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Kelsen on Natural Law and Legal Science

Part of the Law and Philosophy Library book series (LAPS,volume 118)

Abstract

Kelsen rejects the scientific character of natural-law doctrine. For Kelsen, value judgments are ultimately not rationally justified but a matter of emotions. They can be rationally justified only relative to a certain moral or legal order. Kelsen also rejects the assumption of natural-law doctrines that value is immanent in reality. On the other hand, he suggests that legal science is possible regarding positive law, which is converted into a normative order by presupposing a “basic norm”. I will not challenge Kelsen’s critique of traditional natural-law doctrine, but discuss two issues: Can Kelsen’s own account of the “Pure Theory of Law” claim to be scientific, and does Kelsen’s critique of traditional natural-law theories affect modern versions of normative theories of law?

As to the first issue, according to Kelsen, legal science is possible because it refers to positive law, which one can identify by empirical means. However, Kelsen is not content with a purely descriptive approach to law, but wants to show how legal science is possible as a science of norms. In this respect, the “basic norm” is crucial. This chapter questions whether the mere presupposition of a basic norm is sufficient to establish the scientific character of legal doctrine.

As to the second issue, quite a number of theories have been advanced that purport to show how scientific, or at least rational, treatment of normative issues is possible without the dubious assumptions of traditional natural-law doctrines. I will discuss in particular Gustav Radbruch’s “methodological trialism” and the discourse theory of law as presented by Robert Alexy. From this discussion, I will then proceed to address the further question of the continued relevance of Kelsen’s critique of natural-law doctrine for legal science.

Keywords

  • Legal System
  • Basic Norm
  • Normative System
  • Legal Order
  • Normative Claim

These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    See Kelsen (1923, XVII), referring to Hermann Cohen. See also Kelsen’s reference to the Neo-Kantian foundation for his legal science in his 1933 letter to Renato Treves (Kelsen 1998).

  2. 2.

    By contrast, Alexy (2002, 112), holds that a descriptive legal statement of a legal scientist requires the Kelsenian basic norm: ‘One ought to behave as the constitution prescribes.’ However, the legal scientist need not presuppose this basic norm, but merely a system-relative statement that, according to the respective legal system, one ought to behave as the constitution prescribes.

  3. 3.

    Ronald Dworkin’s conception of ‘Law as Integrity’ (see Dworkin 1977, 1986, 2011) and John Rawls’ ‘Theory of Justice’ (see Rawls 1971) are also of also interest in this respect, but are beyond the scope of this contribution.

  4. 4.

    On this “continuity thesis” see Paulson 2015, 151–182; Neumann 2015, 129–150; Dreier 2015, 183–228; Borowski 2015, 229–265, Adachi 2006, 97–8; Wiegand 2004, 11–12.

  5. 5.

    See also, Paulson 1980, 504.

  6. 6.

    On Radbruch’s relativism, see Pauly 2011, 18ff; Wapler 2011, 33ff; Sieckmann 2009, 14ff.

  7. 7.

    See also Nino 1991, 253.

  8. 8.

    Alexy is interested, however, only in the direct justification of human rights, (Alexy 1995, 147).

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Sieckmann, J. (2017). Kelsen on Natural Law and Legal Science. In: Langford, P., Bryan, I., McGarry, J. (eds) Kelsenian Legal Science and the Nature of Law. Law and Philosophy Library, vol 118. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-51817-6_14

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