Autonomy within the Limits of Sympathy: A Comment on Neil MacCormick's Practical Reason in Law and Morality

Jurisprudence 1 (1):137-146 (2010)
Neil MacCormick says that his "version of institutional theory" about the law 'is "non positivist", or, if you wish, "post-positivist"'. He is aware, however, that his work could be perfectly labelled, from the point of view of the history of legal and moral thought, as a form of natural law theory, at least by those who adhere to some version of natural law. It is an important merit of MacCormick that, rising above the label walls and wars, his theory of law has taken into account the main insights of the great authors belonging to both traditions, such as Hans Kelsen and Herbert Hart, on the so-called "positivist" side, and some authors in the Thomistic tradition, particularly John Finnis, as well as "the writings of seventeenth and eighteenth century jurists concerning natural jurisprudence and the law of nature", on the so-called "natural law" side. Writing with such openness to all sources and insights, Neil MacCormick, one of the most eminent legal philosophers of our time, does not surprise us when he chooses to end his lifetime's work with an attempt to dig into the ethical foundations of all that he has written on law and politics. Practical Reason in Law and Morality is, in a way, his most significant book. He tackles here the deeper issues that he himself realised were left open and uncertain in his salient works on legal theory. He considered this book as the last one in a quartet on "Law, State, and Practical Reason". The quartet itself has become the culmination of a life devoted to the common good, in academia and in politics, among many other endeavours. Notwithstanding its flaws, I am convinced that Neil MacCormick's last book can be illuminating for all those students, and even professors, who go about doing legal philosophy without ever reading anything antedating Hart's Concept of Law. They tend to be confused by sophisticated forms of scepticism, luxurious discussions on law and morality and metaethics, and all sorts of distrust of truth in practical matters. Hence they will surely benefit from reading how a great legal philosopher of our time, once equally confused but always honestly open to rational deliberation and fair discussion, freed himself of at least half of his misunderstandings, and learned a lot by reading some natural law theorists old and new
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