Are there any ‘theoretical disgreements’ about law?

In this illuminating new article, Brian Leiter amplifies his criticism of Ronald Dworkin’s treatment of so-called ‘theoretical disagreements’ in law.…/theoretical-disagreement…

Why ‘so-called’? Well, Dworkin made up not only the term but the thing. He was the most inventive legal philosopher of our time. (Also, and contrary to a common belief, he could be a very nice guy. Another day, I will tell you about his kindness to me when my mother was dying and, unknown to me, so was Ronnie.)

Here is is a conjecture that suggests an explanation different from, but not incompatible with, Leiter’s:

A theoretical disagreement is a disagreement about what the law actually is (to the extent that there is actually law) in a case where most competent lawyers agree on *all* the ordinary historical and other empirical facts about what relevant people have thought, said and done. These lawyers are said to disagree *only* about how these agreed, empirical facts ‘make law’–that is, on the *bearing* of all ordinary facts on the law.

Now, the standard(s) that determine the bearing of ordinary facts on the law are usually called ‘recognition rules’, or, to be more precise ‘ultimate recognition rules’.  (Some subordinate recognition rules are themselves matters of law.  That is why neither the US Constitution, nor any part of it, is ‘the rule of recognition’ in US law.)  The existence and content of these ultimate standards are matters of (ordinary) facts, a bit like the facts that determine the existence and content of the rules that provide the criteria for grammaticality in a natural language. (To the extent that there are facts about that: some sentences in a language are neither clearly grammatical nor clearly ungrammatical.)

So there are theoretical disagreements only if there are cases in which (a) there is law, (b) the existence or content of which is subject to disagreement among most competent lawyers, (c) who nonetheless agree on *all* the ordinary facts.  But that set is empty:

Suppose the contrary. Then it must be the case that some disagreeing, competent lawyers are correct in their claim about what the law actually is, and others incorrect. (They might be incorrect in thinking it is the law that not-p, while it is actually p; but they might also be incorrect in thinking that the law is indeterminate, that it requires neither p nor not-p.)  It follows that there are at least at least some ordinary facts about which those very lawyers disagree: to wit, what are the recognition rules of the legal system in question? Any legal disagreement that turns on an ordinary disagreement is not a ‘theoretical disagreement’, as Dworkin defines that term.

Suppose, now, that our Dworkinian  replies: ‘this begs this question. There *are* no ‘”recognition rules” that determine the bearing of facts on law.’ This is no help. Whether or not *there are* any recognition rules is a matter of ordinary fact. A recognition rule is a matter of social custom and practice.  Lawyers who disagree about whether they exist disagree about a matter of ordinary fact. So these lawyers do not have a ‘theoretical disagreement’ either.

Some philosophers never see a ditch they wouldn’t mind dying in.  So they go on to reply, ‘You’ve misunderstood. My claim is that what *you* call ‘recognition rules’ are not exhausted by what *you* call ‘ordinary facts’.  I say they include what I call “moral facts”.’  (Sidebar comment: a lot of legal philosophy–well, a lot of philosophy actually–works by the selective deployment of skepticism.  For example, a roll of eyes over ‘recognition rules’  combined with a fond batting of lashes towards ‘moral facts’ that somehow fix the law.)  But this isn’t a matter of verbal legislation, surely.  One person who says that the ultimate standards determining what counts as law are exhausted by ordinary facts, and another who says they are not, disagree about the nature and content of those very standards, whatever we call them.  One side is  presumably not saying that it is a bad idea, or regrettable, that the ultimate standards  in law should be (what most call) recognition rules.  They are saying that the ultimate standards are not recognition rules at all.   If other competent lawyers deny *that* then they do deny a certain matter of ordinary fact: that there are what most people call recognition rules.  They deny what others assert–that in every legal system there are at least some rules whose existence is a matter of ordinary human thought, speech and action and which determine the existence and content of law  So, again, they do not agree on all matters of fact while disagreeing on the content of the law.

But then how should we characterise their disagreements?  Leiter, in the above piece, sets out some plausible alternatives. None of them requires that we acknowledge the existence of ‘theoretical disagreements’ about the law.





I apologize for any offense #MakesMeSick


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In 2012, English footballer Andre Gray tweeted Is it me or are there gays everywhere? #Burn #Die #Makesmesick”.’

Following Gray’s winning goal against Liverpool yesterday, the striker ran for cover as his vile spew was discovered and re-tweeted. Gray said , ‘I want to offer a sincere and unreserved apology to anybody I may have offended in relation to these tweets. His statement went on to assert that he is ‘a completely different person’ now, and that any suggestion that gay people should die or burn was amongst his ‘big mistakes’: he is ‘absolutely not homophobic.’

Gray’s club and fans rallied to his support. In a brief statement Burnley FC minimized the remarks as ‘historical social media posts’ and, while condoning Gray’s ‘apology’, said the club ‘”do[es] not condone any discriminatory behaviour by any employee’. The cowardly evasion did not even appear on the club’s own homepage. And why should it? Gray apologized; he is a whole new person; he is not homophobic.

But none of this is credible, and the stinking words cling like a shitty diaper to Gray, to Burnley, and to the whole Premier League.

First, the ‘apology’ was obviously not written by Gray. The lawyerly tropes, ‘sincere and unreserved and in relation to these tweets’ are not items in any linguistic register in which Gray speaks. The statement is a shallow and phoney lawyer’s production.

Second, suggesting that gay people should burn (or be burned?), die (or be put to death?) is not something that ‘may have offended’ people. To imply that mere offense is at issue here regurgitates the hatred. Admittedly, Gray’s words are not what English law regards as incitement to murder, but they fall squarely within what is, in many jurisdictions, criminal hate speech.  And even where the law tolerates such filth, sane people can see it for what is: a symptom of a dangerously disordered outlook.

Third, there was no psychological rift between 2012 and 2016 that could warrant Gray disowning his words as those of ‘a completely different person’, and no moral rift that could warrant Burnley dismissing them as a ‘historical’ evil. Gray is the person now that he was four years ago, and in 2012 anyone who was not a monster would know that gay people do not deserve to burn or die. Moreover, Gray’s views about sex and gender still remain on flamboyantly ignorant display in April 2015, as we see in his pathetic comment about Joseline Hernandez’ pregnancy:

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Fourth, Gray’s assertion that he ‘can only apologise and ask forgiveness’ is absurd. The club is paying him £6 million for three years’ work. If Gray were to return, say, 1/36th of that in compensation for his wrongful conduct, it would only be £167,000. Four weeks of service to those he said should burn or die. So it isn’t true that he can only apologize: he could do more if only he wanted to. Who to compensate? One appropriate recipient would be Sport Allies, who work to eradicate homophobia in UK sport.

Should we, as some suggest, think that Gray’s early life—in poverty, gang-culture, and racism—mitigates his wrongdoing, that it frees him of the responsibilities of any other human being?   No. In this case, the experience of oppression is not a mitigating factor but an aggravating one. Gray of all players should be able to identify the wrong he has done. He is well-placed to know just what it is like to be always at the sharp end of the stick. He would understand the menace in this:

“Is it me or are there blacks everywhere? #Burn #Die #MakeMeSick”.

Gray would never accept a mere apology for ‘any offense’ caused by those words. Neither should we accept his apology–and  neither should Burnley or the Premier League.