Natural Law vs. Positivism

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.

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The Scope and Nature of the Criminal Law

In our private lives, the area of law we will experience the most, either directly or indirectly would have to be the criminal law. Not necessarily through contravening its principals, the individual citizen will more commonly encounter its breadth in the course of their everyday lives, considering as a factor the legal ramifications of any desired conduct or decision in the decision making process. For most of us, we tend to live our lives within these predetermined boundaries with no second thought or question as to the morality of the prohibited option nor the moral authority behind it. In this article, it is proposed to look at the nature and scope of the criminal law in our society, and to discuss whether as an entity it is too intrusive, or whether it is naturally a required aspect of regulating society.

It is often said academically that the citizen enjoys freedom to act as he wishes in his life, subject to the regulatory provisions of the criminal law and the criminal justice system. It is thought that as citizens of a particular country, largely at freedom to choose where we live in the world, we impliedly accept the authority of the relevant legal provisions which, for the most part, regulate on a moral level. Of course there are exceptions, i.e. criminal laws of a regulatory or secondary nature which do not directly bear any moral message, such as speeding limits or parking restrictions. So, then, to what extent does the criminal law reflect morality, and further from what source is this morality derived?

The criminal law is said to operate in mind of the public good, and the benefit of society. It could, therefore, be argued to be crossing the boundaries into serious restrictions on liberty when it regulates personal conduct like drug use which may not have any wider impact than on that of the person indulging accordingly. Why should the criminal law impose restrictions on what a person can do with his or her own body? Surely our own freewill is a good enough justification for acting outwith the scope of the law in these types of scenario?

Furthermore an interesting area of the criminal law is potential liability for omissions. In this sense, the citizen can actually be punished without acting at all in a specific way. This takes the criminal law beyond a regulatory framework for the public good into an actual coercive force to make people positively act in a certain way. For example, in some jurisdictions there is a legal duty to report a road traffic accident. This means a citizen who is aware of the occurrence of such will have committed a criminal offence where he does not act in the prescribed manner. Again, this is surely affording a broad scope to the criminal law, which may be seen by some as intruding on the fundamental freedoms and values upon which most modern nations were built.

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The European Convention on Human Rights: The Wider Implications

The European Convention on Human Rights has seen vast changes to the legal framework of countries across Europe. By imposing fundamental freedoms and liberties in an indefeasible form, it has created a host of legal problems and issues for courts to tackle in an attempt to improve human rights. Distinct from the US, which already retains fundamental freedoms through its definitive constitution, much of Europe in particular the UK doesn’t have the same codified provisions for its citizens. This has now been revolutionised by the ratification of the European Convention (ECHR), which sets out certain primary standards that must be attained in relation to each individual citizen. In this article, we will look at the advantages of the ECHR, and the wide-ranging impact it has had on the various constitutions around Europe.

The European Convention on Human Rights was established as an international treaty to afford a uniform standard of human rights treatment across Europe. Covering basic freedoms like the right to life through to trickier issues such as the right to liberty and the right to marry, ECHR has had an astonishing impact on Europe both legally and politically. In passing legislation, European governments have to as a matter of law legislate in accordance with the provisions contained within the ECHR. This means parliaments of signatory countries are being bound by their predecessors to legislate in a particular way, which has ruled out a number of would-be pledges and meant the reversal of certain national laws.

One area where this has caused problems is in abortion. The perpetual morality debate aside, abortion has been held to contravene the right to life provision in certain European countries. Although there is still great scope for challenge, this could potentially cause problems in the coming years as more and more cases of this nature are brought before the European court. Another major problem area is that of same sex marriages. The universal right to marry means that any provision stopping same sex marriage anywhere in Europe could potentially be struck down as illegal, requiring nations to actively realign their current provisions to avoid any discrimination. For this reason, the UK, amongst others, have taken proactive measures to permit same-sex marriages to avoid the embarrassment of a public ruling against them. This obviously raises problems of national power and freedom: nations are now utterly bound by the principles of European ‘liberty’, whether they like it or not.

Thankfully this social and legal upheaval is working towards a more liberty-orientated Europe. It is certainly taking time, and given the fact that the ECHR is over half a century old, its impacts are becoming more and more apparent as time wears on and as courts are presented with modern challenges located within the context of the original ECHR provisions. Additionally, the European Convention on Human Rights is being regularly updated and amended to provide a steadfast constitution for the citizen whilst retaining the flexibility to adapt to contemporary situations. Although the ECHR and the provisions contained within it have met stiff opposition throughout their lifetime, most would now agree that the level of individual certainty provided by these fundamental freedoms is making for a better quality of life and reducing the scope for discrimination and prejudice across Europe.

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Supreme Court Abortion Decision

After much deliberation and discussion, the Supreme Court has returned a critical strike to the core of women’s rights in the abortion arena. The court in a 5-4 decision banned a medical procedure known as a partial-birth abortion or Dilation and Extraction. This abortion procedure was performed after the 20th week of pregnancy. While the pro-rights crowd is naturally upset over the ban, they are horrified over the fact that there are no exceptions to the ban that would enable a doctor to save the life of a woman if it was medically necessary to perform the procedure.

Doctors can face up to 2 years in prison if they are convicted of performing the procedures, which will greatly limit the numbers of doctors performing the procedures and likely increase the number of states placing bans of the entire abortion procedure as well. The decision came from a split Supreme Court, with two of the justices being hand picked by Bush himself. This is a cause of great concern, suggesting that the Supreme Court has turned into a very conservative place, despite the lack of support for Bush and many of his ideas and practices on a broader level. The Supreme Court’s involvement in politics is usually noted, but given the gravity of this decision it is clear where certain allegiances lie.

Is the Supreme Court really following the wishes of the majority, do they really have the legal right to determine that a medical decision can or cannot be performed? The anti-abortion camps in the GOP are happy following the decision and are busily looking for more ways to put a damper on the rights of women in regards to abortions. How will this decision be regarded when it comes election time, and the Presidential elections come around? What about the midterm elections next time they are scheduled?

Many people are left to wonder if the Supreme Court decision is truly a legal decision, or nothing more than a very carefully selected group of ultra conservative judge’s who are following Bush’s wishes and desires in regards to the case. The case was sitting before a panel of judge’s who seem to thrive off of the acceptance of Bush, and Bush was noted as being encouraged by the ruling and declaring it as a victory for his administration.

The court defended its decision by saying that it was doing nothing more than drawing a line between abortion and infanticide. There is a difference between killing a child, or an infant, and an abortion. One of the most notable differences is that a child or infant is not considered an infant until the first breath of air is taken into the lungs. An abortion does not allow the infant to take that first breath of air, therefore, removing the term infant from their being.

While it is noble that the Supreme Court is looking and seeking to protect all forms of life, they should also concern themselves with the lives of the mothers who carry babies, who should not be allowed to continue to term for medical reasons. There are numerous women each year who become pregnant who are unable physically to carry a child to term, and must abort the child, or risk their own life. What has the Supreme Court done in order to protect those mothers, or improve their quality of life?

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