Divergent borderline cases

I’ve been thinking about a previous post, on borderline law, and thought maybe it would be worth elaborating a little on the remarks there, just in case they were too perfunctory.

Almost every core theoretical disagreement in philosophy of law (and, probably, philosophy) comes down to arguments over something kind of like focal meaning. (“A Gettier case either is, or is not, a case of knowledge qua knowledge; let’s fight about it”, etc.) Or, if the idea of focal meaning is too metaphysics-y — because, Aristotle thought they had to do with natural kinds, and, (mumble mumble, digression digression) — we can instead say that theoretical disagreements about major philosophical concepts are about graded categories and exemplars.

Graded conceptual analysis has at least two benefits. First, it captures the sense in which it is possible for two people to actually disagree about the same concept without radically misunderstanding each other. That is, it disarms Dworkin’s semantic sting. Second, relatedly, it encourages a kind of modesty in one’s critical ambitions, as borderline cases are permitted in discourse but regarded as especially vulnerable to subjective interpretation.

But there are some downsides to doing graded conceptual analysis. For one thing, a lot of the evaluative-critical import gets lost. So, e.g., when you say, “Kafkan law is a borderline case of law”, the implied criticism pales in comparison to a claim like “Kafkan law is not actually law”. Disputes over the former claim, pro vs. con, look to be trivial. Moreover, we cannot rescue that critical import by definitely asserting that some token case is definitely a near-miss, or a pseudo-legal system. For a borderline case is one that is, by its nature, either a near-miss or a peripheral case, and we can’t tell which. If we say, “Kafkan law is a near-miss case of law”, we abandon graded categorization, along with all the salutary features of that sort of conceptual analysis.

The way of bringing the critical sting back into talk about graded concepts requires us to talk about their directionality. Kafkan law is not just a borderline case — it is a borderline case that is (in some suitable sense) drifting away from the central cases of law considered as tacit or explicit verdicts of institutional sources. Put in this way, we remain neutral on the question of whether or not para-legal systems, considered as a class, actually have (or can be forseen to continue to have) the status of being actually legal systems. The worry is localized on the token cases that are at risk of drifting beyond para-legality into pseudo-legality — they may or may not actually be legal systems now, but they are destined to lose that status of law soon enough.

And a reasonable person might worry that many contemporary political-legal systems are headed in that direction, into the twilight of law (to borrow John Gardner’s evocative phrase). But if the argument aims to tell us what law actually is, then the weight of that argument has (apparently) got to go beyond talking about either the endurance or subversion of secondary rules of the legal system. Or, at any rate, it has got to go farther than to say that any social system which has defective rules of recognition encoded in the practices of the core of the judiciary.

(So, e.g., a disquieting feature of America’s drift from the central cases of legality, it seems to me, is the loss of a sense of what Jules Coleman called identification rules: it seems to me that the loss of both identification rules and secondary rules would be sufficient to make a legal system a divergent case. Though I shall have to leave an argument for that for another post.)

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