Prolegomena to a Process Theory of Natural Law

As in other areas of the academy, the influence of process philosophy on modern and post-modern legal theory has been impeded by the predominance of post-metaphysical assumptions. The modern consensus assumes, in Max Weber’s words, that the “specific and peculiar rationalism” of Western culture (Weber 1958, 26) has resulted in the “disenchantment of the world” (Weber 1946, 155).[1] Science, the only form of objective knowledge, has shown that religious and metaphysical worldviews can not provide a “rational” explanation of the world (Weber 1946, 355). Society has also become differentiated into many autonomous spheres of life (e.g., formalistic law, economics, morality) that are oriented toward different values and that require different bases of legitimation. Thus, Weber concludes that once religious and metaphysical worldviews have been eliminated as a justification for law, law must have its own independent, rational justification.

Postmodern legal theory shares the post-metaphysical assumptions of modern legal theory but rejects the idea that law can have an autonomous, rational foundation. Postmodern legal theory focuses more on analyzing law as an assertion of political power and attempts to deconstruct the law to identify its hidden biases relating to race, gender, and class. Rather than providing a rational legitimation of law, it primarily deconstructs the rational legitimation proposed by modern legal theory and reduces law to ideology. Consequently, both modern and postmodern legal theory start from post-metaphysical assumptions so that the legitimation or deconstruction of law can be done without recourse to metaphysics.[2]

Given the pervasive post-metaphysical assumptions of modern and postmodern legal theory, it should not be surprising that exploring the implications of process philosophy for law and legal theory has only just begun. Two quandaries in contemporary legal theory, however, suggest that legal theory is now ready for a revival of interest in the metaphysical principles presupposed by the law. First, the debate about legal indeterminacy has made it clear that law cannot function autonomously as a self-contained set of rules that can be deductively applied to resolve disputes. In addition, Steven Smith has persuasively argued that the metaphysical or ontological presuppositions of the practice of law are inconsistent with the presuppositions of contemporary legal theory. This “ontological gap” between the practice of law and legal theory presents “a metaphysical predicament” that “will require us to ‘take metaphysics seriously’” (Smith 2004, 2).

Legal indeterminacy and the ontological gap between legal theory and legal practice present a new opportunity for articulating a process theory of law. The aim of this article is to demonstrate how process thought entails a novel theory of natural law that will eliminate the perceived illegitimacy arising from legal indeterminacy and that will close the ontological gap between legal theory and legal practice. To support this argument, Section 1 will identify the threat of illegitimacy arising from legal indeterminacy and the ontological gap between legal theory and legal practice as the two key quandaries for contemporary legal theory. Section 2 will discuss Whitehead’s theistic teleology of beauty and his treatment of law. Section 3 will discuss the emerging process scholarship on law and human rights. Section 4 will then demonstrate the promise of process thought for articulating a new theory of natural law that legitimates the law even when it is indeterminate and that closes the ontological gap between legal theory and legal practice.

1. Two Quandaries for Contemporary Legal Theory

1.1. Legal Indeterminacy

Consistent with Weber’s diagnosis, strong legal formalism attempted to develop a “science of law” in the early 1900s to explain how law and judicial decision making could be autonomous or separate from religion, morality, politics, etc. Christopher Columbus Langdell, who is often considered the archetype of strong legal formalism, claimed that common law cases could be reduced to a formal system. Within this system, judges could operate like technicians and determine the right decision as a matter of deductive logic by pigeonholing cases into the formal system (Gilmore 1977, 42-44).

To the contrary, both the Legal Realists and the Critical Legal Studies Movement (“CLS”) have forcefully undermined the feasibility of strong legal formalism by demonstrating the indeterminacy of the law. For example, legal realist Karl Llewellyn argues that “legal rules do not lay down any limits within which a judge moves” (Llewellyn 1989, 80). CLS goes further by rejecting not only strong legal formalism but also any attempt to find a rational principle that can resolve legal indeterminacy. In this respect, Mark Kelman claims that “the legal system is invariably simultaneously philosophically committed to mirror-image contradictory norms, each of which dictates the opposite result in any case (no matter how ‘easy’ the case first appears)” (Kelman 1987, 13).

Although there is little consensus about nature and degree of legal indeterminacy,[3] most legal theorists have come to accept that the law is indeterminate such that there are hard cases where the apparently relevant statutes, common law, contracts, or constitutional law provisions at issue do not clearly resolve the dispute. For example, the indeterminacy of the U.S. Constitution results in many hard cases where judges arrive at conflicting decisions about the Constitution’s implications for abortion, physician-assisted suicide, and same-sex marriage. Ken Kress has noted that “[t]he indeterminacy thesis asserts that law does not constrain judges sufficiently, raising the specter that judicial decision making is often or always illegitimate” (Kress 1992, 203). Judges must rely on extra-legal norms to resolve hard cases which can result in inconsistent treatment of like cases and arbitrary decisions. Consequently, the indeterminacy thesis puts into question the notion of the “Rule of Law.”

Contemporary legal theory, however, fails to indicate how law can be rationally legitimated under the conditions of legal indeterminacy. There have been three types of unsatisfactory response to legal indeterminacy. First, some legal theorists have attempted to reject the legal indeterminacy thesis and maintain a weak form of legal formalism. For example, despite compelling criticisms of his argument, Ronald Dworkin maintains that his interpretative theory of law provides an understanding of law that is quite determinate so that the law provides “right answers” (even in hard cases) based on the criteria of “fit” with prior precedent and “justification” according to the principles of political morality underlying the law (Dworkin 1986, 225, 255). Second, legal positivists usually recognize legal indeterminacy but fail to explain how judges provide a rational legitimation for the law in hard cases. For instance, H. L. A. Hart argues that in some hard cases, the law “is fundamentally incomplete: it provides no answer to the questions at issue in such cases” (Hart 1994, 252). As a result, judges have the discretion “to follow standards or reasons for decision which are not dictated by the law and may differ from those followed by other judges faced with similar hard cases” (Hart 1994, 273). Finally, CLS, feminist legal theory, and critical race theory appear to give up on a rational legitimation for law altogether and reduce law to politics. As a proponent of CLS, Roberto Unger claims that the legal order is merely the outcome of power struggles or practical compromises, and thus, he advocates “the purely instrumental use of legal practice and legal doctrine to advance leftist aims” (Unger 1983, 565, 567).[4]

Given these responses, the challenge of legal indeterminacy to the legitimacy of the law has not been met. Legal indeterminacy thus still constitutes “the key issue in legal scholarship today” (D’Amato 1990, 148), because it potentially calls into question the rule of law. In other words, legal indeterminacy raises a crucial normative question that current legal theory has failed to answer: on what rational normative basis do judges determine which extra-legal norms are valid and which valid norm or norms are controlling in deciding hard cases? In the following discussion, I will show that a process theory of law can address this issue and save the law from illegitimacy.

1.2. The Ontological Gap

The second issue demonstrating the need for a new theory of law stems from the disconnect between legal practice and legal theory. Steven Smith argues that this disconnect stems from an ontological gap between the metaphysical presuppositions informing the practice of law and the “anti-metaphysical animus” informing contemporary legal theory which has resulted in “a jurisprudential dead end” (Smith 2004, xii). Smith emphasizes that “[t]he ways in which lawyers and judges (and even most legal scholars) actually practice and talk about law are not so different than they were a century ago—or even five centuries ago” (Smith 2004, 1). The contemporary practice of law still presupposes a classical or religious ontology that maintains “the reality of ‘the law’” and that posits “a sort of working partnership between a divine author and human legislators” (Smith 2004, 155). However, he maintains that the classical “account has been widely rejected by modern legal thinkers as mere ‘superstition’” (Smith 2004, 155). As a result, the religious ontology presupposed by the practice of law is contrary to the ontology presupposed by contemporary legal theory.

More specifically, Smith identifies “three ontological families,” which he labels “everyday ontology,” “scientific ontology,” and “religious ontology.” Smith argues that “‘the law’ […] does not square with either the everyday ontology or the scientific ontology that people in academic settings regard as axiomatic, at least for professional purposes” (Smith 2004, 155). This clarifies that the ontological gap results because the practice of law presupposes a religious ontology while contemporary legal theory presupposes a scientific ontology. The ontological gap presents a problem because the end result of accepting a scientific ontology based on “atomic physics and Darwinian evolution” “is that the religious worldview is inadmissible for purposes of serious thought” (Smith 2004, 34). To support this claim, Smith cites John Searle’s conclusion that an unassailable scientific ontology (i.e., scientific materialism) invalidates religious ontology. Smith’s argument means that legal practice is based on a defective or faculty religious ontology that lacks “academic” credibility. Given this analysis, the question becomes whether the ontological gap between legal practice and legal theory constitutes an unfathomable chasm that cannot be traversed or whether it can be navigated by reforming centuries of legal practice or by discovering a new ontology.

2. Whitehead’s Theistic Teleology of Beauty and his Treatment of Law

Contrary to Smith’s conclusion, Whitehead’s metaphysics or speculative philosophy shows that “atomic physics and Darwinian evolution” are not inconsistent with a religious ontology. John Cobb emphasizes that Whitehead’s speculative philosophy blends together the new insights in physics (e.g., relativity and quantum theory) with William James’s new philosophical insights (e.g., radical empiricism) to challenge the pervasive “scientific materialism and the Cartesian Ego” (Cobb 1993, 165-66). Similarly, David Ray Griffin clarifies that Whitehead’s philosophy is part of “constructive or revisionary postmodernism” that “rejects not science as such but only that scientism in which the data of the modern natural sciences are alone allowed to contribute to the construction of our worldview” (Griffin 1993, viii). At the same time, Whitehead maintains that God is a necessary part of his metaphysics because God “shares with every new creation its actual world, and the concrescent creature is objectified in God as a novel element in God’s objectification of that actual world” (PR 345). God is crucial for the creative advance of the universe because God lures the world toward the categorical imperative of maximizing beauty or the “intensity of feeling […] in the immediate subject, and […] in the relevant future” (PR 27). Whitehead’s metaphysics thus unifies scientific ontology and religious ontology and presents the possibility of closing the ontological gap between legal practice and legal theory.

Furthermore, Whitehead maintains that maximizing beauty is categorical or universal because “[t]he teleology of the Universe is directed to the production of Beauty” (AI 265). Beauty or unity-in-diversity entails achieving both a sense of order (harmony or an absence of mutual inhibition among various prehensions) and a raised intensity of feelings (complexity or a synthesis of contrasting feelings) (AI 252). Because this transcendent (a priori) telos is universally applicable to all experience (human and nonhuman), humans as self-conscious experiencing agents should direct their actions to maximize beauty. Consequently, normative legal claims should maximize beauty (unity-in-diversity) no less than moral claims and, as I will argue below, Whitehead’s metaphysics requires a natural law theory of law based on the telos of beauty.

Although Whitehead’s metaphysics provides great potential for closing the ontological gap with a new theory of natural law, Whitehead’s discussion of law and jurisprudence offer little explicit guidance on how this can be done. In Adventures of Ideas, he refers to law several times but mainly as an example of how it relates to the advance of civilization. For example, Whitehead briefly mentions essential human rights, the “alliance of philosophy, law, and religion,” “jurisprudence,” “Anglo-American Common Law,” and “our legal ideas” in various passages without discussing law or legal theory in any detail (AI 13-14, 19, 44, 63, 65). Whitehead’s other references to “law” in Adventures of Ideas focus primarily on the “notions of Law” relevant to science and technology (i.e., physical laws of nature) and the cosmological ideas they presuppose (AI 103-39).

3. Process Scholarship on Law and Human Rights

Despite Whitehead’s limited treatment of law, Jay Tidmarsh has provided great insight into the implications of process thought for legal theory. In contrast to the focus in this article on the normative implications of process thought for law, his focus has been more on descriptive jurisprudence than on normative jurisprudence.[5] In A Process Theory of Torts, he maintains “that torts must be understood as a system in perpetual process—forever indefinite and infinitely malleable in its precise theoretical, doctrinal, and practical manifestations—yet ultimately bounded in its possibilities” (Tidmarsh 1994, 1317). “Normatively, the fact that all states of perfection will perish suggests that a tort system that wishes to survive must reject all conceptualist efforts to hitch the system to a particular natural law, corrective justice, or efficiency theory” (Tidmarsh 1994, 1418). In Whitehead’s Metaphysics and the Law, he further provides a comprehensive introduction to Whitehead’s metaphysics and suggests some principles like perfection, order, and harmony, as “a framework that could be used to determine that which best achieves Beauty in certain instances, and that which does not” (Tidmarsh 1998, 89). He also suggests that “middle principles” could be developed from Whitehead’s metaphysics which “could suggest in general terms the sorts of legal structures, theories, rules, and practices that best suit particular occasions of experience, and thus are most conductive to the achievement of Beauty” (Tidmarsh 1998, 89).

Recent work on process thought and human rights begins to derive middle principles from Whitehead’s metaphysics that give further insight into how the telos of beauty might provide a normative theory of law. Howard Vogel has explored the importance of process thought for reinvigorating the sense of vocation among lawyers through an understanding of “law-as-process—with-a-purpose” (Vogel 2001, 183). Recently, he has also begun to explore the importance of process thought for international human rights (Vogel 2006a) and constitutional interpretation (Vogel 2006b). With respect to the later, Vogel has argued that “[t]he legitimacy of constitutional interpretation is to be found in the growth and nurture of participatory democracy, as an expression of the principle of internal relations, seeking community large enough to embrace the elements of discord in our experience, as contrast within a ‘more perfect union’” (Vogel 2006b, 824).

With respect to human rights, both Douglas Sturm and George Pickering have set forth relational or process perspectives on property rights (Sturm 1988 & 1998, 73-121; Pickering 1988). Sturm has been particularly responsible for advancing the implications of process thought for human rights.[6] He attempts to preserve the “idea of human rights” because of its “normative insight about the meaning of life” but replaces the individualistic ontology of “classical western liberalism” with a process-based “communitarian political ontology” which “is more relational and ecological, even organic, in character” (Sturm 1994, 238 & 1998, 19-20). Sturm further advocates a “jurisprudence of solidarity” rather than a “jurisprudence of individuality” (Sturm 1998, 10). In a jurisprudence of solidarity, “the driving passion of law is not so much to protect the individual against trespass as it is to create a quality of social interaction conducive to the flourishing of a vibrant community of life across the world” (Sturm 1998, 11). In other words, Sturm argues that “human rights are of greatest importance as a form of empowerment, enabling people, as individuals and in their associations, to participate effectively in and through political community” (Sturm 1998, 18).

In addition, Franklin Gamwell’s work provides great insight and guidance in determining what particular human rights follow from the theistic telos of beauty, which he refers to as the comprehensive divine purpose or the “maximal unity-in-diversity” (Gamwell 2000b, 338). In Democracy on Purpose, Gamwell attempts “to articulate the [comprehensive] divine purpose in terms of the principles of justice” (Gamwell 2000a, 149). He arrives at these principles by supplementing process thought with the work Karl-Otto Apel and Jürgen Habermas. Based on Apel and Habermas, Gamwell makes a transcendental argument supporting “the principle of communicative respect,” which “is a meta-ethical presupposition of every claim to moral validity” (Gamwell 2000a, 223). The principle of communicative respect provides that “individuals are morally bound to treat each other as potential participants in moral discourse” (Gamwell 2000a, 197). This principle is a formative principle because it remains neutral to all substantive principles and provides that moral disagreement should be resolved by the social practice of argumentation.

Gamwell argues that the constitution must establish formative rights to ensure a “full and free political discourse” (Gamwell 2000a, 212-13). Democracy requires that political association is both full such that all principles or norms, whether formative or substantive, are subject to contest and free such that all individuals participating in this political association have equal rights to participation. However, the rights in the constitution must be solely formative because “[a]ny constitutional provision of substantive rights would, in other words, arrest a full and free political discourse by stipulating that citizens as participants in it explicitly accept some conception of good human association” (Gamwell 2000a, 221). Rather, the full and free debate essential to democracy concerns precisely the question of which conception of the good human association should inform the substantive rights prescribed by law.

In order to institutionalize this debate, Gamwell argues that the constitution should include formative rights protecting both private and public liberties. Private liberties protect the prerequisites for discourse such as the right to personal property and the right to contract (Gamwell 2000a, 206). Public liberties “govern actual participation in discourse” and include the rights such as due process, equal protection of the law, free speech, and freedom of association (Gamwell 2000a, 217-18). In addition, some liberties, like religious freedom, are both public and private. As a private liberty, religious liberty protects the “freedom of conscience,” and as a public liberty, it ensures that all conceptions of the comprehensive good are subject to contest (Gamwell 2000a, 235). While these private and public constitutional rights remain formative, statutory legislation must make substantive determinations concerning issues such as the extent of personal property rights, the legal constraints on the free market, and public education (Gamwell 2000a, 216). There is no guarantee that these decisions will facilitate free and full debate, but the private and public formative constitutional rights ensure that these decisions are always subject to contestation. Individuals may challenge these substantive prescriptions and the conception of good human association that they endorse.

Despite the formative nature of the constitution, Gamwell maintains that “the principles of justice depend on a comprehensive [divine] purpose” and “that the [comprehensive] divine purpose for human life implies a democratic principle” (Gamwell 2000a, 181). To support this claim, he argues for “the compound character of justice” (Gamwell 2000a, 232). On the one hand, the substantive principle or principles of justice imply the formative principle of communicative respect which is the meta-ethical presupposition of moral validity. On the other hand, the formative principle of communicative respect implies a comprehensive purpose. This comprehensive purpose provides the basis for the substantive principles of justice that are required to resolve moral and political decisions.

In addition, Gamwell summarizes his compound theory of justice as general emancipation with a principle: “Maximize the general conditions of emancipation to which there is equal access” (Gamwell 2000a, 295). He supports this substantive principle by demonstrating that it has a compound character and that it follows from the comprehensive divine purpose. He then summarizes this compound conception of justice by a set of democratic principles:

1. The political association should be constituted as a full and free discourse, providing equal public liberties and, therefore, equal private liberties.

2. The political order should

A. maximize equality of public access, providing for all conditions of basic emancipation, and

B. maximize the general conditions of emancipation to which there is equal access (Gamwell 2000a, 311).[7]

Although 2B is the inclusive principle of justice as emancipation and implies the others and their priority, the formative principle in 1 and the substantive principle in 2A are democratically prior. Moreover, “this statement of principles for a conception of human rights backed by neoclassical metaphysics,” is “inseparable from a comprehensive [divine] good,” and articulates “a universal or natural moral law” that should determine the activities of the state (Gamwell 2000b, 343-44).

4. Process Natural Law

4.1. A New Theory of Natural Law

Michael Moore’s definition of “natural law theory” supports Gamwell’s characterization of his process-based compound theory of justice as “a universal or natural moral law.” Moore argues that a “natural law theory” contains “two essential theses: (1) there are objective moral truths [moral realist thesis]; and (2) the truth of any legal proposition necessarily depends, at least in part, on the truth of some corresponding moral proposition(s) [relational thesis]” (Moore 1991-1992, 2425). With respect to the moral realist thesis, process metaphysics clearly establishes both a rationally necessary teleology of beauty (i.e., comprehensive divine good) and the formative and substantive rights it implies as objective moral truths.

Similarly, with respect to the relational thesis, Sturm notes that Gamwell’s formative rights are “unqualified rights, since they compose the necessary, even if not sufficient, foundation of a democratic political process” (Sturm 2004, 253). In other words, the validity of any law in a democratic political system must be consistent with these formative rights. In addition, substantive rights must be “rooted in an overarching moral criterion that both authorizes the formative rights already indicated and provides a normative measure for the evaluation of contestable policy proposals” (Sturm 2004, 253). Even though formative rights should be constitutionally guaranteed and substantive rights should be left to the legislature, both formative and substantive rights are accountable to the telos of maximizing beauty for their legitimacy. Consequently, the telos of maximizing beauty and the formative and substantive rights it implies represent objective moral truths that determine the legitimacy of any legal proposition.

A process theory of natural law, however, varies substantially from classical natural law theory. As noted by Cicero, classical natural law maintains that

True law is right reason in agreement with nature; it is of universal application, unchanging and everlasting […] there will not be different laws at Rome and at Athens, or different laws now and in the future, but one eternal and unchangeable law will be valid for all nations and all times, and there will be one master and ruler, that is, God, over us all, for he is the author of this law, its promulgator, and its enforcing judge (Republic III, xxii, 33).

With respect to formative rights, the classical notion of fixed, unchanging natural laws may have some relevance to process natural law theory. The universal formative rights noted above should be protected in all constitutions.

With respect to the universal telos of maximizing beauty (including the implied substantive right to general emancipation), the realization of that aim is always relative to particular circumstances. For example, Whitehead claims that the details of all moral codes “are relative to the social circumstances of the immediate environment” but that there is a transcendent “aim of social perfection” (beauty) for all these moral codes (AI 269, 290, 291). Conduct in one environment produces a measure of harmony, but in another environment, it is destructively degrading. “Each society has its own type of perfection” (AI 291). Similarly, the substantive laws in any particular country should embody legal norms which are relevant to its particular environment and which aim at promoting the evolution of that environment towards its proper perfection. Consequently, we must continually “seek for some highly general principles underlying all such codes. Such generalities should reflect the very notions of the harmonizing of harmonies, and of particular individual actualities as the sole authentic reality. These are the principles of the generality of harmony [order], and of the importance of the individual [increased intensity of feeling]” (i.e., beauty) (AI 292).

The telos of beauty, however, is not something that is ever fully realized, which means that substantive laws and “[m]orals consist […] in the aim at the ideal” (AI 269). This aim at the ideal is not a static state of affairs to be achieved, but a goal of creative advance to be strived for. While the telos of beauty is universal, the state of affairs that should be realized to maximize beauty in any legal system through statutory or case law will depend upon the circumstances in the society in question. Thus, except for the telos of beauty and the formative and substantive rights it implies, no fixed and unchanging substantive rights or state of affairs will be the end of the law as in classical natural law and natural rights theory. Thus, substantive rights and regulations must be continually modified to facilitate the ideal social perfection that is relevant to the current societal circumstances.

4.2. Legal Indeterminacy and Closing the Ontological Gap

Process natural law also responds to the two major threats to the rule of law—legal indeterminacy and the ontological gap between legal theory and practice. Contrary to contemporary legal theories, legal indeterminacy does not present an issue of illegitimacy for process natural law theory. Rather than reducing law to an act of will (e.g., legal positivism) or an ideological gesture (e.g., critical legal studies), process natural law theory claims that the law has a rational basis. In hard cases, even though the expressed will of the majority (e.g., statutes) and the decisions of their judicial representatives (e.g., case law) are indeterminate, judges still have resources for rationally legitimating their decisions. Judges can rely on the telos of beauty and the formative and substantive rights following from it to determine how hard cases should be decided. Given that the validity of the law is already determined by the telos of beauty and these rights, judges are warranted in relying on them directly whether the indeterminacy is intentional (e.g., reasonable person standard) or unintentional (e.g., conflicting laws). Furthermore, process natural law does not mean that some inflexible, antiquated natural laws will be imposed on contemporary society. Rather, judges must determine what maximizes beauty in accordance with the circumstance of the case and the social perfection possible within that society. As a result, under a process theory of natural law, legal indeterminacy does not result in illegitimacy but presents an occasion for judges to rely directly on the rational foundation of the law (i.e., the telos of beauty and the formative and substantive rights it implies) to resolve disputes.

In addition, no ontological gap exists between process natural law theory and the practice of law. Whitehead’s metaphysics unifies scientific ontology and religious ontology. There is no distinction between the religious ontology presupposed by the practice of law and the “scientific” ontology presupposed by legal theory. Whitehead’s theistic teleology makes sense of the religious presuppositions of legal practice regarding “the reality of ‘the law’” and “a sort of working partnership between a divine author and human legislators” (Smith 2004, 155). Similarly, Whitehead’s metaphysics refutes the “scientific” ontology of contemporary legal theory, which presupposes that the end result of accepting a scientific ontology based on “atomic physics and Darwinian evolution,” “is that the religious worldview is inadmissible for purposes of serious thought” (Smith 2004, 34). Consequently, process natural law theory solves the two most pressing issues of contemporary legal theory by providing for the legitimation of law despite its indeterminacy and by closing the ontological gap between legal theory and legal practice.

4.3. The Empirical Side of Process Natural Law

Given the abstract nature of the telos of beauty and the human rights implied by it, it is far from clear how a process theory of natural law provides a legitimation of judges’ decisions in hard cases. These abstract principles clearly rule out some options from consideration and provide general guidelines for practical deliberation. However, the principles of process natural law do not provide a deductive mechanism for resolving hard cases. These principles are also indeterminate when it comes to resolving particular disputes. Judges must still choose from the permissible options.

Unlike classical natural law theory, process natural law involves more than top-down reasoning from the abstract principles of process natural law. Process natural law also provides justification for judges reasoning from the bottom-up. Judges are permitted to rely on their intuitions about how these abstract rational principles ought to resolve hard cases. Judicial intuitions constitute a direct application of principles of process natural law to the facts and positive law relevant to a particular case. This conclusion seems to be supported by Whitehead’s similar conclusion with respect to practical reasoning in ethics. He claims that “ethical intuitions are a direct application of metaphysical doctrine for the determination of practice” (AI 18). Judicial intuitions thus complement the purely rational approach to judicial decision making based on the principles of process natural law.

This bottom-up approach is the empirical side of process thought as it relates to practical reasoning. For Whitehead, experience is primary while rational theoretical constructions are an abstraction from the fullness of experience. He claims that the apprehension of a vague and inarticulate causation is primary while consciousness is secondary (PR 173, 178). In other words, what we are conscious of is a reduction of that vague sense of causation. The principles of process natural law are an abstraction from more inclusive experience of the telos of beauty and its relation to the facts and positive laws relevant to particular cases. Consequently, a process theory of natural law should take into account the inclusiveness and primacy of experience as well as the principles of process natural law.

Whitehead, however, does not provide much insight on how the empirical side of process philosophy relates to practical reasoning. To supplement Whitehead’s account, I will draw on William James’s pragmatic empiricism. Although Whitehead rejects James’ denigration of rational metaphysical speculation, Whitehead agrees with James about the primacy and inclusiveness of experience. Whitehead credits James with “the inauguration of a new stage of philosophy” because of his rejection of Cartesian dualism (SMW 143). Whitehead further cites James’s empiricism approvingly (PR 68), and he credits James with properly protesting “against the dismissal of experience in the interest of system” (MT 2, 3).

James’s pragmatic empiricism claims that our experience includes the conjunctive and disjunctive relations between things as well as the things themselves[8] (James 1963, 138; 1948a, 165-66; 1996, 44-52). James refers to this inclusive view of experience as the vast wholeness of experience or the fullness of experience. Pragmatic empiricism takes both logic (or theory) and the external senses as valid experiences. Rationalism limits itself to logic (theory), and empiricism limits itself the external senses. James’ pragmatic empiricism, however, includes all experience, physical and mental, which is one of the reasons James refers to it as “radical empiricism” (James 1963, 138; James 1996, 41-44).

With respect to practical reasoning, James identifies two factors that discipline or justify practical decisions based on the fullness of experience. First, James says that we will recognize answers to practical problems as we do everything else, “by certain subjective marks.” These subject marks include “a strong feeling of ease, peace, rest” and a transition from a puzzled or perplexed state to a state of rational comprehension (James 1948c, 3). James calls these subjective marks the “Sentiment of Rationality.” He argues that we experience the justification of the decision and feel a lack of need to justify or explain it (James 1948c, 4).

Applying James’s radical empiricism to judging means that the process of judging must be looked at from the inside. James recognizes that “[a]bstract rules can indeed help,” but he claims that “they help the less in proportion as our intuitions are more piercing” (James 1948b, 83). Hence, judging is about the judge taking in all the relevant legal materials, factual information, and other factors and trying to determine the outcome. Once the judge has come to a resolution of the case, the judge should have a sentiment of rationality that her decision makes sense. This subjective sign is not an “objective justification” of the judge’s conclusion. However, it is a confirmation that the judge’s decision resonates with what the judge believes is true about the law, the facts, and how they should relate. If a judge does not have a sentiment of rationality, this should be a sign that the judge’s decision is ill-formed. In other words, the judge must do the best she can to resolve all the loose ends in the case and come to a decision that she feels confident is right. The judge knows that this has occurred when she feels a sentiment of rationality about her decision.

Once the judge has achieved the sentiment of rationality, this is not the end of the story. James argues that we must use the pragmatic method to test these decisions in accordance with their consequences. The second disciplining factor is thus the pragmatic testing of judges’ decisions. James has confidence that we all experience a common world and have access to a common truth, but he is not naive about the possibility of disagreement about our interpretations of that world. He recognizes that there are a plurality of decisions that different decision makers may feel confident are right or produce the sentiment of rationality. Hence, James argues that we must test these judgments by their fruits; “[t]he results of the action corroborate or refute the idea from which it flowed” (James 1948c, 33).

Accordingly, judges must pay attention to the effects of their decisions. Did the parties live up to the terms of the court’s resolution of the case? Did similarly situated parties change their behavior because of the decision? In other words, the court should determine whether the opinion furnished good or bad incentives for future actors. For example, if future cases demonstrate that justifying the legal decision requires numerous “subsidiary hypothesis” that eventually undermine the original decision, James would argue that the decision has been determined to be false or misguided and ought to be corrected. Consequently, judicial intuitions should be subjected to the pragmatic method of testing. Intuitions must be verified by their consequences for the parties, future claimants, future precedent, etc.

In addition, process natural law requires that judges be able to reconcile their pragmatically tested decisions with the principles of process natural law. Unlike James, Whitehead would be confident that judges could provide a rational argument to support their decisions based on these principles. This would provide an additional check on parochial judicial bias masquerading as legitimate judicial intuitions.

Once the top-down principles of process natural law are complemented by the bottom-up judicial practice of arriving at intuitive judgments, process natural law both solves the problem of legal indeterminacy and closes the ontological gap. Whitehead’s unique blend of rational and empirical methods in his Speculative Metaphysics is further extended to judicial reasoning. Searching for the sentiment of rationality in judicial decision making takes the primacy and inclusiveness of experience into account. Pragmatic testing puts a check on those intuitions, and the principles of process natural law provide an overarching rational structure for the law and further discipline judicial decision making in particular cases. Process natural law theory thus shows great promise for moving past the current theoretical obstacles in legal theory and providing for the creative advance of the law.


[1] For the full citation of the works cited in this article, see the “Works Cited and Further Reading” section on pages @173-176 after the article by David Ray Griffith.

[2] In several articles, I have tried to show that the attempts by Jürgen Habermas, John Rawls, and Kent Greenawalt to provide a post-metaphysical justification for law have failed because their theories presuppose metaphysical or comprehensive principles at the same time that they deny the possibility of rational metaphysics. (Modak-Truran 2004: 774-81)(demonstrating the performative contradiction in Greenawalt’s theory of law); (Modak-Truran 2003: 279-85 & 1998: 266-71)(arguing that Rawls’s “political not metaphysical ordering of political values” and his “Law of Peoples” are incoherent because they imply a comprehensive doctrine); (Mark Modak-Truran 1997)(arguing that Habermas’s discourse theory of law is circular and fails to explain how intersubjective agreement can validate the law independently of comprehensive convictions).

[3] Ken Kress notes that “versions of indeterminacy differ according to whether they claim that the court has complete discretion to achieve any outcome at all (execute the plaintiff who brings suit to quiet title to his cabin and surrounding property in the Rocky Mountains) or rather has a limited choice among a few options (hold for defendant or plaintiff within a limited range of monetary damages or other remedies), or some position in between” (Kress 1992, 201).

[4] Similarly, Robin West claims that masculine jurisprudence proceeds from the presupposition of individuals as essentially separate from one another (“separation thesis”) while feminist jurisprudence proceeds from the presupposition that individuals are essentially connected or related to one another (West 1988). Critical Race Theorists have similarly tried to show that “areas of law ostensibly designed for our benefit often benefit whites even more than blacks” (Delgado 1991).

[5] Descriptive jurisprudence helps us understand how analytically we can talk about law as something distinct from other forms of practical reasoning such as morality and politics. It also describes how the normative justification occurs in the legal system. By contrast, normative jurisprudence provides a justification or legitimation of the law and the legal system (including judicial decision making).

[6] In honor of Sturm’s contributions and his retirement from teaching at Bucknell University, “the Center for Process Studies held a conference April 17-19, 1999 called ‘Human Rights in a Process Perspective’” (Morris 2004, 195). The “task of the conference” was “to take a critical look at the principle of human rights” from the perspective of process thought (Morris 2004, 196).

[7] Sturm notes that “[i]n important respects, Gamwell’s understanding of the role and importance of human rights and mine […] converge,” but he offers an amendment proposing that “the right to subsistence” (which includes economic and social rights) should be added to the “right to participation” on the list of formative rights (Sturm 2004, 251, 254).

[8] For a more extended treatment of James’s pragmatic empiricism and its implications for legal reasoning, see Modak-Truran 2001, 71-83.

Works Cited and Further Readings

Cobb, Jr., John B. 1993. “Alfred North Whitehead,” in Founders of Constructive Postmodern Philosophy, edited by David Ray Griffin, John B. Cobb, Jr., Marcus P. Ford, Pete A. Y. Gunter, and Peter Ochs (Albany, State University of New York Press Press).

D’Amato, Anthony. 1990. “Pragmatic Indeterminacy,” Northwestern University Law Review, 85, 148-89.

Delgado, Richard. 1991. “Brewer’s Plea: Critical Thoughts on Common Sense,” Vanderbilt Law Review, 44, 1-14.

Dworkin, Ronald. 1986. Law’s Empire (Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press).

Gamwell, Franklin I. 2000a. Democracy on Purpose: Justice and the Reality of God (Washington D.C., Georgetown University Press).

Gamwell, Franklin I. 2000b. “The Purpose of Human Rights,” Process Studies, 29.2, 322-346. Reprinted in Mississippi College Law Review, 22, 239-61.

Gilmore, Grant. 1977. The Ages of American Law (New Haven, Yale University Press).

Griffin, David Ray. 1993. “Introduction to State University of New York Press Series in Constructive Postmodern Thought,” in Founders of Constructive Postmodern Philosophy, edited by David Ray Griffin, John B. Cobb, Jr., Marcus P. Ford, Pete A. Y. Gunter, and Peter Ochs (Albany, State University of New York Press Press).

Hart, H. L. A. 1994. The Concept of Law, 2nd Ed. (London, Clareton Press).

James, William. 1948a. “Pragmatism’s Conception of Truth,” in Essays in Pragmatism, edited by Alburey Castell (New York, Hafner Press), 159-76.

James, William. 1948b. “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life,” in Essays in Pragmatism, edited by Alburey Castell (New York, Hafner Press), 65-87.

James, William. 1948c. “The Sentiment of Rationality,” in Essays in Pragmatism, edited by Alburey Castell (New York, Hafner Press), 3-36.

James, William. 1963. “The Meaning of Truth,” in Pragmatism and Other Essays (New York, Washington Square Press), 133-84.

James, William. 1996. “A World of Pure Experience,” in Essays in Radical Empiricism, edited by Ralph Barton Perry (Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press), 39-91.

Kelman, Mark. 1987. A Guide to Critical Legal Studies (Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press).

Kress, Ken. 1992. “Legal Indeterminacy and Legitimacy,” in Legal Hermeneutics: History, Theory, and Practice, edited by Gregory Leyh (Berkley, University of California Press).

Llewellyn, Karl. 1989. The Case Law System in America, translated by Michael Ansaldi, edited by Paul Gewirtz (Chicago, The University of Chicago Press).

Modak-Truran, Mark C. 1997. “Habermas’s Discourse Theory of Law and the Relationship Between Law and Religion”, Capital University Law Review, 26, 461-482.

Modak-Truran, Mark C. 1998. “The Religious Dimension of Judicial Decision Making and The De Facto Disestablishment,” Marquette Law Review­, 81, 255-288.

Modak-Truran, Mark C. 2001. “A Pragmatic Justification of the Judicial Hunch,” University of Richmond Law Review, 35, 55-89.

Modak-Truran, Mark C. 2003. “Reenchanting International Law,” Mississippi College Law Review, 22, 263-301.

Modak-Truran, Mark C. 2004. “Reenchanting the Law: The Religious Dimension of Judicial Decision Making,” Catholic University Law Review, 53, 709-816.

Moore, Michael S. 1991-1992. “Moral Reality Revised,” Michigan Law Review, 90, 2424-2533.

Morris, Randall C. 2004. “Focus Introduction: Human Rights in a Process Perspective: Conversations with Douglas Sturm,” Process Studies, 32.2, 195-198.

Plato (ed. Allan Bloom) 1991. Republic (Basic Books; 2nd edition)

Pickering, George W. 1988. “Property Rights: Another Relational Perspective,” in Economic Life: Process Interpretations and Critical Responses, edited by W. Widick Schroeder & Franklin I. Gamwell (Chicago, Center for the Scientific Study of Religion), 79-88.

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Sturm, Douglas. 1988. “Property: A Relational Perspective in Economic Life: Process Interpretations and Critical Responses,” in Economic Life: Process Interpretations and Critical Responses, edited by W. Widick Schroeder & Franklin I. Gamwell (Chicago, Center for the Scientific Study of Religion), 29-77.

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Sturm, Douglas. 2004. “Taking Human Rights Seriously: Relationality and Subjectivity,” Process Studies, 32.2, 237-257.

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Tidmarsh, Jay. 1998. “Whitehead’s Metaphysics and the Law: A Dialogue,” Albany Law Review, 62, 1-90.

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Vogel, Howard J. 2006a. “Reframing Rights from the Ground Up: The Contribution of the U.N. Law of Self-Determination to Recovering the Principle of Sociability on the Way to a Relational Theory of International Human Rights,Temple International & Comparative Law Journal 20.2, 443-497.

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Author Information

Mark C. Modak-Truran
J. Will Young Professor of Law
Mississippi College School of Law, Jackson, MS 39201

How to Cite this Article

Modak-Truran, Mark C., “Prolegomena to a Process Theory of Natural Law”, last modified 2008, The Whitehead Encyclopedia, Brian G. Henning and Joseph Petek (eds.), originally edited by Michel Weber and Will Desmond, URL = <>.