether we should have law at all. Legal positivism does not aspire to answer these questions, though its claim that the existence and content of law depends only on social facts does give them shape.
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I thank Brian Leiter and Liam Murphy for helpful discussion.
Legal positivism is a philosophy of law that emphasizes the conventional nature of law—that it is socially constructed. According to legal positivism, law is synonymous with positive norms, that is, norms made by the legislator or considered as common law or case law. Formal criteria of law’s origin, law enforcement and legal effectiveness are all sufficient for social norms to be considered law. Legal positivism does not base law on divine commandments, reason, or human rights. As an historical matter, positivism arose in opposition to classical natural law theory, according to which there are necessary moral constraints on the content of law.
Legal positivism does not imply an ethical justification for the content of the law, nor a decision for or against the obedience to law. Positivists do not judge laws by questions of justice or humanity, but merely by the ways in which the laws have been created. This includes the view that judges make new law in deciding cases not falling clearly under a legal rule. Practicing, deciding or tolerating certain practices of law can each be considered a way of creating law.
Within legal doctrine, legal positivism would be opposed to sociological jurisprudence and hermeneutics of law, which study the concrete prevailing circumstances of statutoryinterpretationin society.
The word “positivism” was probably first used to draw attention to the idea that law is “positive” or “posited,” as opposed to being “natural” in the sense of being derived from natural law or morality.
Table of Contents
- The Pedigree Thesis
- The Separability Thesis
- Inclusive vs. Exclusive Positivism
- The Discretion Thesis
- Classic Criticisms of Positivism
- Fuller's Internal Morality of Law
- Positivism and Legal Principles
- The Semantic Sting
- References and Further Reading
1. The Pedigree Thesis
The pedigree thesis asserts that legal validity is a function of certain social facts. Borrowing heavily from Jeremy Bentham, John Austin argues that the principal distinguishing feature of a legal system is the presence of a sovereign who is habitually obeyed by most people in the society, but not in the habit of obeying any determinate human superior (Austin 1995, p. 166). On Austin's view, a rule R is legally valid (that is, is a law) in a society S if and only if R is commanded by the sovereign in S and is backed up with the threat of a sanction. The severity of the threatened sanction is irrelevant; any general sovereign imperative supported by a threat of even the smallest harm is a law.
Austin's command theory of law is vulnerable to a number of criticisms. One problem is that there appears to be no identifiable sovereign in democratic societies. In the United States, for example, the ultimate political power seems to belong to the people, who elect lawmakers to represent their interests. Elected lawmakers have the power to coerce behavior but are regarded as servants of the people and not as repositories of sovereign power. The voting population, on the other hand, seems to be the repository of ultimate political authority yet lacks the immediate power to coerce behavior. Thus, in democracies like that of the United States, the ultimate political authority and the power to coerce behavior seem to reside in different entities.
A second problem has to do with Austin's view that the sovereign lawmaking authority is incapable of legal limitation. On Austin's view, a sovereign cannot be legally constrained because no person (or body of persons) can coerce herself (or itself). Since constitutional provisions limit the authority of the legislative body to make laws, Austin is forced to argue that what we refer to as constitutional law is really not law at all; rather, it is principally a matter of "positive morality" (Austin 1977, p. 107).
Austin's view is difficult to reconcile with constitutional law in the United States. Courts regard the procedural and substantive provisions of the constitution as constraints on legal validity. The Supreme Court has held, for example, that "an unconstitutional act is not a law; it confers no rights; it imposes no duties; it is, in legal contemplation, as inoperative as though it had never been passed." (Norton v. Shelby County, 118 U.S. 425 (1886)). Moreover, these constraints purport to be legal constraints: the Supremacy Clause of Article VI of the Constitution states that "[t]his Constitution ... shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby."
The most influential criticisms of Austin's version of the pedigree thesis, however, owe to H. L. A. Hart's seminal work, The Concept of Law. Hart points out that Austin's theory provides, at best, a partial account of legal validity because it focuses on one kind of rule, namely that which requires citizens "to do or abstain from certain actions, whether they wish to or not" (Hart 1994, p. 81). While every legal system must contain so-called primary rules that regulate citizen behavior, Hart believes a system consisting entirely of the kind of liberty restrictions found in the criminal law is, at best, a rudimentary or primitive legal system.
On Hart's view, Austin's emphasis on coercive force leads him to overlook the presence of a second kind of primary rule that confers upon citizens the power to create, modify, and extinguish rights and obligations in other persons. As Hart points out, the rules governing the creation of contracts and wills cannot plausibly be characterized as restrictions on freedom that are backed by the threat of a sanction. These rules empower persons to structure their legal relations within the coercive framework of the law-a feature that Hart correctly regards as one of "law's greatest contributions to social life." The operation of power-conferring primary rules, according to Hart, indicates the presence of a more sophisticated system for regulating behavior.
But what ultimately distinguishes societies with full-blown systems of law from those with only rudimentary or primitive forms of law is that the former have, in addition to first-order primary rules, secondary meta-rules that have as their subject matter the primary rules themselves:
[Secondary rules] may all be said to be on a different level from the primary rules, for they are all about such rules; in the sense that while primary rules are concerned with the actions that individuals must or must not do, these secondary rules are all concerned with the primary rules themselves. They specify the way in which the primary rules may be conclusively ascertained, introduced, eliminated, varied, and the fact of their violation conclusively determined (Hart 1994, p. 92).
Hart distinguishes three types of secondary rules that mark the transition from primitive forms of law to full-blown legal systems: (1) the rule of recognition, which "specif[ies] some feature or features possession of which by a suggested rule is taken as a conclusive affirmative indication that it is a rule of the group to be supported by the social pressure it exerts" (Hart 1994, p. 92); (2) the rule of change, which enables a society to add, remove, and modify valid rules; and (3) the rule of adjudication, which provides a mechanism for determining whether a valid rule has been violated. On Hart's view, then, every society with a full-blown legal system necessarily has a rule of recognition that articulates criteria for legal validity that include provisions for making, changing and adjudicating law. Law is, to use Hart's famous phrase, "the union of primary and secondary rules" (Hart 1994, p. 107). Austin theory fails, on Hart's view, because it fails to acknowledge the importance of secondary rules in manufacturing legal validity.
Hart also finds fault with Austin's view that legal obligation is essentially coercive. According to Hart, there is no difference between the Austinian sovereign who governs by coercing behavior and the gunman who orders someone to hand over her money. In both cases, the subject can plausibly be characterized as being "obliged" to comply with the commands, but not as being "duty-bound" or "obligated" to do so (Hart 1994, p. 80). On Hart's view, the application of coercive force alone can never give rise to an obligation-legal or otherwise.
Legal rules are obligatory, according to Hart, because people accept them as standards that justify criticism and, in extreme cases, punishment of deviations:
What is necessary is that there should be a critical reflective attitude to certain patterns of behavior as a common standard, and that this should display itself in criticism (including self-criticism), demands for conformity, and in acknowledgements that such criticism and demands are justified, all of which find their characteristic expression in the normative terminology of 'ought', 'must', and 'should', and 'right' and 'wrong' (Hart 1994, p. 56).
The subject who reflectively accepts the rule as providing a standard that justifies criticism of deviations is said to take "the internal point of view" towards it.
On Hart's view, it would be too much to require that the bulk of the population accept the rule of recognition as the ultimate criteria for legal validity: "the reality of the situation is that a great proportion of ordinary citizens-perhaps a majority-have no general conception of the legal structure or its criteria of validity" (Hart 1994, p. 111). Instead, Hart argues that what is necessary to the existence of a legal system is that the majority of officials take the internal point of view towards the rule of recognition and its criteria of validity. All that is required of citizens is that they generally obey the primary rules that are legally valid according to the rule of recognition.
Thus, on Hart's view, there are two minimum conditions sufficient and necessary for the existence of a legal system: "On the one hand those rules of behavior which are valid according to the system's ultimate criteria of validity must be generally obeyed, and, on the other hand, its rules of recognition specifying the criteria of legal validity and its rules of change and adjudication must be effectively accepted as common public standards of official behavior by its officials" (Hart 1994, p. 113).
Hart's view is vulnerable to the same criticism that he levels against Austin. Hart rejects Austin's view because the institutional application of coercive force can no more give rise to an obligation than can the application of coercive force by a gunman. But the situation is no different if the gunman takes the internal point of view towards his authority to make such a threat. Despite the gunman's belief that he is entitled to make the threat, the victim is obliged, but not obligated, to comply with the gunman's orders. The gunman's behavior is no less coercive because he believes he is entitled to make the threat.
Similarly, in the minimal legal system, only the officials of the legal system take the internal point of view towards the rule of recognition that endows them with authority to make, execute, adjudicate, and enforce the rules. The mere presence of a belief in the officials that they are entitled to make law cannot give rise to an obligation in other people to comply with their enactments any more than the presence of a belief on the part of a gunman that he is entitled to issue orders gives rise to an obligation in the victim to comply with those orders. Hart's minimal legal system is no less coercive than Austin's legal system.
2. The Separability Thesis
The second thesis comprising the foundation of legal positivism is the separability thesis. In its most general form, the separability thesis asserts that law and morality are conceptually distinct. This abstract formulation can be interpreted in a number of ways. For example, Klaus Faber (1996) interprets it as making a meta-level claim that the definition of law must be entirely free of moral notions. This interpretation implies that any reference to moral considerations in defining the related notions of law, legal validity, and legal system is inconsistent with the separability thesis.
More commonly, the separability thesis is interpreted as making only an object-level claim about the existence conditions for legal validity. As H.L.A. Hart describes it, the separability thesis is no more than the "simple contention that it is in no sense a necessary truth that laws reproduce or satisfy certain demands of morality, though in fact they have often done so" (Hart 1994, pp. 181-82). Insofar as the object-level interpretation of the separability thesis denies it is a necessary truth that there are moral constraints on legal validity, it implies the existence of a possible legal system in which there are no moral constraints on legal validity.
a. Inclusive vs. Exclusive Positivism
Though all positivists agree there are possible legal systems without moral constraints on legal validity, there are conflicting views on whether there are possible legal systems with such constraints. According to inclusive positivism (also known as incorporationism and soft positivism), it is possible for a society's rule of recognition to incorporate moral constraints on the content of law. Prominent inclusive positivists include Jules Coleman and H.L.A. Hart, who maintains that "the rule of recognition may incorporate as criteria of legal validity conformity with moral principles or substantive values ... such as the Sixteenth or Nineteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution respecting the establishment of religion or abridgements of the right to vote" (Hart 1994, p. 250).
In contrast, exclusive positivism (also called hard positivism) denies that a legal system can incorporate moral constraints on legal validity. Exclusive positivists like Joseph Raz (1979, p. 47) subscribe to the source thesis, according to which the existence and content of law can always be determined by reference to its sources without recourse to moral argument. On this view, the sources of law include both the circumstances of its promulgation and relevant interpretative materials, such as court cases involving its application.
At first glance, exclusive positivism may seem difficult to reconcile with what appear to be moral criteria of legal validity in legal systems like that of the United States. For example, the Fourth Amendment provides that "[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated." Likewise, the First Amendment prohibits laws abridging the right of free speech. Taken at face value, these amendments seem to make moral standards part of the conditions for legal validity.
Exclusive positivists argue that such amendments can require judges to consider moral standards in certain circumstances, but cannot incorporate those standards into the law. When a judge makes reference to moral considerations in deciding a case, she necessarily creates new law on an issue-and this is so even when the law directs her to consider moral considerations, as the Bill of Rights does in certain circumstances. On this view, all law is settled law and questions of settled law can be resolved without recourse to moral arguments:
The law on a question is settled when legally binding sources provide its solution. In such cases judges are typically said to apply the law, and since it is source-based, its application involves technical, legal skills in reasoning from those sources and does not call for moral acumen. If a legal question is not answered by standards deriving from legal sources then it lacks a legal answer-the law on such questions is unsettled. In deciding such cases courts inevitably break new (legal) ground and their decision develops the law.... Naturally, their decisions in such cases rely at least partly on moral and other extra-legal considerations (Raz 1979, pp. 49-50).
If the judge can resolve an issue involving the First Amendment merely by applying past court decisions, then the issue is settled by the law; if not, then the issue is unsettled. Insofar as the judge looks to controversial moral standards to resolve the issue, she is going beyond the law because the mere presence of controversy about the law implies that it is indeterminate. Thus, on Raz's view, references to moral language in the law, at most, direct judges to consider moral requirements in resolving certain unsettled questions of law. They cannot incorporate moral requirements into the law.
3. The Discretion Thesis
Third thesis commonly associated with positivism is the discretion thesis, according to which judges decide difficult cases by making new law in the exercise of discretion. Ronald Dworkin describes this thesis as follows:
The set of these valid legal rules is exhaustive of 'the law', so that if someone's case is not clearly covered by such a rule . . . then that case cannot be decided by 'applying the law.' It must be decided by some official, like a judge, 'exercising his discretion,' which means reaching beyond the law for some other sort of standard to guide him in manufacturing a fresh legal rule or supplementing an old one (Dworkin 1977, p. 17).
On this view, a judge cannot decide a case that does not fall clearly under a valid rule by interpreting or applying the law; she must decide the case by creating or promulgating a law that did not exist prior to the adjudication. Thus, the discretion thesis implies that judges are empowered with a quasi-legislative lawmaking authority in cases that cannot be decided merely by applying law.
Though often associated with positivism, the discretion thesis does not belong to positivism's theoretical core. The pedigree and separability theses purport to be conceptual claims that are true of every possible legal system. These two claims jointly assert that, in every possible legal system, propositions of law are valid in virtue of having been manufactured according to some set of social conventions. On this view, there are no moral constraints on the content of law that hold in every possible legal system.
But many positivists regard the discretion thesis as a contingent claim that is true of some, but not all, possible legal systems. Hart, for example, believes there will inevitably arise cases that do not fall clearly under a rule, but concedes a rule of recognition could deny judges discretion to make law in such cases by requiring judges "to disclaim jurisdiction or to refer the points not regulated by the existing law to the legislature to decide" (Hart 1994, p. 272). Indeed, Hart's inclusive positivism allows him to hold that a rule of recognition could require judges to decide cases in precisely the manner that Dworkin advocates (Hart 1994, p. 263; and see Section IV-2, infra). Thus, at least for inclusive positivists like Hart, the discretion thesis makes a different kind of claim than the conceptual claims that form positivism's theoretical core (Himma 1999).
Moreover, the discretion thesis is consistent with some forms of natural law theory. According to Blackstone's classical naturalism, conformity with the natural law is a necessary condition for legal validity in every possible legal system. But insofar as the natural law is incomplete, there will inevitably arise issues that have multiple outcomes consistent with the natural law. Since none of the relevant outcomes in such cases offend the natural law, there is nothing in the assumption of necessary moral constraints on the content of law, in and of itself, that precludes Blackstone from endorsing the discretion thesis in such cases. Of course, if Blackstone believes the natural law contains a principle denying discretion to judges, then that commitment is inconsistent with the discretion thesis. But the assertion there are necessary constraints on the content of law, in and of itself, is consistent with the discretion thesis, even construed as a conceptual claim, as long as there are cases to which the natural law is indifferent.
In any event, Dworkin distinguishes three different senses in which a judge might be said to have discretion: (1) a judge has discretion when she exercises judgment in applying a legal standard to a particular case; (2) a judge has discretion when her decision is not subject to reversal by any other authority; and (3) a judge has discretion when her decision is not bound by any legal standards.
According to Dworkin, positivism's discretion thesis is committed to the third sense of discretion, which he refers to as strong discretion. On Dworkin's view, the thesis that judges have discretion only in the sense that they exercise judgment is trivially true, while the thesis that judges have discretion in the sense that their decisions are not subject to being reversed by a higher authority is false. Even the Supreme Court can be reversed by Congress or by constitutional amendment. Thus, on Dworkin's view, the discretion thesis implies that judges have discretion to decide hard cases by what amounts to an act of legislation because the judge is not bound by any legal standards.
Thus construed, the discretion thesis is inconsistent with ordinary legal practice. Even in the most difficult of cases where there is no clearly applicable law, lawyers do not ask that the judge decide the relevant issue by making new law. Each lawyer cites cases favorable to her client's position and argues that the judge is bound by those cases to decide in her client's favor. As a practical matter, lawyers rarely, if ever, concede there are no legal standards governing a case and ask the judge to legislate in the exercise of discretion.
Nevertheless, the problem with Dworkin's analysis is that it falsely presupposes an official cannot make new law unless there are no legal standards constraining the official's decision. Indeed, lawmaking authorities in legal systems like the U.S. never have what Dworkin describes as strong discretion. Even the legislative decisions of Congress, the highest legislative authority in the nation, are always constrained by constitutional standards. For example, under the Fourteenth Amendment, Congress cannot enact a law that sets one speed limit for male drivers on interstate highways and another for female drivers.
For his part, Hart concedes that judicial lawmaking authority is limited in two respects: "not only are the judge's powers subject to many constraints narrowing his choice from which a legislature may be quite free, but since the judge's powers are exercised only to dispose of particular instant cases he cannot use these to introduce large-scale reforms or new codes" (Hart 1994, p. 273). What explains the judge's discretion to make new law in a given case, on Hart's view, is not the absence of legal standards constraining her decision; rather it is the absence of legal standards that dictate a uniquely correct answer to the case. The judge cannot decide such a case merely by applying existing law because there is more than one available outcome that coheres with existing law. In such instances, it is impossible to render a substantive decision (as opposed to simply referring the matter back to the legislature) without creating new law.
The discretion thesis is vulnerable to one powerful objection. Insofar as a judge decides a difficult case by making new law in the exercise of discretion, the case is being decided on the basis of a law that did not exist at the time the dispute arose. If, for example, a judge awards damages to a plaintiff by making new law in the exercise of discretion, it follows that she has held the defendant liable under a law that did not exist at the time the dispute arose. And, as Dworkin points out, it seems patently unfair to deprive a defendant of property for behavior that did not give rise to liability at the time the behavior occurred.
Nevertheless, Dworkin's view fares no better on this count. While Dworkin acknowledges the existence of difficult cases that do not fall clearly under a rule, he believes they are not resolved by an exercise of judicial discretion. On Dworkin's view, there is always a right answer to such cases implicit in the pre-existing law. Of course, it sometimes takes a judge of Herculean intellectual ability to discern what the right answer is, but it is always there to be found in pre-existing law. Since the right answer to even hard legal disputes is always part of pre-existing law, Dworkin believes that a judge can take property from a defendant in a hard case without unfairness (Dworkin 1977, pp. 87-130).
But if fairness precludes taking property from a defendant under a law that did not exist at the time of the relevant behavior, it also precludes taking property from a defendant under a law that did not give reasonable notice that the relevant behavior gives rise to liability. Due process and fundamental fairness require reasonable notice of which behaviors give rise to liability. As long as Dworkin acknowledges the existence of cases so difficult that only the best of judges can solve them, his theory is vulnerable to the same charge of unfairness that he levels at the discretion thesis.
4. Classic Criticisms of Positivism
a. Fuller's Internal Morality of Law
In The Morality of Law, Lon L. Fuller argues that law is subject to an internal morality consisting of eight principles: (P1) the rules must be expressed in general terms; (P2) the rules must be publicly promulgated; (P3) the rules must be (for the most part) prospective in effect; (P4) the rules must be expressed in understandable terms; (P5) the rules must be consistent with one another; (P6) the rules must not require conduct beyond the powers of the affected parties; (P7) the rules must not be changed so frequently that the subject cannot rely on them; and (P8) the rules must be administered in a manner consistent with their wording (Fuller 1964, p. 39).
On Fuller's view, no system of rules that fails minimally to satisfy these principles of legality can achieve law's essential purpose of achieving social order through the use of rules that guide behavior. A system of rules that fails to satisfy (P2) or (P4), for example, cannot guide behavior because people will not be able to determine what the rules require. Accordingly, Fuller concludes that his eight principles are "internal" to law in the sense that they are built into the existence conditions for law: "A total failure in any one of these eight directions does not simply result in a bad system of law; it results in something that is not properly called a legal system at all" (Fuller 1964, p. 39).
These internal principles constitute a morality, according to Fuller, because law necessarily has positive moral value in two respects: (1) law conduces to a state of social order and (2) does so by respecting human autonomy because rules guide behavior. Since no system of rules can achieve these morally valuable objectives without minimally complying with the principles of legality, it follows, on Fuller's view, that they constitute a morality. Since these moral principles are built into the existence conditions for law, they are internal and hence represent a conceptual connection between law and morality that is inconsistent with the separability thesis.
Hart responds by denying Fuller's claim that the principles of legality constitute an internal morality; on Hart's view, Fuller confuses the notions of morality and efficacy:
[T]he author's insistence on classifying these principles of legality as a "morality" is a source of confusion both for him and his readers.... [T]he crucial objection to the designation of these principles of good legal craftsmanship as morality, in spite of the qualification "inner," is that it perpetrates a confusion between two notions that it is vital to hold apart: the notions of purposive activity and morality. Poisoning is no doubt a purposive activity, and reflections on its purpose may show that it has its internal principles. ("Avoid poisons however lethal if they cause the victim to vomit"....) But to call these principles of the poisoner's art "the morality of poisoning" would simply blur the distinction between the notion of efficiency for a purpose and those final judgments about activities and purposes with which morality in its various forms is concerned (Hart 1965, pp. 1285-86).
On Hart's view, all actions, including virtuous acts like lawmaking and impermissible acts like poisoning, have their own internal standards of efficacy. But insofar as such standards of efficacy conflict with morality, as they do in the case of poisoning, it follows that they are distinct from moral standards. Thus, while Hart concedes that something like Fuller's eight principles are built into the existence conditions for law, he concludes that they do not constitute a conceptual connection between law and morality.
Unfortunately, Hart's response overlooks the fact that most of Fuller's eight principles double as moral ideals of fairness. For example, public promulgation in understandable terms may be a necessary condition for efficacy, but it is also a moral ideal; it is morally objectionable for a state to enforce rules that have not been publicly promulgated in terms reasonably calculated to give notice of what is required. Similarly, we take it for granted that it is wrong for a state to enact retroactive rules, inconsistent rules, and rules that require what is impossible. Poisoning may have its internal standards of efficacy, but such standards are distinguishable from the principles of legality in that they conflict with moral ideals.
Nevertheless, Fuller's principles operate internally, not as moral ideals, but merely as principles of efficacy. As Fuller would likely acknowledge, the existence of a legal system is consistent with considerable divergence from the principles of legality. Legal standards, for example, are necessarily promulgated in general terms that inevitably give rise to problems of vagueness. And officials all too often fail to administer the laws in a fair and even-handed manner-even in the best of legal systems. These divergences may always be prima facie objectionable, but they are inconsistent with a legal system only when they render a legal system incapable of performing its essential function of guiding behavior. Insofar as these principles are built into the existence conditions for law, it is because they operate as efficacy conditions-and not because they function as moral ideals.
Fuller's jurisprudential legacy, however, should not be underestimated. While positivists have long acknowledged that law's essential purpose is to guide behavior through rules (e.g., John Austin writes that "[a] law .. may be defined as a rule laid down for the guidance of an intelligent being by an intelligent being having power over him" Austin 1977, p. 5), they have not always appreciated the implications of this purpose. Fuller's lasting contribution to the theory of law was to flesh out these implications in the form of his principles of legality.
b. Positivism and Legal Principles
Dworkin argues that, in deciding hard cases, judges often invoke legal principles that do not derive their authority from an official act of promulgation (Dworkin 1977, p. 40). These principles, Dworkin believes, must be characterized as law because judges are bound to consider them when relevant. But if unpromulgated legal principles constitute law, then it is false, contra the pedigree thesis, that a proposition of law is valid only in virtue of having been formally promulgated.
According to Dworkin, principles and rules differ in the kind of guidance they provide to judges:
Rules are applicable in an all-or-nothing fashion. If the facts a rule stipulates are given, then either the rule is valid, in which case the answer it supplies must be accepted, or it is not, in which case it contributes nothing to the decision.... But this is not the way principles operate.... [A principle] states a reason that argues in one direction, but does not necessitate a particular decision (Dworkin 1977, pp. 24-25).
On Dworkin's view, conflicting principles provide competing reasons that must be weighed according to the importance of the respective values they express. Thus, rules are distinguishable from principles in two related respects: (1) rules necessitate, where principles only suggest, a particular outcome; and (2) principles have, where rules lack, the dimension of weight.
Dworkin cites the case of Riggs v. Palmer as representative of how judges use principles to decide hard cases. In Riggs, the court considered the question of whether a murderer could take under the will of his victim. At the time the case was decided, neither the statutes nor the case law governing wills expressly prohibited a murderer from taking under his victim's will. Despite this, the court declined to award the defendant his gift under the will on the ground that it would be wrong to allow him to profit from such a grievous wrong. On Dworkin's view, the court decided the case by citing "the principle that no man may profit from his own wrong as a background standard against which to read the statute of wills and in this way justified a new interpretation of that statute" (Dworkin 1977, p. 29).
The positivist might respond that when the Riggs court considered this principle, it was reaching beyond the law to extralegal standards in the exercise of judicial discretion. But Dworkin points out that the Riggs judges would "rightfully" have been criticized had they failed to consider this principle; if it were merely an extralegal standard, there would be no rightful grounds to criticize a failure to consider it (Dworkin 1977, p. 35). Accordingly, Dworkin concludes that the best explanation for the propriety of such criticism is that principles are part of the law.
Further, Dworkin maintains that the legal authority of standards like the Riggs principle cannot derive from promulgation in accordance with purely formal requirements: "[e]ven though principles draw support from the official acts of legal institutions, they do not have a simple or direct enough connection with these acts to frame that connection in terms of criteria specified by some ultimate master rule of recognition" (Dworkin 1977, p. 41). Unlike legal rules, legal principles lack a canonical form and hence cannot be explained by formal promulgation.
On Dworkin's view, the legal authority of a binding principle derives from the contribution it makes to the best moral justification for a society's legal practices considered as a whole. According to Dworkin, a legal principle maximally contributes to such a justification if and only if it satisfies two conditions: (1) the principle coheres with existing legal materials; and (2) the principle is the most morally attractive standard that satisfies (1). The correct legal principle is the one that makes the law the moral best it can be. Thus, Dworkin concludes, "if we treat principles as law we must reject the positivists' first tenet, that the law of a community is distinguished from other social standards by some test in the form of a master rule" (Dworkin 1977, p. 44).
In response, positivists concede that there are legal principles, but argue that their authority as law can be explained in terms of the conventions contained in the rule of recognition:
Legal principles, like other laws, can be enacted or repealed by legislatures and administrative authorities. They can also become legally binding through establishment by the courts. Many legal systems recognize that both rules and principles can be made into law or lose their status as law through precedent (Raz 1972, p. 848).
According to this view, legal principles are like legal rules in that both derive their authority under the rule of recognition from the official acts of courts and legislatures. If the Riggs principle that no person shall profit from her own wrong has legal authority, it is because that principle was either declared by a court in the course of adjudicating a dispute or formally promulgated by the appropriate legislative body.
Further, inclusive positivists argue that Dworkin's account of principles is itself consistent with the pedigree thesis. As Hart puts it, "this interpretative test seems not to be an alternative to a criterion provided by a rule of recognition, but ... only a complex 'soft-positivist' form of such a criterion identifying principles by their content not by their pedigree" (Hart 1994, p. 263). The idea, familiar from Section II, is that a rule of recognition can incorporate content-based constraints on legal validity, even those rooted ultimately in morality.
c. The Semantic Sting
In Law's Empire, Dworkin distinguishes two kinds of disagreement legal practitioners can have about the law. Lawyers can agree on the criteria a rule must satisfy to be legally valid, but disagree on whether those criteria are satisfied by a particular rule. For example, two lawyers might agree that a rule is valid if enacted by the state legislature, but disagree on whether the rule at issue was actually enacted by the state legislature. Such disagreements are empirical in nature and hence pose no theoretical difficulties for positivism.
There is, however, a second kind of disagreement that Dworkin believes is inconsistent with positivism. Lawyers often agree on the facts about a rule's creation, but disagree on whether those facts are sufficient to endow the rule with legal authority. Such disagreement is considerably deeper than empirical disagreement as it concerns the criteria for legal validity-which, according to positivism, are exhausted by the rule of recognition. Dworkin calls this second kind of disagreement theoretical disagreement about the law.
Theoretical disagreement, on Dworkin's view, is inconsistent with the pedigree thesis because the pedigree thesis explains the concept of law in terms of shared criteria for creating, changing and adjudicating law:
If legal argument is mainly or even partly about [the properties that make a proposition legally valid], then lawyers cannot all be using the same factual criteria for deciding when propositions of law are true and false. Their arguments would be mainly or partly about which criteria they should use. So the project of the semantic theories, the project of digging out shared rules from a careful study of what lawyers say and do, would be doomed to fail (Dworkin 1986, p. 43).
If lawyers disagree about the criteria of legal validity, then the grounds of legal validity cannot be exhausted by the shared criteria contained in a rule of recognition. The semantic sting, then, implies that there must be more to the concept of legal validity than can be explained by promulgation in accordance with shared criteria embodied in a rule of recognition.
The semantic sting resembles one of Dworkin's earlier criticisms of Hart's pedigree thesis. Hart believes that the rule of recognition is a social rule and is hence constituted by the conforming behavior of people who also accept the rule as a ground for criticizing deviations. Like all social rules, then, the rule of recognition has an external and internal aspect. The external aspect of the rule of recognition consists in general obedience to those rules satisfying its criteria of validity; the internal aspect is constituted by its acceptance as a public standard of official behavior. Hart believes it is this double aspect of the rule of recognition that accounts for its normativity and enables him to distinguish his theory from Austin's view of law as a system of coercive commands. For, as Hart points out, a purely coercive command can oblige, but never obligate, a person to comply (see Section I, supra).
Dworkin argues that this feature of Hart's theory commits him to the claim that there cannot be any disagreement about the content of rule of recognition:
Hart's qualification ... that the rule of recognition may be uncertain at particular points ... undermines [his theory].... If judges are in fact divided about what they must do if a subsequent Parliament tries to repeal an entrenched rule, then it is not uncertain whether any social rule [of recognition] governs that decision; on the contrary, it is certain that none does (Dworkin 1977, pp. 61-62).
On Dworkin's view, the requirements of a social rule cannot be uncertain since a social rule is constituted by acceptance and conforming behavior by most people in the relevant group: "two people whose rules differ ... cannot be appealing to the same social rule, and at least one of them cannot be appealing to any social rule at all" (Dworkin 1977, p. 55).
Jules Coleman responds that if the rule of recognition is a social rule, then Hart's view implies there must be general agreement among the officials of a legal system about what standards constitute the rule of recognition, but it does not imply there cannot be disagreement as to what those standards require in any given instance:
The controversy among judges does not arise over the content of the rule of recognition itself. It arises over which norms satisfy the standards set forth in it. The divergence in behavior among officials as exemplified in their identifying different standards as legal ones does not establish their failure to accept the same rule of recognition. On the contrary, judges accept the same truth conditions for propositions of law.... They disagree about which propositions satisfy those conditions (Coleman 1982, p. 156).
Coleman, then, distinguishes two kinds of disagreement practitioners can have about the rule of recognition: (1) disagreement about what standards constitute the rule of recognition; and (2) disagreement about what propositions satisfy those standards. On Coleman's view, Hart's analysis of social rules implies only that (1) is impossible.
Under the U.S. rule of recognition, for example, a federal statute is legally valid if and only if it has been enacted in accordance with the procedural requirements described in the body of the Constitution and is consistent with the first fourteen amendments. Since, on Hart's view, the U.S. rule of recognition is a social rule, U.S. officials must agree on the procedures the federal government must follow in enacting law, the set of sentences constituting the first fourteen amendments, and the requirement that federal enactments be consistent with those amendments.
But Hart's view of social rules does not imply there cannot be any disagreement about whether a given enactment is consistent with the first fourteen amendments. Legal practitioners can and do disagree on what Hart calls penumbral (or borderline) issues regarding the various amendments. While every competent practitioner in the U.S. would agree, for example, that torturing a person to induce a confession violates the fifth amendment right against self-incrimination, there is considerable disagreement about whether compelling a defendant to undergo a psychiatric examination for the purpose of increasing her sentence also violates that right. On Coleman's view, there is nothing in Hart's analysis of social rules that precludes such borderline disagreements about whether a practice is consistent with the Fifth Amendment.
Despite its resemblance to this earlier criticism, Dworkin's semantic sting argument takes aim at a deeper target. The semantic sting targets all so-called semantic theories of law that articulate the concept of law in terms of "shared rules ... that set out criteria that supply the word's meaning" (Dworkin 1986, p. 31). Thus, while the earlier criticism is directed at Hart's extraneous account of social rules, the semantic sting is directed at what Dworkin takes to be the very heart of positivism's theoretical core, namely, the claim that there are shared criteria that exhaust the conditions for the correct application of the concept of law.
At the root of the problem with semantic theories, on Dworkin's view, is a flawed theory of what makes disagreement possible. According to Dworkin, semantic theories mistakenly assume that meaningful disagreement is impossible unless "we all accept and follow the same criteria for deciding when our claims are sound, even if we cannot state exactly, as a philosopher might hope to do, what these criteria are" (Dworkin 1986, p. 45). On this flawed assumption, two people whose concepts of law differ cannot be disagreeing about the same thing.
Perhaps with Coleman's response to his earlier criticism in mind, Dworkin concedes that semantic theories are consistent with theoretical disagreements about borderline or penumbral cases: "people do sometimes speak at cross-purposes in the way the borderline defense describes" (Dworkin 1986, p. 41). But Dworkin denies semantic theories are consistent with theoretical disagreement about pivotal (or core) cases. According to semantic theories, he says,
[Y]ou and I can sensibly discuss how many books I have on my shelf, for example, only if we both agree, at least roughly, about what a book is. We can disagree over borderline cases: I may call something a slim book that you would call a pamphlet. But we cannot disagree over what I called pivotal cases. If you do not count my copy of Moby-Dick as a book because in your view novels are not books, any disagreement is bound to be senseless (Dworkin 1986, p. 45).
The problem, on Dworkin's view, is that many difficult appellate cases like Riggs involve theoretical disagreement about pivotal cases:
The various judges who argued about our sample cases did not think they were defending marginal or borderline claims. Their disagreements about legislation and precedent were fundamental; their arguments showed that they disagreed not only about whether Elmer should have his inheritance, but about why any legislative act, even traffic codes and rates of taxation, impose the rights and obligations everyone agrees they do.... They disagreed about what makes a proposition of law true not just at the margin but in the core as well (Dworkin 1986, pp. 42-43).
On Dworkin's view, the judges in Riggs were not having a borderline dispute about some accepted criterion for the application of the concept of law. Rather, they were having a disagreement about the status of some putatively fundamental criterion itself: the majority believed, while the dissent denied, that courts have power to modify unambiguous legislative enactments.
Accordingly, theoretical disagreement about pivotal cases like Riggs is inconsistent with semantic theories of law, on Dworkin's view, because it shows that shared criteria do not exhaust the proper conditions for the application of the concept of law. For the majority and dissenting judges in Riggs were having a sensible disagreement about law even though it centered on a pivotal case involving the criteria of legal validity. Thus, Dworkin concludes, the concept of law cannot be explained by so-called criterial semantics.
In response, Hart denies both that his theory is a semantic theory and that it assumes such an account of what makes disagreement possible:
22othing in my book or in anything else I have written supports [a semantic account] of my theory. Thus, my doctrine that developed municipal legal systems contain a rule of recognition specifying the criteria for the identification of the laws which courts have to apply may be mistaken, but I nowhere base this doctrine on the mistaken idea that it is part of the meaning of the word 'law' that there should be such a rule of recognition in all legal systems, or on the even more mistaken idea that if the criteria for the identification of the grounds of law were not uncontroversially fixed, 'law' would mean different things to different people (Hart 1994, p. 246).
Instead, Hart argues that his theory of law is "a descriptive account of the distinctive features of law in general as a complex social phenomenon" (Hart 1994, p. 246). Hart presents his theory, not as an account of how people apply the concept of law, but rather as an account of what distinguishes systems of law from other systems of social rules. On Hart's view, it is the presence of a rule of recognition establishing criteria of validity that distinguishes law from other systems of social rules. Thus, according to Hart, Dworkin's criticism fails because it mischaracterizes positivism as providing a criterial explanation of the concept of law.
5. References and Further Reading
- Austin, John, Lectures on Jurisprudence and the Philosophy of Positive Law (St. Clair Shores, MI: Scholarly Press, 1977)
- Austin, John, The Province of Jurisprudence Determined (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995)
- Bentham, Jeremy, Of Laws In General (London: Athlone Press, 1970)
- Blackstone, William, Commentaries on the Law of England (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1979)
- Coleman, Jules, "Negative and Positive Positivism," 11 Journal of Legal Studies 139 (1982)
- Dworkin, Ronald M., Law's Empire (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986)
- Dworkin, Ronald M., Taking Rights Seriously (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1977)
- Finnis, John, Natural Law and Natural Rights (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980)
- Fuller, Lon L., The Morality of Law, Revised Edition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1969)
- Fuller, Lon L., "Positivism and Fidelity to Law--A Reply to Professor Hart," 71 Harvard Law Review 630 (1958)
- Faber, Klaus, "Farewell to 'Legal Positivism': The Separation Thesis Unraveling," in George, Robert P., The Autonomy of Law: Essays on Legal Positivism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), 119-162
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Kenneth Einar Himma
Seattle Pacific University
U. S. A.