David Hume's legal theory: the significance of general laws

History of European Ideas 30 (2):149-166 (2004)
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Hume is normally—and in my view, correctly—taken to be a legal conventionalist. However, the nature of Hume's conventionalism has not been well understood. Scholars have often interpreted David Hume as being largely indifferent to the specifics of the laws, so long as they accomplish their basic task of protecting people's property. I argue that this is not correct. Hume thinks certain systems of law will accomplish their purpose, of coordinating people's behaviour for the benefit of all, better than others. He introduces two concepts, which I call generality and convenience, to designate those features of the law that allow it to best accomplish its purpose. Of the two, generality is the more important. The ability to implement a system of what Hume calls “general laws” is a feature common to those governments he considers “civilized” rather than “barbarous.” A set of more specific criteria may be extracted from Hume's texts, which laws must meet if they are to be considered general. Many of the criteria Hume identifies later become associated with theorists of the so-called “rule of law.” Hume's conventionalism can thus be read an important development beyond that of Hobbes, one that lays a foundation upon which later theorists such as A.V. Dicey are able to build



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Neil McArthur
University of Manitoba

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David Hume and the Common Law of England.Neil McArthur - 2005 - Journal of Scottish Philosophy 3 (1):67-82.

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Authority and convention.Leslie Green - 1985 - Philosophical Quarterly 35 (141):329-346.

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