Tag Archives: legal theory

On Law and History beyond Historicism

It is a trivial truth that legal history is not economic history or art history.

For ontological historicism, however, there is an immediate problem: what criterion would permit the distinction of these several domains of investigation? Whatever way you look at it, the criterion itself can never be just historical. Without a concept of law, one cannot practice legal history. Although that concept, in its subjective theoretical character, will have a history of its own, nevertheless as law concept it inevitably tries to grasp in theory the constant modal structure which guarantees the juridical character of legal phenomena.

Anyone who thinks that the legal historian has constantly to adapt his concept of law to the different popular opinions about law, which arise in the various periods he studies, has not yet understood much of the problem we are examining. In the first place, the concept of law is an articulated scientific concept that depends on theoretical analysis of the different modal aspects of society. Popular conceptions of what is just and unjust are not theoretical concepts about the juridical nature of legal life. Even if it were the case that a given legal system had originated from popular convictions, this could not in any way be true of the modal structure of the law itself.

Besides in the second place reference to different popular standards of what is just and unjust, presupposes the legal historian has a concept of law that he could not have derived from those popular conceptions. Only with the help of his law concept can the legal historian distinguish the legal opinions of a people at a given time from their economic, moral or credal convictions, because in the relatively problematic popular consciousness they are never theoretically differentiated from legal convictions.

– From Law and History, Herman Dooyeweerd

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Green on Gardner on Law and Morality

Leslie Green continues his critique of his Oxford colleague John Gardner on the relation between law and morality. Here he engages Gardner’s point about the “inescapability of morality” in relation to law — that law is judged by morality, if law isn’t in some way, a moral norm by itself, or a “near natural law.”

The discussion echoes but couldn’t quite identify, the multi-aspectual view, where “positive law” in fact functions in all aspects of reality — it has a moral, social, economic, aesthetic, lingual or historical sides, and so on.As Alan Cameron, who edited the first volume of HD’s Encyclopedia of the Science of Law, put it to me recently, the process of law forming “is not merely the positivisation of a jural norm. It also requires the positivisation of analytical, lingual, social, economic and possibly aesthetic norms. An individual law has it own ‘individuality’ structure – it is some “thing” jurally qualified but displays all the modal aspects (subjectively and objectively).”

Thus a contract is not merely a legal document, it also has a social dimension, or functions in the social realm, as it has a certain history and an economic value (as the sociologists of law have been trying to show).

It should be interesting to note that in HD’s modal scale, the ethical (moral) aspect comes after the legal aspect. Law is prior and foundational to, and anticipates, morality. So there is some correspondence between HD’s and Gardner’s notion of morality, as the former in fact says that the ethical aspect deepens the legal aspect in the process of disclosure.

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The UDHR and the Ontology of Rights


UDHRMore than 60 years after its founding, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) remains a document relevant to contemporary issues and problems; Perhaps, its genius lies in the fact that it is a declaration that embodies a broad sweep of the world’s varied traditions, philosophies and perspectives, so that no single bloc can claim ownership over its “sacred truths,” to use a theological term in this highly secularized era of ours.

Perhaps too, it can well be said that their commonality lies in the sureness of their being profoundly human. And while critics may rightly point to how its more influential interpreters often offer to the world a lopsided bent towards the individualistic view of human rights, as a founding document, its relevance is measured by the willingness of its adherents to a reasoned dialogue about the differences and commonalities that characterize various interpretive traditions.

Of course, ontological issues cannot be summarily set swept aside. (Indeed, the Western tradition presses on the primacy of the individual as the supreme if not the only ontological truth there is).

But that precisely is the role of reasoned dialogue: to show which interpretative strategy is better able to explain the problems and the solutions to them. Hence how can we better account for the so-called collective/group rights other than a resort to the positivist predilection for the description of the what is (and its undisguised disdain for the teleological)?

This discussion is also crucial to an understanding of the rise of non-state actors in international law. Is the sociological account (as for example, the process view of Higgins) enough to convince us that original objective legal personality must now be seen as something that transcends the state.

Indeed, much of theorizing on the state has been influenced by a philosophical movement that either exalts the state as the only political reality or treats it as a legal fiction of the social contract between among purportedly free and autonomous individuals.

International legal theory takes it for granted that there is an opposition between the individual and the state, to the exclusion of all other non-state actors. International legal theory thus confronts us with a nominalism of the state as the only true sovereign and a nominalism of individuals as the basic elements of the international legal order.

Hence, international law theorists resort to an unsatisfactory strategy of (1) devising external limits to the powers of the state or (2) stressing the primacy of the individual over all else to curtail abuse of state power. This nominalistic approach has so dominated international law that for the most part, the state has been seen as the only source of legal standing and legal personality in the international arena.

The first strategy cannot fully account for the state’s public and private duties while the second strategy fails to do justice to the proper exercise of the same duties as well as to the existence of other non-state entities, such as civil society groups, churches and multinational corporations.

This in fact leads to an irresolvable conflict between the state and the individual, inasmuch as it fails to properly recognize their respective competencies, as well as the existence of other spheres in society.

Neither of the two strategies can properly account for the rise of non-state actors in international legal discourse, other than resorting to notions of democratic participation and legitimacy that in the first place do not provide a convincing ontological justification for why non-state actors should be granted the right to democratic participation and the power to ascribe legitimacy to international legal processes.

As Jeremy Sarkin has persuasively argued, there is a “clear position from 1948,” when the UNDHR was adopted, that the instrument demands that “every individual and every organ of society … promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance.”

From this standpoint, although “companies may not be in the habit of referring to themselves as ‘organs of society,’ they are a fundamental part of society. As such, they have a moral and social obligation to respect the universal rights enshrined in the Declaration.”[1]

Yet his observation also begs to ask the question thus: is this merely a matter of opinio juris and state practice, or something that requires a radical and fundamental ontological commitment? Of course, we all know that even the positivist position is anchored on an unstated ontological commitment, that is, one that thinks lightly of ontology, if at all.


On the occasion of International Human Rights Day, Dec. 10, 2015

[1]Jeremy Sarkin, The Coming of Age of Claims for Reparations for Human Rights Violations in the South, 1 SUR INT’L J OF HUM. RIGHTS 67, 69-70 (2004)


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International Law as Process

515EilmX7mL._SL500_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-big,TopRight,35,-73_OU01_AA300_It’s time once again to teach public international law. As I’m wont to do before the start of the new semester, I re-read my notes on Rosalyn Higgin’s book. Problems and Process: International Law and How We Use It, the first two chapters of which I discuss with my class in great detail for the first two meetings of the semester. In this book, Dame Higgins famously advanced the view that international law is not rules but process — in fact, according to her it is a process  involving a normative system  of “authoritative decision-making”; In so doing, she wished to avoid the rigidity that is perceived to attach to international law conceived as rules.

Dame Higgins’s definition, drawing from her Yale mentor Myres McDougal’s policy-oriented approach,  emphasizes the dynamic  and formative process set in motion by various institutions to arrive at binding international legal norms. It appears to me that from a reformational view,  this method surfaces two aspects, the kinematic and the historical. Process implies movement; authoritative decision-making implicates institutions that give form to the norms of international law. What it fails to grasp is that international law itself must not be seen as a “thing” but as part of the jural dimension of reality.

While Dame Higgins’s definition is able to capture the dynamic movement that yields international legal norms, that is, through various actors in international law (hence, it also involves the historical, formative  competence that gives positive shape to principles, as expressed  legal norms), it does not see that these aspects form part of  the necessary conditions — the constitutive elements — of the international legal norms themselves.  They form part of the “structural building blocks” of any legal order; they  are presupposed, to begin with, by the idea of an  international legal order.

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Filed under International Law, legal theory, reformational philosophy