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Conservatives and the Natural Law vs. Positive Law Debate

In American History, Arts & Letters, Conservatism, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Legal Education & Pedagogy, News and Current Events, Politics on July 14, 2011 at 5:30 pm

Allen Mendenhall

Three days ago, the Claremont Review of Books posted two interesting reviews on jurisprudence.   The first, “Natural Law Man,” is a reprint of a piece that appeared in the Winter/Spring 2010-11 issue.   Here, Michael M. Uhlmann praises Hadley Arkes’s Constitutional Illusions and Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law.  In the second review, “A Plea for Positivism,” Bradley C. S. Watson comments on Gary L. McDowell’s The Language of Law and the Foundations of American Constitutionalism.  (Click here to read McDowell’s discussion of the book with Edwin Meese, III.)  Both reviews situate their subjects alongside conservative theory.  Both books are worth reading. 

The prevailing tendency among some uncritical commentators is to binarize natural law theory and positive law theory as polar opposites.  That’s understandable if the terms “natural law” and “positive law” are reduced to cliché.  But cliché, although helpful to students first getting introduced to concepts, doesn’t do justice to the complexities and challenges of natural law or positive law jurisprudence.  In any event, it is curious that both natural law theorists and positive law theorists claim to have influenced, and to have been influenced by, conservatism.  That fact alone suggests that natural law theory and positive law theory are complicated.  Here are some readings that will complicate the complicated:  Murray Rothbard’s excerpts “Introduction to Natural Law” and “Natural Law versus Positive Law,” F. Russell Hittinger’s short pieces “Natural Law” and “The Rule of Law and Law of Nature,” Robert P. George’s “Witherspoon Lecture,” and Fred Hutchison’s overview “Natural Law and Conservatism.”

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