Mutterings in favour of Kelsen

Hart’s Essays in Jurisprudence and Philosophy includes two pieces engaging, in tones of patient and courteous bafflement, with the ‘pure theory of law’ propounded by Hans Kelsen. Hart focuses on four main assertions:

  1. Law is a system… All valid laws, qua valid laws, form a single system. Kelsen was willing to extend this argument to cover international law, with the implication that there is only one system of law in the world.
  2. …which is logically coherent, Every legal system must be logically self-consistent throughout, such that no two valid laws can contradict each other.
  3. rests on a basic norm… While a legal system must be observed (treated as binding on conduct) in order to have any validity, every legal system is also founded on a presupposed ‘basic norm’ on which all legal powers granted within that system, and all laws laid down by those powers, ultimately rest.
  4. and has no moral content. Legal obligation and moral obligation are distinct and separate concepts, deriving from separate logical systems: if moral obligations were allowed to impinge on the law, it would be possible for obligations to conflict, which would destroy the logical coherence of the law as a system. The statement that a valid law is immoral is thus of no more legal significance than the observation that it was enacted on a Tuesday.

For completeness, I should add that Kelsen subsequently revised the second and third points here, allowing the possibility of valid contradictory laws and redefining the ‘basic norm’, not as a norm which was presupposed rather than having been enacted, but as a fictitious norm enacted by a fictitious lawmaker. The second of these is more promising than it sounds; I haven’t been able to find any commentary on the first.

Hart’s arguments against Kelsen are both meticulous and dense, but they take two main forms: demonstrations that one of Kelsen’s assertions cannot be logically sustained, or has unsatisfactory implications if assumed to be true; and demonstrations that, even if true, the assertion would not do the work Kelsen claims that it does. I’m certainly not in a position to say anything authoritative about Kelsen, let alone rebut any of Hart’s criticisms. In this post I want to take on an easier target: Hart’s bafflement. Repeatedly in Hart’s two papers we seem to hear him muttering Why would you think that? Or perhaps, Yes, that’s very neat, but why would you think it’s true? (Something similar can be heard, rather less sotto voce, in Neil Duxbury’s 2007 paper on the later ‘fictitious’ basic norm.) In Hart’s hands, Kelsen’s pure theory comes across as the proverbial beautiful hypothesis brought down by an ugly fact – or rather, a dense and elaborate hypothetical architecture undermined by a closely-marshalled assault by ugly facts. Kelsen’s model seems to do some of the work done by Hart’s own theory of law, but only some of it and not as adequately.

For me, this prompts the question: why would you think that? If we took Kelsen’s pure theory as a starting point, what would it give us – would it take us anywhere that Hart’s legal positivism doesn’t? Here are some thoughts about three of the four counter-intuitive propositions above (I’m not touching the second, on grounds of not being familiar with Kelsen’s later revisions to it).

Law as a single system: well, plainly, all valid laws don’t compose a single system. Kelsen (on Hart’s account) advances very few arguments in support of this proposition, and Hart finds it easy to dismantle those which are offered. But the complex of ideas which Kelsen reduces to this assertion – the mutual recognition (or constitution) of international and domestic law; the tendency (and on occasion the need) for one jurisdiction’s laws to be honoured by another – may be worth more attention than Hart gives them. We could argue, for example, that law tends to universality, and that this tendency (as well as practical necessity) underlies the tendency for discrete legal systems to find points of contact and forms of understanding; international law, in this framework, would be a separate enterprise undertaken to provide a single universal solution to this problem, like a connectivity standard – SOAP to municipal law’s XML. (And there goes my very last reader!) We could then go further, treat the tendency to universality as a norm (part of a ‘morality of aspiration’ in Fuller’s terms) and suggest that, to the extent that a legal system refuses arrangements of mutual recognition with other systems, to that extent there’s something unlawlike about that system. This certainly isn’t a move Hart would make – for Hart there wasn’t much more to say in formal terms about the legal system in Nazi Germany than that it was one – but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a bad idea. In other words, perhaps what Kelsen had in his sights here is, precisely, an aspect of the morality of law.

The basic norm: digressing slightly, I found Duxbury’s paper both enlightening and frustrating. It’s frustrating because it appears to solve its central mystery halfway through and then carry on as if it was still unsolved. (Unless I’m missing something obvious – also a frustrating thought!) To fill in the background, Kelsen saw the law as composed of ‘norms’ – conceived mainly as statements that behaviour X would attract sanction Y – which had been enacted by acts of will; the acts in question had been validated by prior norms, setting down how and by whom law could be made. However, these norms themselves had (by definition) been enacted by acts of will, creating an infinite regress (or founding the law on the brute facts of history, although this doesn’t seem to be an alternative Kelsen entertained). Hence a basic norm, never actually enacted, had to be presupposed as the foundation for the entire system. Late in life Kelsen changed tack: rather than presupposing a basic norm which (although not enacted) was both real and valid, he proposed that we treat the basic norm as a fictitious norm, enacted like all other norms, but enacted by a fictitious act of will.

Duxbury’s paper looks for support for the proposition that this isn’t as daft as it sounds, and largely fails – or rather (in my view) succeeds halfway through, almost without noticing. The key is in Kelsen’s definition of ‘fictitious’: he follows a philosopher called Vaihinger (not otherwise familiar to me) who distinguished between the partially fictitious (things which could exist but just happened not to) and the wholly fictitious (things which couldn’t exist). The basic norm, in Kelsen’s late formulation, is wholly fictitious: in other words, it’s a contradiction in terms, the paradox of a valid norm resting on an act of will which itself has no validation. Viewed in this light, the late formulation is, perhaps, a more satisfactory restatement of the earlier one. By putting our trust in the basic norm, we are not arbitrarily presupposing a norm which happens to have arisen without a prior valid act of will – which, in Kelsen’s terms, is a bit like arbitrarily presupposing a triangle which happens to have four sides. Rather, we are deliberately relying on a norm which we have defined as paradoxical and impossible: our triangle has four sides and we know it.

What does this get us? I think it gets at an aspect of the moral significance of law – another theme on which Hart wasn’t particularly keen. In terms of actually, practically grounding the validity of law, Hart cut Kelsen’s knot and warded off the infinite regress by proposing that every law-governed society has its own ‘rule of recognition’ – a rule, or practice, or assumption, or set of rules and practices and assumptions, which determines how law is made and who by. The reference is sideways rather than upwards, in other words (“Who can revise law A?” “Refer to rulebook X.” “Who can revise rulebook X?” “Refer to rulebook X.”). But, whatever the rule of recognition might in practice be, I think the idea of the basic norm – and in particular the fictitious basic norm – captures something important about why the law matters, or is believed to matter. Ultimately, perhaps, the question the basic norm answers isn’t “where did this law come from?” but “why should I obey this law?”. And here there still is a reference upwards, unless it’s cut off by a learned shrug (“why should you obey this law? because you’re a citizen of a law-governed country, this law is a validly enacted law according to that country’s rule of recognition, and as such obeying validly enacted laws is what you should do”). “Why should I obey this law?” “Because you should obey the Law[= those laws currently in force in your society].” “Why should I obey the Law?” “Because it’s right to obey The Law[=the laws laid down in pursuance of the project of subjecting social behaviour to just, consistent and uniform regulation]”. “Why is it right to obey The Law?” “Because the basic norm demonstrates how important the enterprise of The Law is – it’s important enough to be founded on a paradox; important enough for its foundations to be treated as real even though we know they’re not.”

No moral content: here Kelsen might seem to be cutting with the grain of Hart’s positivism, as well as against the grain of any kind of natural law theory. Things aren’t that simple, though; although Hart certainly maintained that the rule of recognition (and hence the law) could have no moral content, he was at pains to deny that it must have none. The rule of recognition itself could encompass moral precepts, in other words. Although we can see why Hart might have made this move – presumptively de-moralising the rule of recognition would have created hostages to fortune in his disputes with natural law theorists – I tend to think it creates unnecessary confusion. Although lawyers and legislators can and do invoke moral assumptions in their decisions (this being the avenue Hart would have wanted to close off) they do not do so in any predictable or systematic way, which is surely what would be required for moral arguments to form part of a rule of recognition. I would argue that the ‘rule of recognition’ model sits more comfortably with Kelsen’s austere division between moral and legal domains: whatever morality might dictate, the law is what is made law through the practices of legislators, lawyers and juries, and nothing else.

Despite appearances, treating law entirely as positive law is not the end of the line for the moral critique of law, or even for natural law. If law is autonomous of morality, this does not make the project of subjecting law to morality any less valid or important – if anything, the reverse is true. Moreover, if there is a ‘natural’ core to positive law, as Hart conceded; or if the conditions of possibility for a community living under the law can be considered as a ‘morality of law’, as Fuller argued; or if (as Jules Coleman has argued) morality itself requires that the law be applied consistently and interpreted without reference to moral norms; then the dichotomy between morality and positive law cannot be treated as absolute. And – paradoxically perhaps – if we want to think about how the dichotomy should be modified and reinterpreted, we’re better off starting with a theory which emphasised it (Kelsen’s) than with one which blurred and downplayed it (Hart’s).

In short, the reason why Kelsen’s theory looks logically airtight, unsustainable in the real world and ultimately slightly crazy may actually be that it is all of those things – but it’s still useful to think with, and in some ways more useful than Hart’s all-purpose scepticism.

Next up: Hart on Fuller. That should be quick and easy…

Anyone still here? Do feel free to comment, link, retweet etc.


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