The philosophy of law is a complex and in depth study, which requires an intimate knowledge of the legal process in general as well as a philosophical mind. For centuries, the scope and nature of law has been debated and argued from various view points, and intense intellectual discussion has arisen from the fundamental question of ‘what is law’. In response, several major schools of thought have been born, of which the natural law scholars and positivists are two of the most notable. These two camps hold strictly contrasting views over the role and function of law in certain circumstances, and have provided in themselves platforms for criticism and debated which continue to be relevant today.
Although the classifications of natural law and positivism are frequently used, it is important to remember that they cover a very wide range of academic opinion. Even within each camp, there are those veering towards more liberal or more conservative understandings, and there is also naturally a grey area. Having said that, academics and philosophers can be enveloped by one of the categories on the basis of certain fundamental principles within their writings and opinions.
Natural law has always been linked to ultra-human considerations, that is to say a spiritual or moral influence determinant of their understandings of the way law operates. One of the founding principles is that an immoral law can be no law at all, on the basis that a government needs moral authority to be able to legislate. For this reason, natural law theories have been used to justify anarchy and disorder at ground level. This had lead to widespread criticism of the natural law principles, which have had to be refined and developed to fit with modern thinking. On the flip side, natural law has been used as a definitive method of serving ‘justice’ to war criminals and former-dictators after their reign.
Some of the strongest criticisms of natural law have come from the positivist camp. Positivism holds at its centre the belief that law is not affected by morality, but in essence is the source of moral considerations. Because morality is a subjective concept, positivism suggests that the law is the source of morality, and that no extra-legal considerations should be taken in to account. Positivism has been criticised for allowing extremism and unjust actions through law. It has also been suggested that positivism in its strictest sense is flawed because it ignores the depth and breadth of language in legal enactment, which means the positive law can be read in different lights based on differing meanings of the same word. Despite this, positivism has been seen as one of the fundamental legal theories in the development of modern legal philosophy over the last few decades, and is winning widespread favour through a contemporary academic revival.
Natural law and positivism have been the subject of an ongoing academic debate into the nature of law and its role within society. Both respective legal schools have criticised and built on one and others theories and principles to create a more sophisticated philosophical understanding of the legal construct. Although the debate is set to continue with a new generation of promising legal theorists, both natural law and positivism have gained widespread respect for their consistency and close analyses of the structure of law.