The argument from justice, or how not to reply to legal positivism

Professor Robert Alexy wrote a book whose avowed purpose is to refute the basic tenets of a type of legal theory which 'has long since been obsolete in legal science and practice'. The quotation is from the German Federal Constitutional Court in 1968. The fact that Prof Alexy himself mentions no writings in the legal positivist tradition [in English] later than Hart's The Concept of Law (1961) may suggest that he shares the court's view. The book itself may be evidence to the contrary. After all why flog a dead horse? Why write a book to refute a totally discredited theory? Perhaps Alexy was simply unlucky. The burst of reflective, suggestive and interesting writings in the legal positivist tradition reached serious dimensions only in the years after the original publication of his book, when Waldron, Marmor, Gardner, Leiter, Shapiro, Murphy, Himma, Kramer, Endicott, Lamont, Dickson, Bix and others joined those who had made important contributions to legal theory in the positivistic tradition in the years preceding the original publication of Alexy's book: Lyons, Coleman, Campbell, Harris, Green, Waluchow and others, who are still among the main contributors to legal theory in the positivist tradition. It is a great shame that nothing in these writings influenced the arguments of the book. Perhaps this regret is misplaced. After all ‘positivism' in legal theory means, and always did mean, different things to different people. What Radbruch, one of Alexy's heroes, meant when he first saw himself as a legal positivist and then recanted was not the same as what 'legal positivism' means in Britain (and nowadays in the United States as well) among those who engage in philosophical reflection about the nature of law. Perhaps Alexy is simply addressing himself to a German audience, and refuting, or attempting to refute, legal theories of a kind identified in Germany as 'legal positivism'. Perhaps, though his references to Hart show that he does not intend it that way. My aims in this chapter are, however, reasonably clear. My main purpose is to explore whether any of Alexy's arguments challenge any of the views which I have advocated. Subsidiary aims are, first, to clarify why what Alexy says is legal positivism is not what is understood as such in the English speaking world, so that some of Alexy's sound points find no target; secondly, to try and clarify some of his arguments which I found, at least initially, rather obscure. Given the prominence of Alexy's book I will refer only to it, and will not consider his other publications.
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