As legal philosopher John Austin concisely put it, “Law is the command of a sovereign.” Law is only law, in other words, if it comes from a recognized authority and can be enforced by that authority, or sovereign—such as a king, a president, or a dictator—who has power within a defined area or territory. Positivism is a philosophical movement that claims that science provides the only knowledge precise enough to be worthwhile. But what are we to make of the social phenomena of laws?
We could examine existing statutes—executive orders, regulations, or judicial decisions—in a fairly precise way to find out what the law says. For example, we could look at the posted speed limits on most US highways and conclude that the “correct” or “right” speed is no more than fifty-five miles per hour. Or we could look a little deeper and find out how the written law is usually applied. Doing so, we might conclude that sixty-one miles per hour is generally allowed by most state troopers, but that occasionally someone gets ticketed for doing fifty-seven miles per hour in a fifty-five miles per hour zone. Either approach is empirical, even if not rigorously scientific. The first approach, examining in a precise way what the rule itself says, is sometimes known as the “positivist” school of legal thought. The second approach—which relies on social context and the actual behavior of the principal actors who enforce the law—is akin to the “legal realist” school of thought (see Other Schools of Legal Thought ).
Positivism has its limits and its critics. New Testament readers may recall that King Herod, fearing the birth of a Messiah, issued a decree that all male children below a certain age be killed. Because it was the command of a sovereign, the decree was carried out (or, in legal jargon, the decree was “executed”). Suppose a group seizes power in a particular place and commands that women cannot attend school and can only be treated medically by women, even if their condition is life-threatening and women doctors are few and far between. Suppose also that this command is carried out, just because it is the law and is enforced with a vengeance. People who live there will undoubtedly question the wisdom, justice, or goodness of such a law, but it is law nonetheless and is generally carried out. To avoid the law’s impact, a citizen would have to flee the country entirely. During the Taliban rule in Afghanistan, from which this example is drawn, many did flee.
The positive-law school of legal thought would recognize the lawmaker’s command as legitimate; questions about the law’s morality or immorality would not be important. In contrast, the natural-law school of legal thought would refuse to recognize the legitimacy of laws that did not conform to natural, universal, or divine law. If a lawmaker issued a command that was in violation of natural law, a citizen would be morally justified in demonstrating civil disobedience. For example, in refusing to give up her seat to a white person, Rosa Parks believed that she was refusing to obey an unjust law.