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Legal Positivism

Legal positivism is a position founded on the view that law and morality are two separate and distinct systems of thought. This position arises in opposition to the theory of natural law, which treats law as a regulatory system of moral principles. Legal positivism holds that law and morality serve different purposes. In other words, legal rules and moral principles are things unto themselves. Legal positivism holds that a law can be either moral or immoral; put differently, moral principles can correspond and contradict legal rules. In opposition to natural law theorists, this means that laws are not justified by moral criteria.


Austin is credited as the first legal positivist. Holding a fondness for Bentham and the principle of utility, Austin discerns between law and morality, and for establishing the criteria for laws that distinguishes them from moral principles. For Austin, a law is a command issued by a political superior to a political subordinate under the condition that disobedience warrants sanctions. Unpacking this criteria, laws may be either valid or invalid on the basis of their possessing these elements, and where a person has acted in accordance with the law can either be true or false.

Austin’s project was described as the development or autonomous analytic jurisprudence. In simpler terms, Austin undertook to study legal language and classify logical connections present in the most fundamental of its concepts. From this, Austin was able to infer the limits of the domain of law. Conclusively, Austin found, this domain is limited to the law itself.

Austin considered three kinds of directives human beings use and interact with. These include utility directives, positive morality, and positive law. Positive law may the simplest of these concepts to understand because it simply means valid law. Positive morality is similar to law, but lacks at least one element that makes law valid. Positive morality concerns social conventions and other forms of rules that people follow voluntarily. Perhaps insubordination to positive morality can create consequences that resemble sanction; distinctively, positive morality is not treated with the same level of seriousness or consequence as is positive law. Finally, utility directives are those that produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number. When Austin uses this principle he does so in every way that Jeremy Bentham did with one major exception. For Austin, the principle of utility can be understood as depicting the will of God. The principle of utility may replace morality in many practical ways for Austin. Austin thinks that it is okay to evaluate positive law based on the principle of utility. However, for Austin, positive law is not made invalid for its not conforming to the principle of utility.

Austin’s position requires looking at law and morality as two distinct subjects. His description of law removes all metaphysical hypotheses instilled by natural law theorists.

The Pedigree Test

For Austin, law can be either valid or invalid. This largely depends on whether statements of law are issued by a political superior to a political subordinate, and whether the statements are backed by sanctions. Hart, a legal positivist subsequent to Austin, looks the law making process, and specifically whether laws are adopted in accordance with law making procedures and legal jurisdiction. The pedigree test is often referred to as a combination of these ideas. It is applied to a retrospective view of law to establish whether current laws a arise from valid authority. This means that the pedigree test is a historical examination into the adoption of laws that examines continuity to establish validity.

H.L.A. Hart

Hart is a legal positivist following Austin. His ideas take much from Austin’s position but contain a few subtle nuances. He characterizes laws in two ways. First, he talks about primary laws, which broadly deal with how law attempts to regulate citizen conduct. Primary laws effectively deal with people, and when broken result in the issuing of punishment. Next, Hart deals with secondary laws that regulate how laws are made. Secondary laws are administrative, and when broken have the result of invalidating primary laws.

Hart’s philosophy of law elaborates on traditional legal positivism. One example of such an elaboration is the rule of recognition. The rule refers to how a legal system justifies laws. Hart asserts that a healthy legal system requires law to be examined by duty bound officials. This is referred to as the rule of recognition. The rule simply refers to the enforcement of analysis of law with secondary laws and jurisdictional considerations necessary to validate their legal authority. Hart believes it essential that a legal system contain dutiful officials whose job it is to challenge invalid law. When this process is actively performed, laws are elevated above a status of mere-commands. For Hart, the utilization of the rule of recognition brings integrity to law. Failing to execute this duty results in moral mistake for officials of a legal system.

Bentham and Raz

Jeremy Bentham is credited for terming the idea of utilitarianism. The idea holds that policy makers should seeks to create the greatest good for the greatest number. The idea creates a stark contrast to traditionally moralist thinkers like Thomas Aquinas, who would contend that the application of utilitarianism leads to moral pluralism. In other words, Aquinas would contend that moral concessions arise when performing utilitarian analysis of law and public policy. Rule focused moralists, like Aquinas, have generally been referred to as deontologists, and have been categorically placed in opposition to utilitarian thinkers historically. Features of the divide between these two ideologies is present between legal positivism and natural law theorists.

Bentham views law as man-made. He considers utilitarianism as a tool for analyzing law. Law should strive to bring the greatest good to the greatest number for Bentham. He thinks that morality is a unmanageable system for creating law.

On the other hand, Raz is a utilitarian. He generalizes utilitarian principles into the justification of law. Raz says that law is justified when it serves the public. For Raz, where the absence of law would not further the social betterment, the government should not interfere into the lives of citizens. Raz presents law as a coordination of society that seeks to adjust how individuals will act outside of the interests of society. His position exists within the broader and general aims of utilitarianism and eloquently adds to the project of Austin.


Controversy arises for Austin and Hart when applying their ideas to modern constitutionalism, both in England and Canada. The English approach to constitutionalism results in the use of convention as an authority. Convention presents difficulties for these legal positivists. Austin’s characterization of positive morality appears to be meant to include conventions. What he means by convention is the voluntary acceptance of rules, rather than the forced acceptance motivated by the existence of punishment. Perhaps, when unpacking the use of convention applied by the British Parliament, the word holds only semantic value. If so, the question must be asked as to whether failure to follow a constitution of conventions carries sanctions? If the failure to follow the constitution is enforced by the threat of sanctions, than the requirement is met; however, it is more likely that the punishment requirement is not met, and that constitutional conventions are more likely viewed by law makers as goals to be strived for by government rather than commands whose disobedience evokes punishment.

The problem with the English constitution will suffer similar problems as the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The processes familiar to Austin obviously did not include democracy. The idea of the highest political superior being the results of a democratic process likely challenge Austin's political view. The complication in interpreting a strict interpretation of Austin, is determining whether he would frame the democratic approval of the constitution as his greatest concern, or the way it is applied to strike laws. Constitutions, when used to strike law, do not always resemble commands issued by a political superior as much as commands that limit a political superior. This is another form of how the democratic model challenge the basic assertions Austin holds on legal validity.

For Hart, apart from the problem that he does not contradict Austin on the validity of law, the focus on the Constitution will be historical. Hart's project involves more legal archeology than Austin, and his view of constitutionalism would seek to establish whether the government of the day possessed legitimate authority to enact a constitution. In Canada, this may have been an issue in terms of the pre-existent models that establish political authority.

Application to the Case

Chaoulli v. Quebec (Attorney General), concerns the provision of medical care to residents of Quebec. The government argued that single tier health care plan included an essential feature to government provided medical insurance schemes - that a two tier plan would diminish the quality of services irreparably. Logical positivists, presented above, would have different views on the insurance legislation seeking to prevent a second tier of insurance being made available. Essentially, the issues for positivists will concern the validity of the two pieces of legislation. The utilitarian thinkers will consider the affects of the legislation.

Austin's View

Austin's logical positivism is concerned with the political superiority and inferiority of the parties that interact with the legislation. The Quebec legislation involves penalties, and is sufficiently clear about its intentions to regulate the provision of health insurance and health care services. Austin's analysis of the Charter, as discussed above, present obvious problems with the democratic model. Perhaps this is because Austin predates the wide acceptance of democracy in its forms in North America. Regardless, a strict application of Austin's principles would hold that the Charter is not a document who legal authority survives the pedigree test. This would mean that it is unable to over rule the Quebec Acts that do carry a clear penalty.

Hart's View

Hart's impression of the case would involve similar issues; additionally, Hart's interest would be a matter of research into the validity of the legislation. The Quebec legislation would have to be found valid through an examination of its enactment and coming into force. Hart's view of the Charter would be similar to Austin's.

Bentham's View

Bentham's concern with the legal issue would differ greatly from Austin and Hart. Where Austin and Hart look at legislation from the view that it is a separate system of rules, and rules about rules, disconnected from social considerations Bentham would suggest that the law be analyzed. Bentham presents the analytical mechanism of utility to analyze the law's ability to bring about the most greatest for the greatest number. On this point, it is difficult to tell if the law accomplishes this result. Evidence would have to be presented that suggested that the law achieves the greatest good for the greatest number. It is the opinion of the government of Quebec that the legislation achieves this goal, and yet there are those, like Chaoulli who challenge this assumption.

Raz's View

Raz is very similar to Bentham, but provides the view from a different angle. Raz suggests considering the effects if the legislation were to be removed. Would a better social outcome result if the insurance legislation were not enacted at all? Essentially, Raz's view of the leagl issues here is the same, but in terms of his process, the analysis requires considering the law weren't in place.

Pages in category "Positivism"

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