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  1. Introduction
  2. Anthropological Foundations of Law
  3. Ethical Foundations of Law
  4. Characteristics of Law
  5. Evolution of Law
    1. Ancient and Modern Law
    2. Law in Segmentary Societies
    3. Law in Premodern States
    4. Law of the International Community
  6. Conclusion: Functions of Law
  7. Bibliography

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Law is a cultural achievement of humankind. On the basis of rules that are typically connected with sanctions, it is meant to prevent or overcome social conflicts. The nature of these rules can generally be distinguished by their purpose: They either serve the purpose of deciding legal cases (rules of decision) or the purpose of conducting a legal process (rules of conduct). The foundation of the rules, too, can vary. Some legal cultures base their rules on (unwritten) traditions (common law), usually replenished with precedents of case decisions by the judge’s dispensation of justice (case law). In contemporary legal systems, however, the foundation of legal decisions is above all provided by the state legislature (statutory law). In modern judicial terms, the sum of legal norms, which forms a more or less coherent legal system, can be described as objective law. The (legally guaranteed) authorizations of the individual member of this legal system (e.g., the citizen), on the other hand, are subjective rights, guaranteed, for instance, in the form of civil rights.

The social function of preventative conflict avoidance or reliable conflict resolution can be fulfilled, lastingly, only when law is also able to offer criteria in terms of content to justify legal decisions. Since ancient times, law has therefore been characterized not only by its sanctions but also by its reference to justice. At the beginning of Justinian the Great’s Digesta (533 BCE), a collection of the works of Roman legal scholars, it is stated in that respect: “Law is the art of the good and the fair” (ius est ars aequi et boni [Digesten, 1.1.1. pr.]). Similar definitions can be found in other legal cultures that have not been influenced by Roman law. Yet law also involves the “authorization to coerce” (Kant, 1996, p. 25), as we learn from Immanuel Kant (1724–1804). Both sides, coercion as much as justice, have at all times during the history of humankind decisively influenced the development of law. One essential reason for the continuously tense relationship between these two dimensions of law is the strong correlation between law and human life. Friedrich Carl von Savigny (1779–1861), a distinguished German legal scholar and the founder of the so-called Historical School of Law, once noted rightly that law had no intrinsic content; it is directed toward and, at the same time, dependent on the life of human beings. This fact displays the anthropological foundation of every law. Moreover, it bears legal consequences that are concisely expressed in a canon of ancient Roman law: No one can be obligated beyond his or her capabilities (ultra posse nemo obligatur). This principle is rooted in the insight that a legal norm that asks too much of an individual is simply unjust.

Anthropological Foundations of Law

From the viewpoint of evolutionary biology, the development of law shows itself to be a matter of adjustment to the benefit of our own species’ self-preservation and reproduction. This concept is above all based on the findings of primatology. This science informs about the phylogenetic background of Homo sapiens and allows conclusions to be drawn about the emergence of normativity in human relationships. The phenomenon of reciprocity is of major importance in this context; it can, for instance, be observed in the social behavior of chimpanzees, our closest relatives. To meet the basic challenges of self-preservation and reproduction, chimpanzees live in social groups. The advantages are obvious: The offspring is more effectively protected, and food is more efficiently secured. Our species develops affection for the building of societies, an appetites societas. Not unlike human associations, though, living in groups is never without disadvantages. These occur whenever competition arises within the group in the struggle for scarce supplies that ultimately decide on the individual fate of the group members. Chimpanzees have obviously developed the ability to ensure a regulated exchange of goods among each other. The disposition to share goods among one another considerably depends on whether the “beggar” was, in a reversed situation, also willing to share his food or to provide the “proprietor” with other “services” (e.g., “grooming”). Generosity will generally be answered likewise; parsimony will be socially sanctioned. Chimpanzees appear to have a highly developed long-term memory for social relationships; it lays the foundations for an equipment that stabilizes the social order and that sanctions deviance, for instance, through the building of coalitions. To a certain extent, the success of social associations is the result of “chimpanzee politics” (de Waal, 1982).

But are these observations of altruistic behavior compatible with the genetic self-interest that constitutes the fundamental axiom of evolutionary biology? They are and in two ways: First of all, it should be noted that the thesis of a “selfish gene” (Dawkins, 1989) does not refer to the individual or the population. These are only “agents” of the “victorious” genes, which survive at the expense of the less suitable genes. Biological evolution is genocentric. Natural selection in principle awards features that encourage survival and reproduction—not only of single individuals but also of relatives. This is at least applicable to highly developed creatures in social associations. Here, organized forms of family support have been observed. The basis to this nepotistic altruism is consequently the self-interest of each individual’s genetic programs. Their purpose, the reproduction of genetic information, is achieved through the fitness of the family. Nepotism is oriented toward this fitness.

The self-interest of nepotistic altruism for the family is different from reciprocal altruism, which, under two conditions, can also include nonrelatives: First, in the long run, solidarity must pay off for the individual, for example, when food supply is dependent on good fortune during the hunt. In this case, solidarity serves to diminish the individual risks of life; if there is no shortage in food resources, then solidarity generally vanishes, too. Second, the mechanism of reciprocity must work out. While nepotistic altruism involves the danger of a bad investment, reciprocal altruism involves the danger of an exploitation by “free riders.” In both cases, the problem expands with the size of the group and thus endangers altruistic behavior—in the end, to the disadvantage of everyone.

From the standpoint of evolutionary biology, it is evident that (moral and legal) normativity has biological roots. Norms of reciprocity help to perform the adjustment that could not be performed within the parameters of egoistic behavioral patterns. Reciprocity is the beginning of a moral consciousness that distinguishes between factual and normative behavior. But it requires stabilization by means of specified rules and sanctions. Human ability to establish a legal system and the simultaneous need to live in such a system reveals humanity’s special position in nature. This has been evident since the natural sciences have contributed to the self-enlightenment of humankind: In terms of the objective parameters of natural science, there is not much that could distinguish humans from other life-forms. Subjectively, however, our species can do nothing other than turn itself into the center of its environment; humanity has no alternative but to build its world according to its own criteria. Max Scheler (1874–1928) tried to grasp this situation in his concept of the “openness to the world.” It is meant to denote human independence from organic bondages. Man or woman is instinct driven, but also he or she possesses the ability to say “no” in order to postpone or to sublimate his or her urges. The resulting opportunity and necessity is not merely to live but to lead his or her own life. Like Nietzsche, Arnold Gehlen (1904–1976) regards a human as the “not determined animal.” Man or woman cannot be sure of his or her surroundings; he or she lacks the protective instincts. As a result of his or her biologically deficient vesting, there are no natural habitats; everything and everybody can turn into an enemy. Consequently, a human is a being whose life is constantly at risk. Thus, humans have no choice but to create their own relations to the world and to themselves through active performance. Her or his nature is culture; this is how she or he compensates for her or his “deficient constitution.” And yet woman or man is not only defenseless against her or his environments, but she or he is also dangerous. Undetermined but driven by her or his physical desires, she or he is latently threatened by degeneration. Hence, man or woman not only has to lead his or her life, but he or she also has to be led, namely by institutions. Institutions make up for his or her absent instincts; they support man or woman by obliging him or her to behave in a given way and, at the same time, relieve him or her from the burden of incessant decisions.

Institutions can evolve and persist wherever things that are taken for granted are valued accordingly. The modern world, however, is marked by an increasing absence of customs and by a growing plurality of values. Customs and values as institution-building factors are replaced by law that is in fact free of contents but still has a stabilizing effect. Humanity’s modern world is literally a world of law. The close connection between human nature and human culture, entailed by humankind’s lack of instinct and world-openness (i.e., the idea that humans are not limited by their environment but can transcend it), leaves humankind no choice but to build humanity’s life on law.

Ethical Foundations of Law

Moral and ethical claims of today’s norms have evolved from the social history of humankind. Most notably, this is true of custom. It provides tradition with a generally binding authority to which law, too, was subject for a long time. Old law was good law. Nowadays, it is typically the other way around. Accordingly, a later law overrules an earlier law (lex posterior derogat legi priori). In the course of time, law has emancipated itself from customs and has become more independent. Nonetheless, law remains dependent on acceptance, approval, and discernment. The phenomenon of an increasing juridification of social life should not be regarded only as a process of law’s emancipation from ethics and morals. On the contrary, in the question about the right law and about its connection with justice, the bond between law and the prelegal foundations of human social existence recurs.

Juridification is a process that commences whenever social norms lose their effect. Above all, habit and custom belong to the social norms; fashion, too, can be part of it. While habit lives on permanence and repetition, fashion is, and must be, ephemeral in order to consistently reinvent itself. Its aim is disparity; chic and elegance is not for everyone but only for the few. Habits are unspecific in this regard; one has a habit, or one does not. But a particular habit can only rise to a common law if it is shared not only by the individual but also by the majority. In the English language, this is expressed in the differentiation between habit (of the individual) and custom (of the group) (French habitude, coutume; Latin habitus, consuetude). As opposed to habit, custom, just like the law, claims to be valid for every member of a given group. It is therefore oriented toward equality. Religion constitutes its own category of ethical norms.

The Greek term ethos illustrates the close bond between habit and custom as it is related to “habitation”: One can get accustomed to various habits. However, habit requires more than just a superficial adaptation; namely, it requires a certain inner attitude. From this, a basic attitude can evolve that shows “character.” This, too, is covered by the meaning of ethos. Accordingly, character always has to be formed first. The virtue whose ethos keeps law and ethics together is uprightness. It illuminates the ethical meaning of being right; namely, being right is to strive for the establishment of a system based on law. A dogmatic attitude, however, destroys such an order as it gives the desire to be right precedence over the right itself.

Moreover, it is part of the ethical foundation to give reasons, not only for a court judgment but also for all forms of institutionalized legal decisions. The obligation to state reasons directly results from a particular concept of justice and consequently from an ethical commandment. As per Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics, V 3, 1129b), justice is “perfect virtue, though with a qualification, namely that it is displayed toward others.” It is perfect, “because its possessor can practice his virtue toward others and not merely by himself.” For the judge, who can decide in favor of only one party, this means an obligation to state reasons above all toward the unsuccessful party. The winner of a lawsuit does not usually care too much for grounds; thus, the loser will ask for the grounds. Owing to the judge’s commitment to law, these grounds must be deduced from positive law. The reason for the grounds, however, is not of a legal nature but of an ethical one; this is to ensure a continuously peaceful social existence of those who were having a conflict with each other while insisting on their (assumed) legal right. The realization of fair proceedings alone, which allows each side to present their views and to be heard (audiatur et altera pars), contributes to this appeasement. A prudent judge will attach less value to the applause of the successful side than to the silence of the unsuccessful one. The procedural law obligates the judge only to the stating of reasons. The quality of these reasons is up to his or her professional ethics. It requires an appropriate translation of the judicial into the layperson’s language and a comprehensive conveying for the unsuccessful side. In some cases, the latent tension becomes tangible between law’s rationality and predictability on the one hand and the respective demands for material justice of all litigants on the other hand. For an appropriate decision, much will then depend on the judge’s ability to meet the ethical foundations of law.

This problem has a long history. Basically, there are still two opposing notions: Legal positivism takes the stand that the legal concept is to be understood as not including moral or ethical elements. Law is regarded as being separated from these values. Following the logic of this separating thesis, law can have any given content. The positivistic legal concept solely depends on whether a law was created in accordance with regulations and whether it is socially effective. Those who, beyond that, require the legal concept to create a just law, follow the tradition of the theory of natural law. They associate law with a claim for correctness in terms of its content that cannot be given up without giving up the legal concept itself.

Characteristics of Law

In the course of time, law has occurred in many places in various shapes. Not only norms have changed and multiplied, but also legal institutions have been extensively transformed. Yet there is no shortage of attempts to define the characteristic element of law. Three approaches are of particular significance.

The first concept holds that law’s characteristic is founded on its abstract rules. This view can advert to a long historical/cultural tradition, such as Hammurabi’s Code (ca. 1760 BCE) or the Roman Twelve Tables of Law (ca. 450 BCE). The theories of natural law have also contributed to this opinion. Through Stoicism, natural law had first found its way into the philosophy of ancient Greece and later into the works of the ruling classes of ancient Rome. Cicero, for instance, adapted the idea that human life is subject to the purpose of a highest law. This legal concept is the starting point for a hierarchy of law, with the three components being eternal law (lex aeterna), natural law (lex naturalis), and human, or positive law (lex humana, or lex positiva). In antiquity, eternal law was understood as unchangeable and inevitably valid for everyone. Positive, or human law, contains all those norms that determine the social life of the respective society. Natural law, in turn, comprises all norms that humans and peoples reasonably share.

The notion of a legal hierarchy has gone through many enduring transformations. Among others are those that were introduced by Christianity, particularly by the influential doctrines of Augustine of Hippo (354–430) and Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274). Both do not interpret the lex aeterna as a cosmic principle but rather as the expression of God (there still are disagreements as to whether this must be interpreted as divine reason or divine will). Mutatis mutandis, the concept of a hierarchy, can also be found in modern legal systems. Examples include the precedence of international law over national law, the special status of human rights in democratic states, or the enhancement of the constitution (e.g., by the Supreme Court in the famous decision Maryury v. Madison, 1803) to the “supreme law of the land.”

Modern legal theory has seen many attempts to describe law as a coherent system of norms. The most notable representatives include, among others, John Austin, H. L. A. Hart, Ronald Dworkin, and Hans Kelsen or, more recently, Robert Alexy and Joseph Raz. Within the transatlantic discourse, the theory of Kelsen (1881–1973) has proved particularly influential. The center to his analytical reconstruction of an objective legal system is a norm pyramid: An individual legal norm derives its validity from a higher norm and itself validates a lower-ranking norm. To solve the problem of an infinite regress, Kelsen introduced the so-called hypothetical basic norm. This norm serves as a transcendentallogical condition for the coherence of a legal system. A norm is part of a legal order only when it can be deduced from the basic norm.

A fundamentally different view was held by Eugen Ehrlich (1936), which he also developed through the examination of Kelsen’s “pure theory of law.” According to Ehrlich, it is important to comprehend the “living law.” By this, he understands those rules that the citizens actually comply with. This law had to be differentiated from the “laws in the books,” as well as from laws and their concretion, through legal practice. For all these norms could not force a certain human behavior but are themselves dependent on the effective rules of social behavior. Bronislaw Malinowski has made a similar attempt to define law from the reality of community life and, above all, referred to the obligating power of reciprocity.

The third version sees law as those principles that can be deduced from the decision of legal authorities. Significant preparatory work to this was, among others, produced by Karl N. Llewellyn and E. Adamson Hoebel. Oliver Wendell Holmes (1897) put this concept in a nutshell: “The prophecies of what the courts will do in fact, and nothing more pretentious, are what I mean by the law” (p. 461). While in the first version, law is determined by norms and the legal system, in the second version, law is determined by social effectiveness. The former could be termed normativism, the latter vitalism. The third version regards itself as belonging to realism as it defines law according to the actual behavior of authorities. As opposed to the other two approaches, legal disputes become the center of attention. From this perspective, law is different from politics, as well as from customs and morals.

The realistic approach, just as the vitalistic approach, regards law as a social phenomenon. But it is not only the community’s compliance, which this approach examines, but also the realistic approach does not differ from custom. The focus is mainly on the authorities’ actions in case of conflict. These do not perform only a regulating function qua mediator but also offer an orientation for the citizens. Normativism and realism generally agree about the regulating function of law. To realism, it is less a result of norm parameters than it is the task of the institution, which finally has to apply the law to a case. For the obligation of legal application, especially in the light of social changes, the judge needs the faculty of judgment and creativity. However, the judge’s role is usually confined to understanding the social dimensions of a dispute between opponents, to transforming it into a legal relationship, and to settling it by means of law. Lawsuits are about the actual claims of the parties involved as well as the reestablishment of a symmetric legal relationship among them. Advanced social interventions are the responsibility of the government. In modern societies, politics typically makes use of the law to realize its targets. Yet by using the law as an instrument, politics also submits to the legal form that is, above all, the prohibition of arbitrariness (which is guarded by jurisdiction in modern constitutional states, above all by administrative and constitutional courts).

Its connection with authority also distinguishes law from other social behavioral norms, such as customs and morals, whose sanctioning mechanisms are, typically, hardly institutionalized. If and to what degree sanctions occur, in the case of norm violations, are not certain. The authority of law, on the contrary, is decisively based on the certitude that law is also enforced. It otherwise represents dead law. By no means does a sanction always have to imply coercion or physical force. A sanction’s form is not essential but the effective implementation of the decision is. For example, the Inca civilization’s prevailing penalty for community members consisted of corporal punishment, including the death penalty. However, the Inca nobles were punished with public exposure and removal from office, as they feared social death more than physical death. Modern constitutional jurisdiction is another example of effective sanctions: Constitutional courts cannot force the government to comply with their decisions. Finally, it is the court’s authority with regard to constitutional issues that the government submits to. If it does not comply, then the government’s action would most likely result in a bad public reputation for intending to practice unlawful politics in a state based on the rule of law. However, this requires the court to present itself to the public as a reliable guardian of the constitution by making equitable and wise decisions.

Evolution of Law

Ancient and Modern Law

With the establishment of modern statehood, law changes its character. Ideally and typically, the differences can be described as follows: Prestate societies often aim at solving conflicts by reaching a consensus among the opponents during negotiations. If they fail in this attempt, then physical force is usually applied as a means of self-help. Law in modern societies, on the other hand, provides for judicial proceedings in litigations. In case of need, law is enforced by state power. Modern states can resort to a differentiated system of institutions. On the norm level, law is abstract and impersonal; it is valid for everyone in the same way and it does not regard differences in status or reputation. Thus, individuals have to take responsibility for their actions. He or she knows what to expect when violating a norm. Punishment is based on this transparency and predictability. For what reasons the individuals comply with the rules is insignificant to the law.

This distinction between exterior behaviors and inner motives is largely unknown in prestate systems. In the case of norm violation, the entire person will be regarded, not only his or her actions. Strictly speaking, the individual is not only solely responsible for his or her own behavior but also is part of a family that is just as much affected by the dispute. Every sanction has to bear this in mind. Finally, it is less about a personal punishment than it is about compensation in order to maintain the social system.

Owing to these differences, there is a long history of debates between historians and ethnologists about law as to whether the norms of prestate societies should be regarded as law or customs. By now, the views tend to accept that (in these orders) laws, morals, and customs cannot be reasonably discriminated. These elements, rather, display a process in the course of which the several fields slowly differentiate.

Law in Segmentary Societies

The order of segmentary societies is organized through extraction and kinship. These societies usually consist of small communities (villages, tribes, etc.), which live in separated areas. They lack a central political authority; each community autonomously governs its social life. The regulating norms form a mixture of religion, custom, and law. In hunter-gatherer societies, the need for legal regulations is only very low and primarily occurs in the spheres of matrimony and family. Violations of the incest ban are punished as a severe offence against the community. Adultery, assumed or actual, is among the most prevalent conflicts. Property, on the contrary, is seldom a cause of quarrel. Hardly anyone owns something that would not be owned by the others. There are scarcely incentives for covetousness; probate disputes play no role at all.

The necessity for regulation increases with the change to agriculture and settledness. The population grows and with it the significance of lineages and clans. These are the actual bearers of rights, which now increasingly refer to property and particularly to real estate. The land or the livestock belongs to the clans; they are the owners, but individuals are not. Without their association, the individual is not only poor but also defenseless. In the absence of a state monopoly on force, it is the lineages that guarantee the individual’s security, namely through the threat of a blood vendetta.

To threaten in this manner with a maximum of vengeance follows the principle of deterrence. De-escalation is therefore a major requirement for all sides. There is no norm violation that could justify an endangerment of the community as a whole. A blood feud not only destabilizes the system within but also weakens the community outwardly. Although the individuals may not live in a so-called state of nature, the respective communities do. There is no valid law or custom beyond the community “segment.” In this no-man’s-land, life is, as Thomas Hobbes put it, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. The responsibility to maintain peace within the community is all the higher; law is oriented toward this. In case of a norm violation, it is therefore less relevant to impose sanctions than to compensate for the detriment incurred or to requite in the same way through the ius talionis (“an eye for an eye”). If very serious crimes are committed, then the community as a whole unites against the culprit in order to prevent a spiral of violence. Furthermore, various norms are provided to obviate violence and to secure peace: Among the most famous are the asylum by the leopard-skin priest, purification ceremonies, and negotiations of expiatory payment, and so on.

This kind of self-regulation without political order can be kept alive only within small spaces. With spatial extension, a political form of governance evolves that is in effect founded on the precedence and subordination of lineages and clans. The reasons for these processes can vary, but they mostly lie in the person’s charisma to which certain skills are attributed. The respective clan can turn into a chiefly lineage if it succeeds in connecting the myth of a special governance competence with the myth of a special derivation (of gods or heroes). A chiefdom can comprise multiple levels, each with one hierarchical top (headman, headwoman, chief). The paramount chief is distinguished by a series of privileges to which only he or she has access (tributes, trade with prestigious objects, claims on the prey, etc.). For it is he or she who exclusively possesses direct admission to the gods. Owing to the paramount chief, the gods are well disposed toward the people and present them with fertility, rich harvest, and victory in case of war. It is also the paramount chief who makes the final decision to end disputes. These cases are of particular importance, and that is why his or her judgment usually avoids a distinct decision. The paramount chief, too, is primarily concerned about fathoming out possibilities for reestablishing social peace. To this end, it can now and then be advisable not to make his or her own decisions but to consult the gods directly through oracles or ordeals.

Yet the paramount chief’s status is fragile for three major reasons: His or her competition arises from within his or her own family, as every member of the chiefly lineage is principally able and entitled to take over the rule; although the paramount chief can protect himself or herself from a coup with personal life guards, she or he cannot prevent enemies from having the same guns at their disposal (bow and arrow, spear, and shield cannot be monopolized, but they can be independently produced by anyone); and finally, it is not in his or her hands whether the gods maintain their well-disposed attitude toward her or him. Plagues, crop failures, and other forms of disaster inevitably initiate considerable doubt about his or her rule. Rise and fission of this kind of political rule are very close.

Law in Premodern States

The premodern state differs from segmentary societies and from the chiefdom in its institutionalization of political order. The information and decision-making processes become structured and are organized hierarchically. First and foremost, this is done by the establishment of a bureaucratic administration. The introduction of the written form of communication permits the collecting and processing of larger amounts of information. Archives provide experiences for future decision making, and reforms can be compassed on a grand scale. Information is gathered from bottom to top, but decisions are carried out from top to bottom. This rationalization creates space for delegation and results in a differentiation of politics: It is not only guidance, for it also turns into an organization whose routines ensure the functioning of the political association.

The organization’s effect can be felt in every scope of the state; taxes lose their character of donations, which are connected with the expectation of reciprocation (they become charges, which are mandatory duties for the financing of the state). The level of physical force within the society is lowered; it becomes illegal to take the law into one’s own hands or to feud with another citizen. The state monopolizes the instruments for the use of force, regulates the equipment of the army, supervises the arms production, and arranges for the logistics of the forces. The power to secure peace and order is not anymore in the hands of clans but rather lies in the organizing authority of politics. Lasting changes can also be observed in the field of jurisdiction: The establishment of the written form fundamentally alters the character of law. The gain in clarity is accompanied by a loss of flexibility. This generally results in an enhancement of the written text in law; some states (e.g., imperial China) even cultivate a legalistic tradition. Yet the character of the legal culture also depends on the institutionalization of jurisdiction. In ancient Rome, courts continue to play an important role under the modified conditions of the written form. In the democratic polis of Athens, however, courts are an instrument of self-help for the parties of the litigation; moreover, their character as true mass events (up to 500 judges participate in a usual hearing) necessitates a strict formalism that has not displayed much impact on the development of law contents.

Just as in segmentary societies, the law of premodern states significantly contributes to the preservation of the social order. This order, however, is marked by social differences in status. The chiefdom was already based on relationships of precedence and the subordination of clans; in premodern states, the social stratification increases. Law is primarily a question of status. The upper classes possess exclusive access to public offices and hence to political power. The lower classes, including peasants, tradesmen, and merchants, hardly possess any rights. Slaves are without any rights at all; the homicide of slaves by someone who is not their owner, at the most, results in a responsibility to compensate for the loss. Other parts of the society are also excluded from law, as they are not able to claim their own rights. Among them are mainly women and children but also wards (clients). All of them are subordinate to their protector according to Roman law, the pater familias, or the patron, who represents them before the court or at other institutions. Within this static order, the individual scarcely has opportunities for advancement. One is born into one’s fate, and this fate is cemented by the law. Correspondingly, being marginal is the significance of legislation. Law does not serve to regulate social transformation but rather to secure a social order that is founded on inequality.

Law in Modern States

Caused by dramatic social upheavals, the processes that lead to an increased concentration on lawmaking accelerate during the 16th century. Law is still seen, in general, as an expression of divine will, but as a result of religious division, the certainty about the content of this will begins to dwindle. Rather, this issue becomes the object of a dispute that irrevocably splits the Christians’ unity and leads to the destruction of Europe during the Thirty Years’ War. More and more, the idea prevails (which had already been proclaimed by Bodin, Hobbes, and others) that law alone cannot ensure peace. Peace also requires politics, more specifically, a sovereign power that holds the reins of law and justice in its own hand. Thus, law becomes an object of human creation and an instrument of a constantly growing political will to create. This is the beginning of the politicization of law. From the mid-16th century to the early 19th century, law serves more and more to consolidate the peacekeeping system of the territorial state, to reduce privileges, to control jurisdiction, and to centralize administrative structures. In the course of these developments, legislation continuously increases in importance; as a consequence, the relationship between law and politics begins to shift. Law, formerly an expression of the concept of justice, becomes less important as a binding parameter for political orientation. Whatever remains of the concept of justice is turned into nonbinding natural law, which does not endanger the legislative sovereignty of the ruler nor its peacekeeping, system-securing effect.

With the rise of the bourgeoisie as a political power, the situation changes as was manifested in America’s War of Independence (1775–1783) and in the French Revolution (1789–1799). The claim to power as a divine right is challenged just as vehemently as the state’s unrestricted authority. Instead, all of a sudden, it is a “self-evident” truth “that all men are created equal [and] that they are endowed with certain unalienable rights,” as the Declaration of Independence written by Thomas Jefferson stated in 1776. The firm belief that society can rule itself for the greater public good is the common core of the different strands of liberalism. To the liberals, law becomes a guarantor of individual liberty, that is, equal rights for everyone and not privileges just for the few. After all, it is the people, the citizens, whose cumulative effort forms the whole of society. Accordingly, people must also be granted the right to political self-determination as put forth by Abbé Sieyès in his famous pamphlet Qu’est-ce que le tiers État? (1789). It has since been the legacy of the Enlightenment era that political power can be justified only when its claim to power is democratically legitimized and legally limited. This is only one element that contributed to the process of the juridification of politics.

The other main element is the constant expansion of legislative activity in response to tremendous social transitions, for the most part caused by the Industrial Revolution. While the growing social demands intensify the political process by increasing the number of political decisions as well as their purview, an internal hierarchy is established within the European legal system. It differentiates between two principal levels of law: statutory law, which is enacted by the legislative power, and constitutional law, which is enacted by the constituent power. Constitutional law provides a regulatory framework for the establishment and purview of statutory law, but it is kept safe from a hasty interference of politics. The creation of a constitution itself differs fundamentally in its historic importance from the everyday passing of laws in a constitutional state. Most states store their own historical “constitutional moment” (Ackerman, 1989) in their collective memory. Furthermore, amending the constitution requires in most countries a much more complicated and consensus-oriented process than changing laws. This internal hierarchy between constitutional law and statutory law enables a mutual dependence of politics and law. It empowers the lawmaker to act politically, swiftly, and effectively in order to change or adapt the law according to his or her own ideas and to even create a completely new legal situation. Nevertheless, he or she must adhere to the constitutional requirements.

Law of the International Community

The sovereignty of states, which arose from the close connection between politics and law, is also of major importance in international relations. Sovereignty dominated classic international law, which came into being with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. Until the beginning of the 20th century, international law was primarily interstate law, resulting from agreements among individual states. Rules and institutions at the international level were subject to the principle of unanimity; nothing could be implemented against the will of a state. In this regard, every state was equal in sovereignty. The sovereignty was primarily documented in the right to wage war (ius ad bellum). The disaster of World War I, however, led to a change of views. The League of Nations (1920) was a first attempt to transform the unrestricted right into a partial ban on war. The Briand-Kellogg Pact (1928) went even further and aimed at a general outlawing of war. But not until after World War II was the time ripe for a substantial modification of classic international law: With the Charter of the United Nations (1945), a general prohibition of force has been introduced, complemented by a global obligation to ensure peace. The multitude of transnational players and international organizations has already at the time of the Cold War (with its debilitating consequences primarily for the UN Security Council) resulted in an advancement of international law. It has become an “international law of cooperation” (Friedmann, 1964, p. 251). International human rights are increasingly established as the critical criterion for international politics.

Since the end of the Cold War, the challenges of globalization can no longer be ignored: It is manifest in the daily, global forms of communication (e.g., the Internet) and traffic (e.g., the international employment market); it appears in the form of ecological problems (e.g., climate change), which overtax the individual states as much as economical issues (e.g., unregulated financial markets).

The state’s power is no longer sufficient to protect against threats coming from inside and outside its territory (e.g., international terrorism). As these key words illustrate, the sovereignty of the state is put into question. It once was the expression of the connection between law and politics in a state; now, however, social systems and political fields begin to disengage themselves from statedefined (territorial) frameworks. Politics is increasingly dependent on transnational players, which are organized in networks and equipped with their own negotiating power. Foreign relations are no longer a government’s prerogative.

From this, crucial challenges for international law follow whose further development is part of the paramount tasks of the international community; international law has to enhance and consolidate those processes that stay abreast of the diversification of players as well as of the extension of activity levels (this also includes the divers regional orders as an autonomous level within world politics). This will require a reconsideration of the relationship between universalism and particularism in international law. The crucial question in this regard is, How much legal pluralism is possible, and How much constitutionalization of international law is necessary on the way to an effective legal order that would be worthy of the name “law of mankind”?

On the way to this effective legal order, international law has already partly developed into a regulatory law of the international public order. The sovereignty of the state is no longer an insurmountable barrier toward the international protection of human rights. The international community can and must intervene in case of gross human rights violations. This self-commitment of the international community constitutes a major break in international law. It will succeed in justifying this, though, only if the interventions themselves form an inevitable step toward the juridification of international politics. The guiding principle of legal reason is to exit the state of nature as Immanuel Kant stipulates. And he adds that as long as a free society based on law is not realized, it can, under certain circumstances, be permitted to coerce another person to exit the state of nature and to enter into the civil society organized by the rule of law. The obligation of international law is to clarify the conditions of these permitted compulsory measures. This would be a main contribution to the strengthening of international law’s legitimacy.


Abstractly speaking, the specific function of law is to protect the (normative) structure of expectations within a group against disappointments. This is primarily done by means of sanctions, which are imposed in case of disappointed expectations. At the same time, sanctions serve as incentives for the community members to fulfill the generalized expectations. The prerequisite for a socially effective, or “living” law, is not merely its standardization but also its institutionalization. Both developments are closely connected; they facilitate a division of legal work that is of major importance above all for the modern law. Under the conditions of an increasingly complex society, the uncertainty is growing as to what is expected of the individual and if this expectation is shared by others. Law tends to reduce this uncertainty by providing general rules of conduct, which are directed at everyone. The more abstract the standardization of behavioral rules becomes, the more necessary is the individualization of case decisions by appropriate institutions. The history of law is therefore as much a history of standardization as a history of institutionalization.

The invention of a triangular relationship is of crucial importance for the institutionalization of law. It consists of two conflicting parties and one impartial person, or institution, with the obligation to settle the dispute. The character of the third person can vary (judge, chief, council of elders, etc.), but its function relieves community life in several ways that can ideally and typically be summarized as follows: First, the mediation by a neutral third person represents an alternative to the logic of mutual vengeance. On principal, this contributes to a decline in violence and consequently strengthens a community’s integration capacity. Second, the function of the judge marks the beginning of an institutionalization of social roles that structure the distribution of power within a group. Socially accepted behavior and legally protected expectations connect and stabilize themselves in the respective roles; and the roles themselves forward the anticipation of sanctions and typically increase the self-domestication of the group members. This supports the interplay of leadership and followers and decreases arbitrary behavior on both sides. Third, the repetition of the application of the law and the law enforcement are augmentative, in terms of the reliability of expectations, provided that the dispensation of justice will lead to the same or to very similar results in the concrete case. This incentive can encourage the authority’s self-commitment to precedents. Furthermore, it can be a stimulus to the development of legal equality within a group, for law lives (as opposed to the privilege) not on the exception but on the rule.

Sir Henry Maine (1822–1888) regarded the transformation from law based on privileges to law based on equality as the evolutionary principle that is ultimately decisive for every legal system. His formula “from status to contract” is nowadays regarded with skepticism because of its strong teleological connotations that do not leave much room for cultural diversity. But it still expresses a valid idea: Law displays a tendency toward formalization itself. The exceptions to the rule are also put into a legal form and are, consequently, incorporated by the law. It does not turn blind to the necessity of exceptions; however, as part of legal rules, they require an intense substantiation. The limits are typically reached when the exception is reinterpreted to become the rule. Such cases raise problems of justice that let law appear to be arbitrary and thus illegitimate. According to its own intention, law forms the counterpart to arbitrary decisions as it can otherwise not fulfill its function of protecting expectations even in the case of norm violations.

The problem of arbitrariness illustrates that law’s main function, its protection of expectations, can be concretized and differentiated into a regulating function and a directing function; one is oriented toward stability, the other one toward justice. Both functions are connected: To the same degree to which a political order is based on acceptance by the citizens, the question about the legitimacy of law gains in influence for a system’s stability. Examples of historically far-reaching consequences include the great revolutions of the United States (1776), France (1789), and Germany (1989), a comparatively young example. Below these major caesuras, the pursuit of legitimate law continues. At all times, this has also been a quest for (social) justice and has thus fostered the struggle for law in modern legal systems.

For some, the field of tension between the ideal of legal equality for all citizens and the socioeconomic inequalities in modern societies presents itself as a productive challenge; to others, on the contrary, law is merely an instrument that is supposed to conceal or stabilize social inequalities in the interest of the ruling classes. These differing ideological views explain that, with institutionalization progressing, law is attributed further functions within the political system: on the one side, the function of authorizing political power; on the other side, the function of controlling political power and civilizing it. Historically, the state’s gain in power by the combining of law and politics has evoked countervailing powers that are, nevertheless, dependent on law: Liberalism and constitutionalism see law as a suitable instrument for confining politics’ claim to authority. This balancing of law and politics is based on a constant mutual adjustment that has led to a considerable juridification in all areas of modern social life.


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