Legal positivism is the thesis that the existence and content of law depends on social facts and not on its merits. The English jurist John Austin (1790-1859) formulated it thus: “The existence of law is one thing; its merit and demerit another. Whether it be or be not is one enquiry; whether it be or be not conformable to an assumed standard, is a different enquiry. ” (1832, p. 157) The positivist thesis does not say that law’s merits are unintelligible, unimportant, or peripheral to the philosophy of law. It says that they do not determine whether laws or legal systems exist.
Whether a society has a legal system depends on the presence of certain structures of governance, not on the extent to which it satisfies ideals of justice, democracy, or the rule of law. What laws are in force in that system depends on what social standards its officials recognize as authoritative; for example, legislative enactments, judicial decisions, or social customs. The fact that a policy would be just, wise, efficient, or prudent is never sufficient reason for thinking that it is actually the law, and the fact that it is unjust, unwise, inefficient or imprudent is never sufficient reason for doubting it.
According to positivism, law is a matter of what has been posited (ordered, decided, practiced, tolerated, etc. ); as we might say in a more modern idiom, positivism is the view that law is a social construction. Austin thought the thesis “simple and glaring. ” While it is probably the dominant view among analytically inclined philosophers of law, it is also the subject of competing interpretations together with persistent criticisms and misunderstandings.
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