An Examination of H. L. A. Hart's Theory of Legal Obligation

Dissertation, State University of New York at Buffalo (1986)

In company with many legal philosophers Hart contends that legal obligation or the particular binding force of positive law is the most prominent feature of law and one that any adequate theory of law must explain. Traditionally legal positivists have explained legal obligation in terms of coercion. Legal non-positivists have explained it in terms of morality. Hart takes a novel stance and proposes to offer a theory of law and legal obligation that successfully integrates three basic propositions: there is no necessary connection between law and morality; law is essentially normative; and law and legal phenomena cannot be explained solely in terms of coercion. In the course of presenting his theory he uses these three propositions to criticize positivists and non-positivists alike. In examining Hart's theory of legal obligation, I first elucidate the theory by analyzing how Hart's concept of obligation functions or fails to function in his theory of law. I conclude that while Hart provides a full and explicit concept of obligation, he fails to incorporate this concept in the two conditions he claims are individually necessary and jointly sufficient for the existence of a legal system. I then use aspects of this general conclusion to assess how well Hart's theory of legal obligation succeeds as a corrective for criticisms he makes of competing alternative theories. Finally I attempt to explain how and why the metatheoretical premises of Hart's analytic legal positivism determine the nature and limits of his theory of legal obligation
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