When Law Becomes Morality: Comments on Mark Greenberg's Moral Impact Theory of Law

9 Pages Posted: 9 May 2014 Last revised: 29 May 2014

See all articles by Brian Bix

Brian Bix

University of Minnesota Law School

Date Written: May 7, 2014


Mark Greenberg, in his article, "The Moral Impact of Law" (Yale Law Journal, 2014), offers a new and provocative understanding of law and legal obligation. His basic position is that "legal obligations are a certain subset of moral obligations"; under his approach, law is "the moral impact of the relevant actions of legal institutions." Greenberg's approach is in sharp contrast with what he calls "the Standard Picture," a view that is assumed or accepted, but rarely argued for, in connection with most of the currently popular theories of the nature of law, as well as likely being implicit in the way most non-theorists and non-practitioners think about law.

It is important in evaluating Greenberg's work to distinguish what is new -- and controversial -- from what is not new, and thus likely to be less controversial. One theme that is important to Greenberg's analysis, but which is distinctly not new, is the argument that the actions of officials can change our moral profile. What is new is labeling the effects on our moral profile -- and only those effects -- as "law." In this brief Response, I argue that Greenberg has not justified this large change in existing practices, and that a focus on changes in moral profiles create problems at least as intricate as does "the Standard Picture" it means to supplant.

Suggested Citation

Bix, Brian, When Law Becomes Morality: Comments on Mark Greenberg's Moral Impact Theory of Law (May 7, 2014). Minnesota Legal Studies Research Paper No. 14-27, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2434075 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2434075

Brian Bix (Contact Author)

University of Minnesota Law School ( email )

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