Philosophy of Law

Philosophy of Law


Sims’ case will remain in the most controversial cases determined in the law history. After fleeing slavery at the age of seventeen, the Georgian-born and trained Mason opened a new chapter in his life. A fugitive slave had to be tracked and sued in court. Sims was arrested by Boston police and locked in a federal courthouse that was heavily chained. The place was also heavily guarded to ensure that the fugitive is not on the run again.  After the trial, Sims was taken back to his owner by over 300 soldiers in a warship. This became a controversial issue especially with the northern abolitionists. In this chapter, we will discuss at length Shaw’s decision and its relation to the law philosophy.

Natural law theorists

Natural law is of four different types namely; divine, eternal, natural and manmade. All these forms of law provide a platform on which judges makes their decision. The natural law defines what is right and what is wrong and is universal all over the world. It is imperative to understand that natural law is consistent and does not change with time.   Philosophers and scholars have discussed the concept of natural law deeply. Dworkin has contributed immensely to this theory where he asserts that there is a direct link between law and morality. According to Dworkin legal issues and morality, are interrelated principles and should be a roadmap in making judgments. It is his assertion that morality should be integrated with the constitutional law.

In relation to the Shaw’s decision, it is clear that the ruling never incorporated the aspects of morality. The provision in the fugitive law was clear that any fugitive slave should be returned to the master. Nevertheless, it is against the moral values to subject innocent people to slavery. This is a major concern that Shaw should have incorporated in her ruling. In spite of the fact that Sims escaping from the masters was against the constitutional law, it is also immoral or the judge to condemn the slave to further.

Dworkin also asserted that there must be a clear distinction between law and justice. In his work, he argues that the law is best evaluated by how well it is coherent with morality. Laws that are inconsistent with morality are deemed to be unjust laws. For instance, slavery is legal according to the fugitive slavery law. However, it is also essential to note that slavery is unjust. In the Sims’s case, it is evident that Shaw only considered the legal concept in the case ignorant of justice concept. Dworkin’s reaction to Shaw’s decision in the slavery case would be a critical one. This is because the decision serves the injustice to Sims by returning him back to slavery. According to Dworkin, justice and law should be unified to ensure legality and justice in judicial matters. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that the two concepts are not always the same thing. Shaw failed to distinguish the two in her decision.

Dworkin also acknowledges that law and morality share interdependent existence. Having understood this, it was, therefore, important to note that one may not be morally blameworthy each and every time he or she is against the law.  He argues that judges must live with the concept that laws are at times unjust or unfair. He argues that the law is not perfect, and hence judges should use other principles while making major decisions. Shaw disregarded this concept in totality and just used the constitutional law in condemning Sims back in slavery.

Positivist theory

Positivist theorists have also made an immense contribution to the philosophy of law.  According to positivists, the existence and content of the law mainly depend on social facts ignorant of the merits. They argue that the existence of the law and its merits are two distinct aspects and are not correlated whatsoever. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that merits of the law are unimportant or peripheral, but they should not determine the existence of the law.   One of the most influential contributors to the positivism theory is Hart.  According to Hart, the law is defined as a union between primary rules and secondary rules.  There is a lot of emphasis on what individuals are obliged to fulfill, primary rules, and rules of recognition, change and adjudication in secondary rules.

Unlike Dworkin, Hart does not include morality in his definition of the law.  According to positivists, there no moral standards that a system of rules has to meet in order to be a genuine legal system. A legal system should only comprise both the primary and secondary rules. A positivist reaction to Shaw’s decision would be that of appraisal, positivists argue that a legal system exist if there are sufficient structures of governance irrespective of its merits. This seems to be the case in the Shaw’s decision of returning Sims to his master.   The judge followed the provisions of the Fugitive law without considering its effects on justice and morality ideas resulting from the judgment. A positivist would support this decision since they are of the opinion that the rule of law should be upheld in disregard of any undue influence.

Hart argued that a legal system should be able to separate between law and morals. According to Hart, it would be unwise to make judgments based on merits or morals. He argues that judges should solve legal disputes by looking at the broader social policies and the purpose of the rule. In such judgments, moral concepts, and the opinions should be out of the question. From the Sims’s case, it is clear that slavery was legal, and the Fugitive Slave Act was a social construction. It was, therefore, wise for Shaw to make a judgment based on these facts. It is also worth noting that the ruling would have serious implications for the unity of the different states where slavery was legal. The fact that a policy would be just, efficient, wise or prudent is never sufficient reason for thinking that it is actually the law, and the fact that it is unjust, unwise, inefficient or imprudent is never sufficient reason for doubting it. With this in mind, it is imperative to understand that Shaw’s decision followed the legal positivist school of thought.

Sceptic approach

Scepticism in law is also referred to as realism. The idea of realism was meant to correct the inadequacies eminent in natural law and positivism theories. According to this school of thought, the judges must be aware of the consequences of their rulings on policies and people. In contrast to natural and positivism where there are set principles and standards followed in a legal system, realism expects judges to use logical reasoning in determining cases.  Alton argues that court decisions can have huge policy implications. It is, therefore, essential for the judges to think logically about the possible implications resulting from their judgments.

In the Sims’s case, Shaw was supposed to think logically to determine the possible implications of the ruling on major policies. It is clear that slavery was a legal trade in some states such as Georgia where Sims had escaped. It is also evident that the states had strict rules that governed slave trade, and Boston was aware and conversant with these provisions.  Shaw had to ensure that, upon establishing that Sims was a fugitive slave, and an offense had been committed, the court’s ruling did not adverse effects on policy. This is the reason that Shaw made the decision of returning a fugitive to his master and ensures peaceful existence between the different states. The issue of morality, primary and secondary rules is not essential in the scepticism approach and only logical reasoning that matters. Judges should practice their work with integrity.  Realism gives the judges an opportunity to incorporate their views in their judgment.

In support of positivism

Courts are put in place to enable the solution of conflicts. It is, therefore, essential to have correct judgments that will not be self-defeating. For instance in the Sims’s case, it is clear that Sims had contravened the provisions of the Fugitive Slave Act. There was clear evidence that he escaped from Potter with the aid of motorboat, and there are witnesses to prove that he was a fugitive slave. It would, therefore, be ill advised if Shaw made a decision contrary to this. In this judgment, it is clear that both primary and secondary rules had been contravened.

According to positivists, a legal system is a construction of the society. From the setting of this case, it is evident that slavery is legal and any attempt to circumvent this should lead to prosecution. Issues of justice and morality would be devastating to the noble course entrusted on the legal system. For instance, Potter had tracked and ascertained that his slave had fled from Georgia to Boston. He was also aware that there existed the Fugitive Slave Act and that he was entitled to get back his slave. Having understood that, Shaw had no option but to order return o Sims to Georgia.  Concepts of morality and justice as explained by Dworkin in Natural law are self-contradicting as far as this case is concerned. According to Dworkin’s description, slavery could be legal but immoral and unjust. However, ruling against Potter would also be unfair and unjust to him since slavery had been accepted in the society. The scepticism approach would also not be the best approach since judges are not experts in other fields such as economics and health thus policy implications would be hard to determine. Positivism remains the best approach since it’s guided by primary and secondary rules that are well known by everyone in the society. In my opinion, positivism offers the much-desired justice since the judge does not have to give opinions but is supposed to follow what is enshrined in the constitutional law.

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