The Purposes of Law

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Jeffrey Thayne

Before we discuss Aristotle’s thoughts on law, we must consider for a moment the purpose of law. Robin Letwin, in her chapter on Aristotle, introduces two distinct views of law that she finds hints of in Aristotle (and the beginnings of which in Plato). This distinction is helpful in categorizing Aristotle’s thought, and Letwin borrows it from the modern natural law philosopher Michael Oakeshott. One view of law can be called the non-instrumental view of law, and the other can be called the instrumental view of law.

Traffic signs. We aren’t told where to go, only how to get there effectively.

From the perspective of non-instrumental law, laws should not be used to direct people towards a particular goal or purpose; they should simply provide a structure that allows people to pursue their own purposes and goals. For example, laws regarding wills don’t tell people how they distribute their belongings to their children; they simply say, “If you were to distribute your possessions in a particular way, here is how you would do it.” Another example is traffic law. Traffic laws don’t tell you what your final destination is; they just tell you that, wherever you go, you should drive on the right side of the street, etc. Also, laws against crime would be limited to those crimes that impede others from pursuing their lawful goals, such as assault, murder, robbery, etc. The purpose of law, from this perspective, is not to direct the people towards a single goal or purpose, but rather they are a means of providing space for people of various goals and purposes to pursue their own desires.

From the perspective of instrumental law, laws are designed to serve a particular purpose; that is, they are designed to direct people towards a particular goal. For example, if a government decided it wanted to end poverty, it might pass a law which says that every person who has a particular amount of wealth must give a portion of that wealth to a charitable institution. This legislator of this law—be it a king, parliament, or congress—has a particular goal in mind, and the law serves as an instrument to attain that goal. Another example of instrumental law might be when a legislature wants to foster a particular type of moral climate in society, and thus outlaws crude language in media broadcasts, or outlaws the distribution of pornography, etc. Thus, laws are a way of unifying society towards particular, agreed upon goals that are either shared by the majority (in a democracy), or at least endorsed by the governing body (in other forms of government).

It may seem as though the whole distinction is misleading; what appears as non-instrumental laws serve a particular purpose, shared by the populace at large: the establishment of an orderly, non-violent society. Thus, because they are designed for a particular goal, they are not “neutral” with respect to purpose. What we would call “non-instrumental laws” are really designed to maintain peaceful coexistence. The goals of these laws may be different, but they are goals nonetheless. Thus, this distinction would seem useless unless we draw on another distinction: universitas and societas.

Universitas and Societas

Let’s consider: when two people meet for the purpose of exchange (for example, one person sells bananas to another for a set price), they make certain agreements with each other that they are obligated to keep. However, the goals of each of the actors may be entirely different. One may be seeking the monetary means of supporting his or her family, while the other may be seeking only the pleasant taste of bananas. The rules that govern this exchange may be intended to keep it safe and orderly, but the rules to not constrain the goals or intentions of either participant. The rules merely allow both parties to pursue their respective goals unhindered by violent or deceitful interruption. This kind of association is considered societas. Thus, a marketplace may be an example of a societas: a collection of individuals all pursuing various goals and purposes.

A universitas, however, is an association of an entirely different kind. Let’s consider: when a group of people associate for the purpose of obtaining a particular set of goals, their association is of a different kind than that of two people wishing merely to make a mutually beneficial exchange. An example of this kind of association is a club, or perhaps a business. When a club is formed, members join because they want to participate in the collective goal and identity of the club. A business might have a collective goal of making a profit. In both examples, members who hinder the group from achieving their goals may be ousted from the group. Club members, for example, that work against the stated goals of the organization may lose their membership. Employees who fail to do their job may be fired. While participants in a universitas may have goals other than those of the group, their association with the universitas arises out of the collective goals of the group. There can be a collective unity in a universitas that is unavailable in a societas.

A universitas-type association may engage in societas-type relationships with other organizations. For example, a business (a universitas which is collectively pursuing a goal shared by all members of the organization) may form contractual relationships with another business (also a universitas) that is pursuing an entirely different goal. The resulting relationship between the two businesses is a form of societas.


With these two other terms, universitas and societas, we can see ways in which the first distinction, instrumental and non-instrumental, may be useful. It isn’t that non-instrumental laws don’t serve a purpose (else why have them?); rather, they don’t unify the polis under a common goal, as one would find in a universitas-type of association.

This distinction, coupled with the distinction between societas and universitas, will help us make sense of the various views of philosophers we will discuss later in this series. Aristotle, for example, argued that the polis is a universitas-type of organization with the collective goal of achieving the good life. Laws, according to Aristotle, are instrumental tools to help society obtain this goal. A purely societas-type organization, he argued, can hardly be called a polis, even though it encompasses many societas relationships, because it would then be nothing more than an alliance among members of the organization.


  1. I appreciated your exposition on laws. I think it is very informative, and am interested in knowing how you think this applies to today’s political arena. Do you think non-instrumental laws are appropriate, or do you lean more the instrumental laws?

    I find it’s important not only to define, but to also decide on what type of laws we value and why.

    What do you think, LDS Philosopher?

  2. Certainly, we have both types of law in our present-day government. The jury is still out in my mind about which is the correct understanding of law, or, if they both be correct, what the proper application of each is. For example, the non-instrumental view of law seems to be more compatible with a limited view of government, and I am certainly a fan of small government; however, I have no problem with an individual community getting together and passing local laws that foster a particular moral climate amongst themselves (instrumental view of law).

    Also, both good and bad laws can probably be defended using both types of rhetoric. For example, a government might decide that an educated populace is beneficial for society as a whole, and thus passes a law requiring every parent to provide an education for their children. This is an example of rhetoric from an instrumental point of view. However, a government might also decide that children are dependent upon their parents, and parents who refuse to educate their children hinder them from attaining lawful goals and purposes (just as assault or robbery hinders someone from attaining their lawful goals). This is an example of rhetoric from a non-instrumental point of view. Thus, the same policy can be defended from both points of view by a subtle shift in rhetoric. (Whether or not we agree with mandatory public education is not the issue here; the issue is that it is an example that can be defended both ways)

    I somewhat suspect all the options aren’t on the table, because neither point of view sings to me more so than the other. Perhaps the whole either/or dichotomy is deceptive, and there are entirely different ways of looking at it?

    Presently, my goal is to more to present what I’ve been learning in my class than to argue any particular position. Perhaps, by the end of the semester, I’ll be in a better position to decide.

  3. Jeff: Perhaps the whole either/or dichotomy is deceptive.

    I know what you mean. When you try to nail it down, it seems that no law can be purely non-instrumental because it always assumes some common purpose. The traffic laws assume that all agree that not crashing is a good idea.

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