The Value of Vagueness
VAGUENESS IN NOMATIVE TEXTS, Vijay K. Bhatia, Jan Engberg, Maurizio Gotti and Dorothee Heller ,eds., Chapter 1, pp. 27-48, Peter Lang, Bern, 2005
Posted: 4 Jul 2008 Last revised: 8 Aug 2013
Date Written: July 3, 2008
How can it be valuable to use vagueness in a normative text? The effect is to make a vague norm, and vagueness seems repugnant to the very idea of making a norm. It leaves conduct (to some extent) unregulated, when the very idea of making a norm is to regulate conduct. A vague norm leaves the persons for whom the norm is valid with no guide to their conduct in some cases - and the point of a norm is to guide conduct. A vague norm in a system of norms does not control the officers or officials responsible for applying the norms or resolving disputes - and part of the value of a system of norms is to control the conduct of the persons to whom the system gives normative power.
In this essay I will seek to resolve these puzzles, and to show that vagueness can be valuable to lawmakers (and valuable to them, because their use of it is valuable to the people to whom the law is addressed). Far from being repugnant to the idea of making a norm, vagueness is a central technique of normative texts: it is needed in order to pursue the purposes of formulating such texts. Not all norms are vague. But vagueness is of central importance to the very idea of guiding conduct by norms.
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