Hart on Austin

Notes for January 28

Main points

Austin treats laws as a kind of command. Hart thought it was more accurate to describe them as rules. Today’s class went over some of Hart’s major reasons for thinking that it is more accurate to describe laws as rules.

Problems with the command theory

We started with three characteristics of law, according to Austin’s theory.

  1. Laws are addressed from superiors to inferiors.
  2. Laws are enforced with sanctions.
  3. Laws are given by sovereigns, defined as people whom the other members of society are in a habit of obeying.

Each point has difficulty accommodating some central cases.

  1. Most laws apply to the legislators. When that is so, who is the superior and who is the inferior?
  2. Some laws enable people to do things, like making contracts or wills. These work more like recipes than commands.
  3. There can be sovereigns without habits of obedience. Hence, Rex II can be the sovereign on the first day of assuming office.

We discussed ways that Austin might try to accommodate these points. For instance, he could distinguish between the legislative body that makes the laws and the individual legislators who must obey them.

I am not sure that these maneuvers would work in the end. For instance, the legislative body, like Congress, can be subject to laws too. But we did not pursue this sort of question. The reason is that we have a more straightforward explanation of these features of the law on offer: Hart’s view that laws are rules.

  1. Rules can apply to those who make them.
  2. Rules can tell people how to do something like make a valid contract.
  3. Rules can identify the rightful ruler from the first day.


Hart also criticized Austin’s account of obligation. Austin, according to Hart, failed to distinguish between ‘being obliged’ to do something by a threat and ‘having an obligation’ to do it. The position of a person with legal obligations is different in kind than the position of someone faced with a gunman, according to Hart, but Austin runs the two together.

In place of Austin’s theory that legal obligations consist in threats of punishment, Hart proposed rules as a source of obligation. The idea is simple: a rule tells you what to do.

What is complicated about Hart’s discussion of obligation is the material on what he called the internal and external points of view. That is most directly aimed at the legal realists, who treat having a legal obligation as equivalent to a prediction about punishment. So we put off discussion of this part of Hart’s discussion of obligation until later.

Key concepts

  1. The parts of the law that do not fit the command theory, especially enabling or power conferring rules.
  2. Why Austin seems to treat legal obligation as the same as being threatened by a gunman.
  3. Why Hart finds Austin’s understanding of legal obligation inadequate.
This page was written by Michael Green for Philosophy of Law, Philosophy 34, Spring 2014. It was posted February 7, 2014.
Philosophy of Law