Hart and natural law: Lyons on Fuller

David Lyons’s 1971 paper “The Internal Morality of Law” is an interesting critical review of Fuller’s theory of the same name. Lyons sets out his sceptical stall with two references to claims made by Fuller:

He says that public officials, those who make and enforce the law, are committed to ideals of legal excellence – eight ideals concerning not the substance of the law but whether its requirements can be understood, followed, and met, and how they are to be applied. There ought to be general rules, first of all, and these ought to be clear, consistent, publicized, prospective, satisfiable, constant, and “scrupulously” enforced.

It is not entirely clear, however, why we should suppose that there is such a commitment.


Fuller also writes: “To embark on the enterprise of subjecting human conduct to the governance of rules involves of necessity a commitment to the view that man is, or can become, a responsible agent, capable of understanding and following rules, and answerable for his defaults”. This passage is suggestive, though it hardly solves our problem. Why should we say there is this commitment? And what has it got to do with justice?

Lyons cites Fuller’s list of

eight kinds of legal defect corresponding to the eight kinds of legal excellence … a failure to make general rules; rules that cannot be understood, that are inconsistent, not made known to the parties affected, retroactive, or frequently changed; rules that “require conduct beyond the power of the affected party”; and “a failure of congruence between the rules as announced and their actual administration”.

He notes that this last defect can be seen in terms of the failure to apply the law “faithfully, equally, uniformly and impartially”, and hence that the eighth of Fuller’s types of legal excellence corresponds to the supposed virtue of procedural or formal justice (Lyons’s subsequent comments on this were discussed in the previous post). However, this can also be seen in terms of ‘followability’, which is the key value undermined by the other seven defects: just as a law is impossible to follow if it is incomprehensible, if it varies unpredictably or if it sets conditions which cannot be satisfied, it is not in practice followable if it is applied intermittently and capriciously. To say that laws (or systems of law) are followable is to say that they respect their subjects, or at least offer them a specific kind of respect: they address their subjects as free and responsible agents capable of rationally choosing to follow rules. To the extent that they do this (as Fuller argues that they should), they will have the qualities Fuller identifies as ideals of legal excellence.

But how would this view of the law be grounded by anyone who does not necessarily share Fuller’s world view? Lyons concedes that the idea of followability is fundamental to the nature of laws as a means of guiding behaviour:

part of the very concept of a legal requirement is, not that it actually is followable, but that it is supposed to be and may be presumed to be. The idea of law includes that of regulating behaviour in a certain way – by setting standards that people are to follow. And this idea is incorporated in the notion of a legal requirement. If so, from the notion of a legal requirement it might seem to follow that, to the degree a putative legal requirement cannot be used by one to whom it applies to guide his own behaviour, that requirement is defective.

But we’re not out of the woods. We may have identified good reasons for calling unfollowable requirements defective, but “to say this is not to make a moral judgment” (emphasis added). As with the question of whether there is a procedural morality of rule-following, the morality of setting followable requirements does not follow from the fact that they are preferable; the superiority of followable requirements may be a purely technical question.

Can Fuller’s argument be grounded morally? Lyons suggests one solution, noting that “[w]hen a person is penalized for failing to meet an unfollowable requirement, he is treated unjustly.” The practice of penalising individuals for failure to follow requirements is one which engages questions of justice, inasmuch as standards are being applied to multiple people’s behaviour and consequences imposed on those people individually: as soon as two people are penalised for failing to follow a rule, the possibility exists that one of the two is being penalised unjustly. (Whether an injustice can be done if no comparisons can be made – if a rule is only ever applied to one person, or if everyone is uniformly held to have breached the rule – is an interesting philosophical question, although it’s one that can probably be shelved for lack of real-world examples.)

However, Lyons does not find this persuasive:

If we call the rules under which [individuals] may be penalized unjust, that is because individuals are, or are likely to be, penalized unjustly under them. But this kind of treatment is not essential to or inevitable in a legal system – not even one that contains defective requirements … From the fact that a legal system contains rules or requirements that cannot be understood or followed or met, it does not follow that anyone shall be penalized under them or even that the system requires or allows such treatment

He goes on to consider a (hypothetical) community of utopian socialists, each of whom is strongly committed to the success of the community and highly averse to the use of sanctions, and each of whom knows these facts to be true of all the others. Such a community, Lyons argues, would be guided by laws but without any imposition of sanctions; hence any unfollowable laws would not result in injustice, since their inevitable breach would not lead to anyone being penalised. The argument is ingenious but ultimately rests on a kind of idealism – as if to say that the courts and the institutions of punishment in accordance with law are social practices, but the law itself is an immaterial essence. If we see the law – “the enterprise of subjecting human conduct to the governance of rules”, in Fuller’s terms – as a social practice, the distinction disappears: to the extent that legal standards are standards applied to multiple people’s behaviour in order to judge them (whatever the consequences may or may not be), to that extent justice is engaged in the application of the law.

As in his paper on procedural justice, Lyons is keen to dissociate the law from justice; he argues that

the standards that may seem implicit in the law, conceived at least in part as a system of guidelines for human behaviour, would seem to say nothing about what counts as an injustice. They tell us only that a certain kind of requirement or rule is defective – and only because it is not followable. But this does not tell us that the application of such a rule would be unjust.


we cannot learn what use of sanctions is (or would be) unjust simply by understanding what the law is. We need to know what constitutes an injustice. And so far, our understanding of what the law is tells us nothing about that.

On the contrary – Fuller might have answered – while “our understanding of what the law is” may tell us nothing about injustice, our ordinary-language understanding of injustice tells us that the imposition of laws which could not be followed would constitute an injustice. The question of justice is engaged by the process of ascribing, to some individuals but not others, the social status of having broken a law; break the link between this status and those individuals’ past freely-chosen actions, and injustice necessarily results.

It may be argued – and Lyons would certainly argue – that this conclusion proves more than it set out to, and implicates substantial parts of the English criminal law in the production of injustice (retroactive legislation, reverse onus provisions, strict liability offences). At the moment I’m inclined to think that a feature rather than a bug.


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