Reflexivity and the Idea of Law

TitleReflexivity and the Idea of Law
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2010
AuthorsSimmonds, NE

To understand the distinctive characteristics of the institutions of law, one needs to understand the idea of law. Understanding the nature of law is not ultimately a matter of achieving a careful description of social practices but a matter of grasping the idea towards which those practices must be understood as oriented. The idea of law is the focal point that enables us to make coherent sense of the otherwise diverse features of practice, but it is not itself a matter of observable practice. It resembles a notional point in space that enables us to grasp the relationship between various parts of a complex drawing, although in itself it forms no part of the drawing. But how is such an idea to be investigated? We expect a clear understanding of the idea of law to explain our settled understandings about what will and will not count as an instance of legal ordering. We expect it, in other words, to explain some at least of the minimum conditions for applicability of the idea. But, since the idea of law is invoked within the practices of law, we also expect a philosophical understanding of that idea to clarify its role in guiding and orienting practice, and not simply in describing practice. Although the practices of law are oriented towards the idea of law, that idea is not straightforwardly available to be read in the surface appearance of the practices. For such practices, while involving systematic appeal to the idea of law, operate for the most part on the basis of that unreflective conformity that assists the stable functioning of most human institutions. Can we begin by identifying a "minimum specification" of the concept of law, in the form of a set of conditions without which nothing could count as law at all? From such a minimum specification, can we proceed in some orderly and intellectually defensible way towards "later phases" of the concept, with their "qualitative changes as well as additions and complications"? The possibility is worth exploring, however unfashionable may be the philosophical viewpoint from which it springs. Fuller's famous story of Rex, and his failed attempts to enact law, identifies the minimum conditions that something must satisfy in order to count as an instance of law. Fuller's theory becomes interesting when he proceeds to demonstrate that the eight desiderata (identified as minimum conditions), when taken collectively, be regarded as a guiding ideal for legal thought: the ideal that we usually label "the rule of law". Fuller claimed that his eight requirements represent an "inner morality of law". Hart's critique of Fuller appeared to suggest that the moral value of compliance with the eight requirements is wholly contingent upon the law's content, and that the eight requirements are more akin to precepts of efficiency than to moral standards. This criticism has been widely endorsed as correct. In fact, the criticism is not correct. The eight requirements are not principles of efficacy, but (when taken together) represent a moral ideal for legal systems. Fuller never really succeeded in giving a clear explanation of the moral status of his eight requirements. I argue that Fuller's eight desiderata represent an intrinsically moral ideal that we may call "freedom as independence from the power of another". This is the aspect of freedom that distinguishes the slave from the free man. My theory seeks to establish the existence of a very tight and necessary connection between law and morality. Positivists will find it impossible to deny that governance by law involves some degree of compliance with Fuller's eight requirements, and that such compliance necessarily involves the realisation of some degree of freedom as independence. If they are tempted to deny that freedom as independence is a distinct aspect of freedom, they must also argue that connections between slavery and the lack of freedom are purely contingent. If they accept that the lack of freedom as independece is what makes a slave a slave, but they deny that freedom as indepenence is a moral value, they must say that there is nothing intrinsically morally wrong with slavery: the moral wrongness of slavery would then have to be seen as stemming from purely contingent features of the slave's position. The value of freedom as independence may be thin. But it is real, it is genuinely valuable, and it is tightly connected to the existence of law