What Is a Philosophy of Law?

Sandi Johnson

A philosophy of law is the underlying analysis behind legal theory. In short, a philosophy of law considers the role of legal theory in society, including where legal authority is drawn, and the concepts necessary to understand the nature of laws. Commonly referred to as jurisprudence, legal philosophy breaks down into three primary categories: analytic jurisprudence, normative jurisprudence, and critical legal theories.

Thomas Hobbes built on the work of the Greeks in his theories of natural law, or the perceived natural order of justice.
Thomas Hobbes built on the work of the Greeks in his theories of natural law, or the perceived natural order of justice.

Whether discussed by legal theorists or legal philosophers, analytic jurisprudence, as a philosophy of law, seeks to differentiate legal norms from other societal norms such as ethics and morality. Analytic jurisprudence analyzes the linguistic uses, meanings, and evaluation of specific laws and legal concepts. Much controversy surrounds analytic jurisprudence, with primary arguments forming around the relationship between law and morality and whether legal theories derived from moral beliefs are in fact, a solid basis for statutory law. Natural law, or the perceived natural order of justice, is at the core of analytic jurisprudence and is in constant opposition to legal positivism, the denial of connections between law and morality.

Normative jurisprudence is a philosophy of law which seeks to analyze concrete questions of law and freedom. Based on three issues, normative jurisprudence directly addresses legal obligations and the scope of legal power. The three issues at the heart of normative jurisprudence include the ability to restrict freedom, the obligation to obey, and justified punishment. Restriction of freedoms is an inherit function of law, but the extent of restriction and appropriate punishments for violations is the basis of this particular philosophy of law. For example, criminal laws restrict freedoms by removing certain behavioral choices such as rape or murder, while restricting freedom of speech is often deemed outside the scope of legislative control.

Critical legal theory is a philosophy of law category that encompasses multiple topics. Such topics include legal realism, which seeks to analyze how the judicial system truly functions rather than abstract concepts presented by analytic jurisprudence philosophers. Law and economics, another area of critical legal theory, argues points regarding the effect of judicial systems on economics and vice versa. Finally, outsider jurisprudence encompasses legal theories debating the effects of legal statutes on women, minorities, and other underrepresented groups.

Regardless of categories, legal philosophy analyzes all aspects of laws, legal systems, and legal theories. Debating the role of legal systems, the evolution of law, its relationship to and place in society, as well as the effects of law are all hot topics for legal theorists. Whether assisting in the understanding of the role of legal systems or determining the scope of power given legislators, a philosophy of law seeks to ensure statutory laws contribute to the growth and prosperity of society.

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