Interpretation and the Value of Law II

This post is written by Leonid Sirota and Mark Mancini.

We read with interest Stéphane Sérafin, Kerry Sun, and Xavier Foccroulle Ménard’s reply to our earlier post on legal interpretation. In a nutshell, we argued that those who interpret legal texts such as constitutions or statutes should apply established legal techniques without regard for the political valence of outcomes. Only in this way can law function as a common reference and guide in a pluralistic, democratic society in which, as Madison eloquently argued in Federalist No. 10, disagreement about fundamental values and the policies required to implement them is pervasive and bound to remain so “[a]s long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it”.

Our interlocutors claim that our argument leads legal interpretation into “insipid literalism” and, ultimately, sees law as nothing more than a form given to the outcome of power struggles, rather than as the product of reason striving to advance the common good. We remain unconvinced. Our interlocutors seem to wish to escape the more controversial uses to which the “common good” term has been put, but rely on ambiguous claims in doing so. We write today to address some of these claims.

The bottom line is this: if our interlocutors wish to fundamentally change the way we understand texts by sotto voce urging interpreters to adopt a “substantively conservative” position at the outset of the interpretive task, we must dissent. If they wish to simply “tune-up” the way we use purpose and context to enrich our understanding of bare texts, then that is a worthy contribution to the ongoing effort in which many of us are engaged: trying to make Canadian interpretation more workable, less results-oriented, and more focused on the text itself, understood in light of its legislative context in real, practical cases.

Our response is divided into two parts. First, we describe how our interlocutors misunderstand the relationship between, as Jeremy Waldron put it, “The Concept and the Rule of Law”. Second, we catalogue the ways in which our interlocutors’ position is muddled.

  1. The Rule of Law and the Concept of Law, Again

For our interlocutors, “it is clear” that when we say that interpretation must strive for neutrality in order to enable law to guide the members of a pluralistic society, we are “operating within a positivist legal framework”. At the same time, they suspect us of wanting to smuggle a substantive agenda of expanding pluralism into our interpretive views. Respectfully, they are simply mistaken about this. To be sure, as they suggest, the idea of law as a guide for citizens, and hence of the importance of the law’s compliance with the requirements of Rule of Law that make its guidance effective, is an important feature in the work of some positivists, such as Joseph Raz. But its not the positivists’ exclusive preserve.

Consider Professor Waldron’s argument that we need “to overcome casual positivism―to keep faith with a richer and more discriminating notion of law” (19) ― and further, that “[i]t is a mistake to think that a system of rule could be a legal system if there is no publicly accessible way of identifying the general norms that are supposed to govern people’s behavior” (26). Guiding behaviour, including by enabling and encouraging self-application of publicly available rules by those subject to them, and so upholding human dignity, is a key feature of the Rule of Law discourse, but also, Professor Waldron urges, of the very concept of law. This argument was as much on our minds as Professor Raz’s.

And if Professor Waldron might still be regarded as a positivist, trying to merely formulate a better version of that school’s doctrine, Lon Fuller is, alongside John Finnis and Ronald Dworkin, the epitome of Anglo-American non-positivism. And the idea of law as a guide is perhaps best represented in his famous parable of King Rex, the hapless legislator who repeatedly failed to make laws that his subjects could follow. For Fuller too, the requirement that law be framed so as to outline the state’s expectations of its citizens is a matter of respecting human dignity. It is also a matter of what he describes as reciprocity between those in power and those subject to their decisions. The former can expect compliance if, and only if, they frame their demands in such a way that the latter can make sense of them.

The real issue between our interlocutors and us, we suspect, is not a conflict between positivism and natural law, to which one of us (Sirota) is rather sympathetic. Nor is it our commitment to some nihilistic form of neutrality or, conversely, pluralism. As to the former, substantive legislation is of course not neutral―it embodies the commitments of its makers. The task of an interpreter is to ascertain and give effect to these commitments. To do so well, the interpreter must try to bring both established semantic, contextual, and substantive interpretive tools, and (most importantly) an equanimous disposition to his work―precisely to give effect to the commitments made by those with the authority to enact legislation and avoid imposing his own. A judge interpreting the law will never be perfectly neutral in fact, but an interpreter has no business abusing his position to advance pluralism in law, anymore than he is free to make the law more conservative, more progressive, or anything in between (this point was put eloquently by Justice Stratas in Kattenburg, at para 45). 

Lastly, the issue between our interlocutors and us is not a disagreement about whether law should be infused with reason rather than being a matter of raw power. What we disagree about is how reason matters. For us, as for Fuller, what matters is “the inner morality of law”, or its “artificial reason” as Coke put it ― the morality or reason of legal craft and technique, which ensures that law is intelligible to all those subject to it, simply because they are thinking, reasoning human beings, and which is inherent in the enterprise of governing through law, properly understood, rather than emanating from some benevolent ruler whom the  “[s]ubjects will come to thank”. Our interlocutors’ focus is less on form and more on the content of the law; the reason they appeal to is more substantive than the one on which we focus. We turn now to the substance of their argument.

2. The Motte and Bailey of the Common Good Approach

As we note above, the second broad point we wish to make relates to the ambiguities, whether studied or inadvertent, in our interlocutors’ arguments. We outline three areas where our interlocutors’ positions are confusing. In each, our interlocutors could, on one hand, be advancing controversial propositions about the way texts are interpreted—propositions which could run against the need to avoid outcome-based reasoning. On the other hand, our interlocutors’ position could be wholly uncontroversial, simply relating to the relative place of various interpretive tools (like purpose). If it is the former, our interlocutors should say so clearly. If it’s the latter, our interlocutors should disclaim some of the more controversial purposes for which their arguments could be used.

(A) The Natural Law Motte-and-Bailey

Our interlocutors spend a lot of time talking about natural law. They see it as reflected in the legislative process itself—to them, the natural law tradition asks us to “construe the law itself as permeated by reason.” In a passage bound to feel rather opaque to non-aficionados of the tradition, our interlocutors argue that “[n]atural law reflects an idea of reason immanent in the positive law and lends it intelligibility; while in making its general precepts more specific, the positive law realizes and makes concrete the otherwise abstract elements of the natural law.” More specifically, our interlocutors suggest (putatively relying on Justice Miller in Walsh) that all legislation is designed for the “common good.” So, for our interlocutors, it appears that a reflection on the natural law and the “common good” is inherent in the activity of legislating itself. Even the Constitution, they claim, is influenced by the idea of the “common good.”

We question whether the “common good” can mean the same thing in all these contexts. Hand-waving towards Aquinas or a “model opinion” does not adequately answer this question. Our interlocutors seem to assume that the “common good” as a theoretical matter has been stable across time—from the Angelic Doctor to Justice Miller in 2021. This seems intuitively wrong. Even according to those who subscribe to the natural law tradition, there are debates about what the natural law prescribes.

But ultimately, what we are interested in is how this all bears on legal interpretation; how jurists have applied this idea of the “common good” in relation to real cases and current circumstances. Here, we notice that our interlocutors’ suggestion that appeals to natural law and to the common good are nothing more than reminders of the law’s rationality and pursuit of ascertainable purposes is by no means the only view. Adrian Vermeule, for his part, argues for a “substantively conservative” approach to interpretation designed to support the rulers in endeavours—as Vermeule describes it—to “legislate morality” and to support “the traditional family.” This seems to be a fundamentally different use of the term “common good” than our interlocutors propose.

These two radically different approaches are deployed in typical motte-and-bailey fashion. When outlining their own agenda, the latter-day promoters of the “common good” and natural law support Vermeule’s project to use interpretation to stop the “urban-gentry liberals” from prioritizing their own “financial and sexual” satisfactions, on the basis of external values that exist outside of constitutional and statutory texts. When pressed, however, they retreat to the seemingly innocuous claims about law’s rationality, made to appear rooted in legislation and the Constitution.

These two positions are incompatible. If our interlocutors wish to claim that the pursuit of the “common good” is inherent in the act of legislating, that is a proposition we would be prepared to entertain within the context of deciding what a particular text means, although at least some (and perhaps a good deal of) legislation is demonstrably directed at the private benefit of the law-makers or their constituents, or at entrenching outright bigotry, with appeals to the common good nothing more than a smokescreen. But if our interlocutors wish, instead, to impose an “illiberal legalism,” as Vermeule does, that does not “play defensively within the procedural rules of the liberal order,” than that is a different matter entirely. The former deals with matters of interpretation. The latter concerns itself with the culture wars of the day. Our interlocutors should either disclaim Vermeule’s use of their “common good” or accept it.

(b) The Purposivism Confusion

Our interlocutors’ position on interpretation itself is also equivocal. The language of the “common good”, as used by our interlocutors, seems to invoke one rather uncontroversial argument with which we completely agree: text cannot be understood without understanding its abstract and particular purposes. That is a proposition that textualists and non-textualists alike accept (see A. Scalia and B. Garner, Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts, at 20), and which is hornbook law in Canada. But at the same time, that basic argument raises more questions than it does answers.

Our interlocutors claim that there is “one truth” in the idea of “purposive interpretation”—the premise that law is designed to fulfill an “end” that is “intelligible to reason.” Our interlocutors embrace a “teleological outlook on the essential nature of legislation.” This seems right so far as it goes. As Max Radin notes in his famous article “A Short Way with Statutes,” “the legislature that put the statute on the books had the constitutional right and power to set [the statute’s] purpose as a desirable one for the community” (398). We agree that texts must be read in light of their purposes if we wish to understand why a legislature used certain words in creating a particular rule ― though again we caution that the legislature’s motives may not have been at all noble or reasoned.

If this is all our interlocutors are suggesting, their use of the “common good” phraseology is benign and probably a distraction. Like Asher Honickman in his response to our interlocutors, we do not see these invocations as adding anything to current debates about understanding legal texts. But we take our interlocutors to be saying something, and so simply saying that law is a teleological enterprise is incomplete without specifying how text drives the interpretive process. What needs to be decided is how we choose what purposes are relevant to interpretation. Here, we could speak of “ulterior” purposes—à la “mischief”—or “implementational purposes”—the legal rules (such as rules, standards, or delegations) that legislatures use, in text, to enact particular ulterior purposes (see, for a discussion of these different purposes, Max Radin, “Statutory Interpretation” at 863, 876). At the highest level of abstraction, one could say that laws are designed to achieve “justice and security” or the “common good” or the “public interest.” This does not tell us much about how a legal instrument should be interpreted, because legislatures do not implement ulterior purposes at all costs or in totality, and courts err when they interpret statutes with this assumption, as one of us has argued here based on the Supreme Court’s decision in West Fraser. Interpreters must work between purposes, keeping a clear eye on the text and the way it enacts particular legal rules (see Sullivan, Statutory Interpretation, at 187).   

At times our interlocutors seem to agree with this position. They say that courts cannot “override the terms or the finitude of a statute” and that “no human law-giver can conceivably grant benediction to the common good across the whole of human affairs.” We agree. And yet, we note that an assumption that the legislature’s “reasoned choice is rendered intelligible by the idea of the common good” ignores that language may only imperfectly capture that aim.  Our interlocutors’ position is similar to the old “strong purposivist” view represented in the Hart & Sacks Legal Process materials: legislatures consist of reasonable people pursuing reasonably purposes reasonably. If one takes this view, then it is possible to claim that the idea of the “common good” contains within it substantive aims that could and should override the terms of a statute. If this is what our interlocutors argue, we must disagree, simply because the implementational means employed by legislatures will always be over- and underinclusive in relation to purposes stated at a high level of abstraction. Overriding the text of a statute in favour of a court’s appreciation of purpose risks ignoring the means the legislature chose.

Lest this discussion seem abstract, let us conclude with a reminder of what this “strong purposivist” view means in practice: the early-20th century Holy Trinity case of the Supreme Court of the United States. The Alien Contract Labor Law prohibited the immigration to the US of “foreigners and aliens under contract or agreement to perform labor or service of any kind in the United States”. It was intended to ban the immigration of Chinese workers―but did not specifically say so. The language of the statute also covered an Anglican priest engaged to work in the United States. Yet the Court held that it did not apply to him, because the United States was a “Christian nation,” and hence the law could not have been meant to exclude Christians as well as minorities. Here, we see that the court took a highly abstract background principle and used it to supplement the terms of a statute. This appears to be fine under at least one reading of the “common good” interpretive idea. And yet, this is an outrageous violation of the Rule of Law’s requirement that law be publicly stated and applied in accordance with its enacted terms. It is also, and not coincidentally, an example of intolerable partiality and bigotry.

We conclude this section by restating the point: our interlocutors’ embrace of teleology in law is interesting and welcome, but not helpful by itself. This is because it does not answer fundamental questions about the relationship between text and purpose; and, at best, a perspective focused on “the common good” adds no conceptual heft to relevant and current interpretive debates. We are left wondering whether our interlocutors simply believe in purposive interpretation, or whether they are advancing some other case.  

(C) The Political Confusion

Last but not least, it is important to emphasize that the idea of the “common good”, which our interlocutors present as having a consistent, definite meaning over time, has been put to very different uses by very different people. Our interlocutors claim, for example, that Josh Hammer’s idea of “common good originalism” is perfectly within the tradition of textualism and positivism.Our interlocutors want to reassure us that interpretation drawing on the “common good” does not pursue external policy goals, but rather seeks to determine the meaning of the law from within.

This is a valiant effort, but it flies in the face of the expressly political valence of Hammer’s essay. Hammer makes the following points about his proposed method:

I call my jurisprudential framework “common good originalism,” and I would humbly submit that it be adopted as conservatives’ new legal standard-bearer—a worthy complement to other simultaneously unfolding New Right/“new consensus” intellectual efforts.


Put more simply: The concerns of nation, community, and family alike must be prioritized over the one-way push toward ever-greater economic, sexual, and cultural liberationism. And this must be true not merely as a matter of public policy, but as a matter of legal interpretation.

Indeed, the entire first part of Hammer’s essay (and another more recent one) trades in politics. The point for Hammer seems to be the development of a certain type of conservative interpretive method that is an adjunct to a political project. One wonders why Hammer needed or wanted to include expressly political statements in a piece that is—our interlocutors tell us—wholly about interpretation. Do our interlocutors disclaim this part of Hammer’s essay, and more generally, how do they distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate uses of the concept of the “common good”?

That the “common good conservative” movement is a political project is clear from the reaction to the US Supreme Court’s Bostock case. As one of us wrote here, in that case, Gorsuch J decided that Title VII protected against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, despite their not being expressly listed in the statute, because such discrimination necessarily and logically involves discrimination on the basis of sex. In all likelihood, the framers of Title VII did not foresee that the statute would protect sexual orientation and gender identity. Indeed, as Alito J pointed out in dissent, Congress had declined to add sexual orientation and identity to Title VII in the past.

Now, what divided the majority and the dissent in Bostock was a question of pure textual interpretation. As Tara-Leigh Grove argues, Bostock is representative of “two textualisms.” And as Asher Honickman points out, there are reasons to debate the respective roles of social context, expectations, and semantic context in Bostock. This debate has nothing to do with the political valence of one or the other interpretation.

And yet the conservative meltdown over Bostock focused squarely on the results of the case. Here we see the worry about “economic, social, and cultural liberationism.” For Hammer, Bostock was not a mistaken application of textualism, but a showcase of its fundamental faults, laying “bare the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of the conservative legal movement.” Hence Hammer’s proposal of common good originalism, designed to solve this very “failure.”

Bostock raises many questions about the aims of the “common good” movement more generally, and its relationship to interpretive method. One is hard-pressed to find how the concept of “the common good” solves any legal problems in Bostock that cannot be solved by robust debate among textualists about the role of expectations, intentions, and purpose. While one of our interlocutors seems to suggest that the result in Bostock was wrong because judges should take account of the underlying “metaphysics” of words, we view this perspective as a distraction for judges working through real cases—and this is clearly not what Hammer et al seem to be getting at. They have identified a “failure” in interpretive method—a result that they, for one reason or another, do not like. They have designed an interpretive method to solve that problem. Without Gorsuch J’s political “mistake” in Bostock, “common good originalism” was unlikely to ever enter the conversation as it has (which is all the odder since Bostock is a statutory case). As a result, we cannot endorse this fundamentally political project.


Those who subscribe to the “common good” in interpretation are on the horns of a dilemma. There are those who seek to use the concept for expressly political ends, through the task of interpretation as a sort of “living tree” for conservatives. And then there are our interlocutors, who appear to defend the concept as limited, well-understood, and innocuous. We hope our interlocutors can determine which of these options is theirs—and if they simply wish to change emphasis in textual interpretation, then they can join the ongoing debate on that question.

Author: Mark Mancini

I am a graduate of the University of New Brunswick Faculty of Law (JD) and the University of Chicago Law School (LLM). I am the National Director of the Runnymede Society, a national law student organization dedicated to debate on issues relating to the Rule of Law, constitutionalism, and individual liberty. I clerked at the Federal Court for Justice Ann Marie McDonald. I have interests in administrative law broadly, with specific interests in substantive review of administrative interpretations of law. I am also interested in law and economics. Any views expressed on Double Aspect are mine, and do not represent the views of the Runnymede Society.

4 thoughts on “Interpretation and the Value of Law II”

  1. On the flip side, even a judge fully immersed in the works of St. Thomas Aquinas could (and should) understand that her job is different from that of a legislator immersed in the works of the Great Doctor. Because they have two different jobs, they have two different role moralities. The legislator’s job is to enact laws that are in the public interest of the community she represents. The judge’s job is to resolve disputes based on authoritative norms, which at least *include* the laws enacted by the legislators. Among the normative considerations the judge has to take into account are the responsibility to respect democratic decision making and the responsibility not to legislate retroactively. This implies that the judge has to distinguish interpretation law from overriding it. If there is a system of constitutional judicial review, the judge may also have that authority to override statutes, but it is circumscribed and must, at minimum, be explicitly. So if the judge is transparent and respectful of democratic decision making, then she must give the legislation force.

    The problem with literalism is that in giving the legislation force, the judge cannot just look at the text. There are background presumptions embodied in the law, in the generally accepted morality of the society, the constitutional structure of authority and so on. The text may implicitly or explicitly expect the judge to balance values in light of the fact of the case. Almost all textual commandments are implicitly defeasible (“Thou shalt not speed” has an implicit exception if you are being pursued by an android from the future who is trying to kill you so that you never give birth to the leader of the human resistance). Those defeaters cannot all be stated, which is why you can’t dismiss the reasoning in Holy Trinity, even if you disagree with it.

    1. The beginning of the above comment makes no sense because I somehow lost an earlier comment. I am going to try again.

  2. The jurisprudential debate about positivism can have no implications, one way or the other, as to how judges should decide cases involving contractual, statutory or constitutional language.

    A positivist is somebody who thinks that the answer to the question “what is the law around here” is a sociological fact. Positivism is a way of looking at law from outside the system itself, so it cannot be a basis for a judge to decide a case. A positivist would say that as long as people generally accept Supreme Court of Canada decisions as authoritative about what the Criminal Code means, then how the Supreme Court of Canada decides a case will be the law. That cannot make any difference from the perspective of a Supreme Court justice making the decision – at least as a group, they cannot be mistaken about what the law is, defined in a positivist way. But that doesn’t mean they cannot make intepretative mistakes about the texts they are reading, nor does it mean they cannot make normative mistakes about the extent of their proper authority to decide the case in light of the norm the text lays down.

    There are normative reasons that judges at least presumptively ought to follow the texts in the contracts, statutes or constitutions that are the basis of the disputes before them. I don’t actually think Fuller’s reason about predictibility is the best one, at least in a contemporary society where frankly few people know what the law says. The reason to respect contractual language is that, within limits, parties get to pick the rules that govern their transactions. If a court thinks one of the exceptions exist, it should say so, rather than pretending the text means something other than it does. The reason to respect statutory language is the democratic principle: there are exceptions from the written constitution, but the judge should invoke those exceptions rather than pretend the words mean something different. They should abide by the terms of an unamended, entrenched constitutional text, because the reason it is there is to guarantee some interests in society against being overridden through the regular political process. There are arguments about whether judges can legitimately invoke something beyond the written constitution, but even if they can, they almost never do, so they ought to abide by the language of the constitution.

    All of this is actually generally accepted in principle in Canada, so describes the “law” in a positivist sense. Most of the people who say they disagree with it actually rely on these rules anyway, which is all you need as a positivist.

  3. Let me say a few things against the “political liberalism” your original post exhibited, though. The assumption is that a society that disagrees about the substantive good can more easily agree on a more procedural form of justice. But this isn’t necessarily true. There is probably more consensus in Canadian society around opposition to drunk driving, support for teaching kids math or the need to punish sex offenders than there is in favour of representative democracy, judicial review or freedom of expression.

    Of course, appellate courts usually deal with situations where there is a reasonable disagreement about the weight of the underlying substantive goods in conflict, but that isn’t usually because there is disagreement that they are goods. If there are disagreements that are rooted in ideological or cultural diversity, courts try to rest their decisions on other grounds to avoid tarnishing their legitimacy, but I do not think this is rooted in some deep seated classical liberal conception of justice, but a pragmatic sense that rooting decisions in those kinds of values would not go over well.

    (If we look back into the past, courts rooted their decisions on what we would *now* view as contested values, but they usually seemed uncontentious to society at the time, or at least that part of society whose opinion judges were concerned about. No doubt the same will be true when posterity looks back at decisions now. The point is that judges usually try to justify their opinions in light of norms that their audience would share, but do not try to ignore the substantive moral values of their society.)

    I think conservatives with a more traditional sense of virtue should be aware that a utopian project to reassert those virtues without the cultural changes that make that legitimate would be counter-productive (and unlikely to persuade the existing judiciary). But I don’t think there is some philosophical error, since I don’t think societies can exist without some thicker set of values than merely constitutional-procedural ones.

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