Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Perils of Pure Positivism

The dominant paradigm among law schools training young students to be lawyers is to indoctrinate them into accepting the truth of legal positivism. This trend continues the once fashionable school of Critical Legal Theory (in which law is politics, pure and simple), which went out of fashion, at least as a term, with the collapse of the allegedly Marxist states. In "pure" legal positivism, there is a complete disconnect between law and morality, and the validity of enactments derives from the fact of their enactment (to simplify greatly). In law school, I too read Austin and Hart, and modern proponents like Dworkin, I just never bought them. Legal positivism is the legal equivalent of moral relativism, and leaves open the door to too many hypothetical conditions under which we would be forced to accept the justice of clearly unjust enactments. As a believer in Justice, I maintained my allegiance to the classical, liberal underpinnings of the US Constitution, grounded as it is in a form of natural law theory.

Yet, in the current debate over gene patents, I can see that the grip of legal positivism on lawyers, especially patent attorneys it seems, is tenacious. As I have argued, intellectual property is not derived from natural law, and is thus a set of purely positive enactments. If there were no conflicts with natural law, then all its enactments would be "just," or at least acceptable. It is clear that a number of patent attorneys arguing for the continuation of gene patents either see no truth to natural law theory at all, or cannot grasp the necessity that positive enactments may not justly contradict natural law. It seems most likely, from my recent debates with gene patent proponents, that embracing pure legal positivism is a convenient way in general for lawyers to avoid cognitive dissonance, as there is never the threat that one might have to defend a stance that is, by nature, unjust.

And so, my continuing call to recognize that law must be naturally constrained from granting ownership to things that, by nature, cannot be exclusively possessed, that belong to what I term a "commons by necessity" continues to be misconstrued as a utilitarian call to recognize common rights for some other purpose. Rather, it is a recognition of a simple, necessary law of being, much like that which requires 2+2 to equal 4. Some things, like natural laws, cannot be possessed to the exclusion of anyone. Naturally occurring genes fall into this category too, as a matter of natural law. Positivists who fail to grasp this, or who refuse to recognize this, are persuaded that this is but a matter of choice. To them, I would ask, have you forgotten your Orwell?

"In a time of universal deceit - telling the truth is a revolutionary act."

— George Orwell