Law as Fact and as Reason for Action: A Response to Robert Alexy on Law's 'Ideal Dimension'

Notre Dame Legal Studies Paper No. 1418

31 Pages Posted: 26 Apr 2014

See all articles by John Finnis

John Finnis

Notre Dame Law School; University of Oxford - Faculty of Law

Date Written: April 24, 2014


Robert Alexy’s 2013 Natural Law Lecture, published in vol. 58 of the American Journal of Jurisprudence, presents law as having two dimensions, ideal and real, and thus a dual nature, to be elucidated by a conceptual analysis distinguishing between the observer’s and the participant’s perspective. It argues on this basis for a “non-positivist” theory of law that is “inclusive” in that it classifies some unjust laws as laws, but not all (and is thus not “super-inclusive”); it rejects the “exclusive non-positivism” that would treat every injustice in a law’s making or content as excluding it from the class of valid laws. Gustav Radbruch’s famous post-War formula -- extreme injustice invalidates law -- adopted in the jurisprudence of Germany’s higher courts, is thus to be defended as expressing the inclusive non-positivism that articulates the best concept of law that can be constructed and defended as expedient. Alexy’s 2013 article classifies the theory in Natural Law and Natural Rights as super-inclusive, but sees hopeful signs of inclusive non-positivism in some recent writings of its author. The present article, which is published in Am. J. Juris. 59 (2014), argues that Natural Law and Natural Rights defends, in a sense, all three “non-positivist” positions, each in its proper place as a truth about unjust law: it is (from an observer’s perspective) a fact; it is (from a participant’s perspective) deprived by any significant injustice of law’s generic and presumptive status (legal-moral validity) as a reason for action; and it is (from the perspective of particular participants in their circumstances) sometimes, despite its injustice and legal-moral invalidity, a source (by virtue of both the foregoing truths taken with other moral responsibilities and needs) of collateral obligations the extent of which is likely, often, to track, approximately, the results of applying the Radbruch formula. The article argues against Alexy’s theoretical procedures both of conceptual analysis and of concept construction, regrets the “non-positivist/positivist” labeling, raises doubts about speaking of duality of dimensions and nature, and notes the significance of the 2013 article’s further thesis that any injustice in a law impairs (“qualifies”) its legal status.

Keywords: Alexy, Radbruch, unjust law, obligation

Suggested Citation

Finnis, John M., Law as Fact and as Reason for Action: A Response to Robert Alexy on Law's 'Ideal Dimension' (April 24, 2014). Notre Dame Legal Studies Paper No. 1418, Available at SSRN:

John M. Finnis (Contact Author)

Notre Dame Law School ( email )

P.O. Box 780
Notre Dame, IN 46556-0780
United States

University of Oxford - Faculty of Law ( email )

University College
High Street
Oxford, England OX1 4BH
United Kingdom

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