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Explaining Theoretical Disagreement


Brian Leiter


University of Chicago

August 3, 2007

U of Texas Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 124

Abstract:     
Shapiro (2007) has recently argued that Dworkin posed a new objection to legal positivism in Law's Empire, to which positivists, he says, have not adequately responded. Positivists, the objection goes, have no satisfactory account of what Dworkin calls "theoretical disagreement" about law, that is, disagreement about "the grounds of law" or what positivists would call the criteria of legal validity. I agree with Shapiro that the critique is new, and disagree that it has not been met. Positivism can not offer an explanation that preserves the "face value" of theoretical disagreements, because the only intelligible dispute about the criteria of legal validity is an empirical or "head count" dispute, i.e., a dispute about what judges are doing, and how many of them are doing it (since it is the actual practice of officials and their attitudes towards that practice that fixes the criteria of legal validity according to the positivist).

Positivism, however, has two other explanations for theoretical disagreement, which "explain away" rather than preserve the "face value" disagreement. According to positivists, either theoretical disagreements are disingenuous, in the sense that the parties, consciously or unconsciously, are really trying to change the law, that is, they are trying to say, as Dworkin puts it, "what it should be" not "what the law is"; or they are simply in error, that is, they honestly think there is a fact of the matter about what the grounds of law are, and thus what the law is, in the context of their disagreement, but they are mistaken, because, in truth, there is no fact of the matter about the grounds of law in this instance precisely because there is no convergent practice of behavior among officials constituting a Rule of Recognition on this point. The "Disingenuity" and "Error Theory" accounts of theoretical disagreement are explored, with attention to the theoretical desiderata (e.g., simplicity, consilience, methodological conservativism) at stake in choosing between competing explanatory theories. Particular attention is given to the best explanation for Riggs v. Palmer in light of the actual historical context of the decision and other opinions by the Riggs judges in contemporaneous cases.

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Date posted: August 4, 2007  

Suggested Citation

Leiter, Brian, Explaining Theoretical Disagreement (August 3, 2007). U of Texas Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 124. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1004768 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1004768

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Brian Leiter (Contact Author)
University of Chicago ( email )
1111 E. 60th St.
Chicago, IL 60637
United States
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