Monday, September 28, 2009

Why the Pure Theory of Law Matters: Understanding the Misunderstood Kelsen (Part 1)

Okay, I know that this blog is made for common readers, but I guess that writing a subject on legal theory and legal philosophy once in a while wouldn't do much harm. Besides, I cannot resist the temptation of writing this post. While Hans Kelsen is known as a prominent jurist and a worldwide respected legal scholar, he could also hold the first rank of the most misunderstood legal scholars of all time. There are so many critics to his legal theory (known as the "General Theory of Law" and the "Pure Theory of Law") that in some cases, his name and theory are recorded in law text books only for the sake of being criticized. Of course, this doesn't mean that his theory is less regarded than other legal theories since debating and criticizing are very usual in a well educated community. However, I feel that those critics are not the result of a correct understanding of Kelsen's theory. Instead, such critics were made on a false ground, a misunderstanding of Kelsen's real intention when he first declared his theory of law to the public.

Personally, after reading Kelsen's book, "The General Theory of Law and State," it is very hard for me to understand the basis of the critics and attacks made toward his theory. In my opinion, Kelsen provides a solid basis for lawyers in understanding the law and its basic characteristics, i.e. law as a norm and as a specific technique for social organization. We'll take a look on these issues further (some will be discussed in Part 2). But, for the appetizer, let us discuss first some basic concepts of the General Theory of Law and the Pure Theory of Law.

What is the General Theory of Law and the Pure Theory of Law?

In my opinion, nothing can better describe Kelsen's theory of law than Kelsen's own words. Therefore, to ensure that my description of this theory could reflect Kelsen's original thought in the highest manner, I will stay as close as possible with the description made by Kelsen in "The General Theory of Law and State." Expect a little bit of copy and paste here. But don't worry, my personal comments will be made separately below.

According to Kelsen, the General Theory of Law is a general theory of positive law and positive law is always the law of a define community (such as the law of Indonesia, the law of the United States, etc). Kelsen claims that his general theory is made as a result of a comparative analysis of the different positive legal orders, furnishing the fundamental concepts by which the positive law of a definite legal community can be described.

Further, the subject matters of a general theory of law is the legal norms, their elements, their interrelation, the legal order as a whole, its structure, the relationship between different legal orders and finally the unity of the law in the plurality of positive legal orders. This kind of theory must derive its concepts exclusively from the contents of positive legal norms and therefore must not be influenced by the motives or intentions of regulators or the interests of the individuals to which they are the subject of such law, unless these motives and interests are manifested in the material produced by the lawmaking process. In other words, the general theory of law is directed at a structural analysis of positive law rather than a psychological or economic explanation of its conditions, or a moral or political evaluation of its ends.

Next, what is the Pure Theory of Law? According to Kelsen, the Pure Theory of Law means that such theory is being kept free from all the elements foreign to the specific method of a science whose only purpose is the cognition of law. Further, Kelsen argues that a science has to describe its object as it actually is, not to prescribe how it should be or should not be from the point of view of some specific value judgments. The latter is a problem of politics, and as such, concerns the art of government, an activity directed at values, not an object of science, which is directed at reality.

The Pure Theory of Law considers its subject (law) not as a more or less imperfect copy of a transcendental idea. It does not try to comprehend the law as an offspring of justice. It sees the law not as the manifestation of a super human authority, but a specific social technique based on human experiences. Consequently, it seeks the basic of law, i.e. the reason of its validity, not in a meta-juristic principle, but in a juristic hypothesis, i.e. a Basic Norm, to be established by a logical analysis of actual juristic thinking.

My Notes on Kelsen's Theory of Law

Referring to Kelsen's thought above, I can conclude that a general theory of law focuses only on the structure and content of the law. It analyzes the law as it is and it is neutral, i.e. it does not question and judge the values or ideas contained within a law which is not the concern of a general theory of law. I find this as enlightening, though I understand that some people may find this idea as distasteful, i.e. how can someone claims that a theory of law should be separated from value judgment, the idea of justice, the idea of good? Wouldn't this provide a theoretical support for a despotic ruler to establish laws in accordance with his own wish and interest, without any accountability and any check and balance mechanism?

To tell you the truth, the answers are quite easy. First, a theory of law which depends on value judgment to analyze the law's validity will not work simply because it is impossible to determine a value than can be universally accepted by each and every men. As an example, who can perfectly define the term "Justice"? Even the great John Rawls with his magnum opus "A Theory of Justice," a book that has been prepared by him for more than 20 years, can't provide the perfected idea of justice to which every scholars would agree. The question of justice has been asked even by Socrates and Plato more than 2,400 years ago, and yet we have not resolved such question until today.

There is also a greater reason why Kelsen made such separation. As noted above, Kelsen defines law as a specific social technique made by men, and that definition, in my opinion, becomes the core of the structure of Kelsen's theory. To cut it short, Kelsen's theory is methodological (which is in accordance with Kelsen's ambition to establish a scientific theory of law). As such, Kelsen's theory deals with the method of establishing and operating the law, not the background of why such law was made on the first place.

As a logical consequence of this theory, the existence and validity of the law are no longer attached to morality, justice, religion, history, etc. Rather, a law would be deemed valid if it is created in accordance with the mechanism set out within a legal order/system (Kelsen believes that a law should be established in a coherent legal order/system, i.e. a positive legal order) and derived from a systematic hierarchy of norms, i.e. a law/norm's validity is determined by the validity of the law/norm having a higher level than such norm (this goes on until we reach the hypothetical Basic Norm (Grundnorm) which will be discussed further below).

It is also worth to note that while Kelsen makes such separation in his theory, it doesn't mean that he doesn't care about the value judgment of law. He understand that whether you like it or not, every law in this world must be based on certain value and thus such law can be good or bad, just or unjust. We can't deny that fact. However, Kelsen views this value judgment issues as not an issue of legal theory, but more a philosophical question or political science issue and should be answered by philosophers and political scientists. I would add that economists and sociologists would also be helpful in answering these value judgment questions.

For clarification purpose, while I do make a differentiation between the General Theory of Law and the Pure Theory of Law, they are actually inseparable, i.e. Kelsen's theory of law is a general legal theory purified from any non legal elements. This concludes Part 1 from my planned 3 Parts of Post. In the second part, we will discuss the concept of Norms and the relationship between the efficacy and validity of the law.

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