Disagreeing about Disagreement in Law: The Argument from Theoretical Disagreement


Ronald Dworkin argues that disagreement in hard cases is ‘theoretical’ rather than empirical and of central importance to our understanding of law, showing ‘plain fact’ theories such as H. L. A. Hart’s sophisticated legal positivism to be false. The argument from theoretical disagreement (ATD) targets positivism’s commitment to idea that the criteria a norm must meet to be valid in a given jurisdiction are constituted by a practice of convergent behavior by legal officials. The ATD suggests that in hard cases there is no such pattern of convergent behavior. Positivists are divided over the force of the ATD. Much of this disagreement over the force of the ATD can be understood as disagreement over just what it is that legal officials disagreeing ‘theoretically’ are disagreeing about. Once the scope of empirical and theoretical disagreements are more accurately plotted, we will see that the actual disagreements that occur in hard cases are not ones which threaten a deeper and pervasive pattern of convergent behavior, one which focuses not upon rules specifying criteria of legal validity, but instead upon broad processes for making, interpreting, and applying law. Such an account remains positivist, relying on the social fact that there is such a consensus, but allows for considerable disagreement among legal officials deciding cases within such procedures.