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Normative Methods for Lawyers


Joseph William Singer


Harvard Law School

February 11, 2008

Harvard Public Law Working Paper No. 08-05

Abstract:     
How can we defend arguments about what the law should be based on considerations of morality, justice, fairness, liberty, rights, or human values? Are such arguments anything more than assertions of personal preferences? In this article, I argue that normative arguments are crucial for the rule of law and that both lawyers (and law students) need to know how to make and defend claims of morality and justice. In recent years, cost/benefit and efficiency analysis appear to have taken over most legal scholarship and many law school classroom discussions. Such analysis suggests that the sole goal of the legal system should be to maximize human welfare and that we can best accomplish this goal by deferring to individual preferences, whatever they happen to be, valuing the relative strength of those preferences by reference to market values, and then choosing results whose social benefits outweigh their social costs. In contrast, I argue that such analysis is wholly without any normative weight unless it occurs within a framework of institutions, laws, and practices that are consistent with minimum standards for social and economic relationships in a free and democratic society. Normative arguments are designed to define that legitimate framework. Moreover, such arguments are not merely expressions of personal preference but are evaluative assertions and moral demands we are entitled to make of each other. Moral and political theory provide resources to help lawyers make evaluative assertions about human values that the legal system should respect. At the same time, lawyers possess substantial expertise in analyzing, shaping, and defending normative claims and the methods used by lawyers should be of interest to moral and political theorists.

Because there are better and worse ways of making normative arguments and because both lawyers and law students need to know how to make such arguments, this article explains four basic tasks of normative argument and outlines a number of different ways lawyers accomplish those tasks. It then applies these various normative methods to a basic property law case. Bringing to consciousness these methods will help lawyers improve them and develop the skills needed to use them. Articulating and exploring the contours of the methods used by lawyers to make and defend normative arguments will help all participants in the legal system to articulate normative reasons that can justify legal rights and institutions in a manner appropriate to a free and democratic society.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 95

Keywords: jurisprudence, legal theory, moral theory, political theory, property, justice, rights, fairness, morality, democracy

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Date posted: February 16, 2008  

Suggested Citation

Singer, Joseph William, Normative Methods for Lawyers (February 11, 2008). Harvard Public Law Working Paper No. 08-05. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1093338 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1093338

Contact Information

Joseph W. Singer (Contact Author)
Harvard Law School ( email )
1575 Massachusetts
Hauser 406
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States
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