On the Indeterminacy Crisis: Critiquing Critical Dogma
43 Pages Posted: 7 Jul 2008
This essay investigates the indeterminacy thesis - roughly the claim that the content of authoritative legal materials (such as the texts of constitutions, statutes, cases, rules, and regulations) does not determine the outcome of particular legal disputes. The indeterminacy thesis can be formulated as either "strong" or weak." The strong version of the indeterminacy thesis is demonstrably false, but several weak versions of the thesis are true but lack the radical implications of strong indeterminacy.
The strong indeterminacy thesis is the claim that all cases are "hard" cases - or that in any case any conceivable result can be derived from existing legal doctrine. Strong indeterminacy does not hold if there are easy cases - cases in which some outcomes cannot be legally correct. For example, if it were the case that the first paragraph of this abstract did not slander Gore Vidal, then there would be at least one easy case, and strong indeterminacy would be false.
Weak versions of the indeterminacy thesis include the claim that important cases are indeterminate, that the law does not necessarily determine outcomes, or that every case could become indeterminate if political conditions supported indeterminacy. These weaker claims may be true, but they lack the critical bite associated with strong indeterminacy.
The essay also distinguishes between "determinacy," "indeterminacy," and "underdeterminacy." The law is "determinate" with respect ot a given case if and only if the set of results that can be squared with the legal materials contains only one member. The law is "indeterminate" with respect to a given case if and only if the set of results that can be squared with the legal materials is identical with the set of all imaginable results. The law is "underdeterminate" with respect to a given case if and only if the set of results that can be squared with the legal materials is a nonidentical subset of the set of all imaginable results.
This article was first published in 1987, and some of the author's views have been revised in interim.
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