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Luka Burazin, Can There be an Artifact Theory of Law?, 29 Ratio Juris 385 (2016), available at SSRN.

It seems clear that, on any plausible general theory of law, the institutions and content of law are manufactured by human beings for the purpose of regulating human behavior and are, thus, properly understood as social artifacts. Positivism, of course, is committed to the idea that the existence and content of law owes entirely to human social activity. But it is not unreasonable to think that law is an artifact on even the strongest natural law view. According to this view, the law consists of those properly enacted norms that conform to objective moral requirements. Although there are, thus, necessary moral constraints on what counts as law, it nonetheless seems reasonable to characterize law, on this view, as an artifact. The construction and operation of more familiar concrete artifacts, such as clocks, are constrained by laws of physics yet are paradigmatically artifacts; the situation seems not much different, from the standpoint of legal theory, with socially constructed law that is constrained by moral norms.

Despite its conspicuous theoretical significance, the artifactual nature of law has not, until comparatively recently, received a great deal of attention from legal theorists. In Can There be an Artifact Theory of Law, Luka Burazin sets out to remedy this omission by giving a brief outline of an artifact theory of law. Burazin attempts to identify the implications of the claim that law is an artifact, as well as sketch what an adequate “artifact theory of law” might look like. Burazin’s analysis in this excellent paper is concerned only with law qua legal system (as opposed to law qua norm) presumably because the normative output of an institutional artifact, like a legal system, must also be artifacts.

On Burazin’s view, the nature of social artifacts, unlike the nature of natural occurring objects, is determined by the intentional states of certain persons who can be thought of as “authors,” which also determine the content of the corresponding concepts. Burazin’s insightful analysis incorporates Risto Hilpinen’s explication of the concept of an artifact, which Hilpinen defines as “an object that has been intentionally made or produced for a certain purpose.”1

Accordingly, an artifact must, on this definition, have some kind of characteristic use. Insofar as a legal system is an artifact, and insofar as every artifact has a purpose that depends on human intentional states, every legal system has a purpose that depends on the collective intentional states of those who create and sustain its existence through their lawmaking and adjudicative activities.

A legal system is, according to Burazin’s artifact theory of law, “Created by authors who have a particular intention to create the institutional artifact ‘legal system,’ based on the author’s substantive and substantively correct concept of what the legal system is, under the condition that this intention be largely successfully realized.” (P. 397.) As an abstract institutional object, the existence of a legal system requires the collective recognition of some social group. On a positivism view, the “authors” of the legal system are officials who “recognize” the legal system by practicing the rule of recognition. But citizens also play a role, albeit less direct, in providing the requisite collective recognition: what is required of citizens, on a Hartian view, is that their behavior generally conforms to the rules validated by the conventional rule of recognition.

Here it is important to note that, on an artifact theory of law, the set of “authors” of the legal system will change over time as one set of officials and citizens are replaced by another set in a stable legal system. Unlike a light bulb, which was invented by one determinate author, a legal system is sustained by a set of individuals which changes over time; the sustained existence of a legal system is thus determined by the same factors that determine its creation. Indeed, one might, without much distortion, think of the existence of a legal system as sustained over time by exactly the same activities that are thought to create it. Creation and sustainment are two sides of the same coin, on an artifact theory of law.

One might think that legal systems can arise without being intentionally created, but Burazin correctly rejects this possibility: “Since legal systems are undoubtedly highly complex institutional artifacts, it seems strange to claim that such complex entities could emerge (wholly) unintentionally, as is sometimes the case with ordinary artifacts (e.g., a fortuitously created medicine).” (P. 399.)

It is worth noting that Burazin’s essay provides just a sketch of an artifact theory that would need to be fleshed out in considerably more detail to be fully articulated, but the importance of this project should be quite clear. If law is, by nature, an artifact, then a conceptual theory of law cannot be successful without including the appropriate elements of a plausible theory of artifacts. Just as the nature of a gun cannot be fully explained without explicitly recognizing that it is an artifact, the nature of a legal system cannot be fully explained without explicitly recognizing that it is an artifact. The explication of a legal system’s artifactuality will, of course, be more complicated and abstract than the explication of a gun’s artifactuality because a legal system, unlike a gun, is an abstract institutional object that persists over time through the same activities that explain its coming into existence in the first place.

  1. Risto Hilpinen, “Artifacts,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter edn., 2011). []
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Cite as: Kenneth Himma, Law as a Social Artifact, JOTWELL (October 6, 2017) (reviewing Luka Burazin, Can There be an Artifact Theory of Law?, 29 Ratio Juris 385 (2016), available at SSRN),