Reasons without values?

In “How Facts Make Law” (Greenberg 2004), I argue that non-normative contingent facts are not sufficient to determine the content of the law. In the present paper, I take up a challenge raised by Enrique Villanueva (2005). He suggests that, to put it very briefly, descriptive facts can be reasons of the relevant kind. Therefore, even if the content of the law depends on reasons, it does not follow that law practices cannot themselves determine the content of the law. Villanueva proposes a value-neutral criterion – textualism. In other words, he suggests that the descriptive facts about the meaning of legal texts are themselves reasons that determine the contribution of law practices to the content of the law. This suggestion depends on too shallow a conception of the requirement of reasons. For the law to be rationally determined, it is not enough that there be some value-neutral criterion that specifies that law practices have certain consequences for the content of the law. There have to be reasons that explain why that criterion, as opposed to all others, is the legally correct one – the one that, in the relevant legal system, determines the contribution of law practices to the content of the law. Normative facts are the best candidates for such reasons. And, in fact, Villanueva’s textualist criterion derives its appeal from normative facts. Reasons play a central role in the ontology of law. The determinants of the content of the law, which include law-determining practices such as statutes and judicial decisions, influence the content of the law in a systematic way. But their influence on the content of the law cannot be brute: the determining facts must constitute reasons why particular legal facts obtain. Descriptive facts cannot themselves provide the necessary reasons: for any descriptive fact that is a candidate reason, there are many possible models of its significance for the legal facts. Given the descriptive facts alone, it is arbitrary which of the possible models is correct, and therefore what the legal facts are. Descriptive facts therefore cannot alone determine the content of the law. Normative facts are the best candidates for what needs to be added to the law practices in order for the determining facts to make rationally intelligible why particular legal facts, as opposed to others, obtain.
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