Define: Imperative Theory Of Law

Imperative Theory Of Law
Imperative Theory Of Law
Quick Summary of Imperative Theory Of Law

The belief in the imperative theory of law is that a country or political community issues general commands to its citizens, which make up the law. These commands are enforced by courts through the use of physical force. Any rules that exist outside of a country or before it are not considered law. For instance, a law that requires citizens to pay taxes is an example of this theory. The government commands its citizens to pay taxes, and non-compliance can lead to legal consequences such as fines or imprisonment. Similarly, a law that prohibits theft is another example. The government commands its citizens not to steal, and those who do can face punishment. These examples demonstrate how laws are created by a political community and enforced through physical force. The imperative theory of law stresses the importance of obeying these commands to maintain order and stability in society.

What is the dictionary definition of Imperative Theory Of Law?
Dictionary Definition of Imperative Theory Of Law

The imperative theory of law posits that laws are regulations established by a nation or political community and enforced by courts through the application of physical force. Consequently, rules that predate the establishment of the country or community may bear similarities to laws but are not regarded as such. This theory diverges from natural law, which asserts that laws ought to be grounded in moral principles.

Full Definition Of Imperative Theory Of Law

The Imperative Theory of Law, also known as the Command Theory of Law, is a significant concept in legal philosophy. It postulates that laws are commands issued by a sovereign authority, backed by sanctions or threats of punishment for non-compliance. This theory, primarily associated with legal positivism, was extensively developed by 19th-century legal philosopher John Austin. Understanding the Imperative Theory involves exploring its historical context, fundamental principles, key proponents, criticisms, and its impact on contemporary legal thought.

Historical Context

The roots of the Imperative Theory can be traced back to earlier legal and philosophical traditions. Thomas Hobbes, in his seminal work “Leviathan” (1651), laid the groundwork by suggesting that laws are commands of the sovereign, who wields absolute power to ensure societal order. However, it was John Austin, influenced by Hobbes and Jeremy Bentham, who systematised this approach in his book “The Province of Jurisprudence Determined” (1832).

Fundamental Principles

The Imperative Theory of Law rests on several core principles:

  • Law as a Command: According to Austin, laws are commands issued by a sovereign. These commands are directives that require individuals to act or refrain from acting in specific ways.
  • Sovereign Authority: The sovereign, an entity or person with supreme authority within a given territory, is the source of all laws. The sovereignty of the authority is characterised by habitual obedience from the majority of the population and the sovereign’s independence from any superior authority.
  • Sanctions: Commands issued by the sovereign are backed by threats of sanctions or punishments. The presence of these sanctions is essential for distinguishing legal rules from other forms of commands or suggestions.
  • Obligation: Legal obligation arises from the threat of sanctions. Individuals are legally obligated to follow the commands due to the potential consequences of non-compliance.
  • Separation of Law and Morality: The Imperative Theory maintains a clear distinction between law and morality. Laws are valid irrespective of their moral content, as long as they are commands issued by the sovereign.

Key Proponents

John Austin

John Austin is the primary figure associated with the Imperative Theory of Law. He defined law as “the command of the sovereign, backed by the threat of punishment.” Austin’s analysis focuses on the structural elements of legal systems and the relationship between laws, commands, and sanctions. His work emphasises the importance of understanding law in its practical form, distinct from moral or ethical considerations.

Jeremy Bentham

Jeremy Bentham, although not exclusively an advocate of the Imperative Theory, significantly influenced Austin’s thinking. Bentham’s utilitarian philosophy underscored the importance of laws as instruments of social control and utility maximisation. His pragmatic approach to legal theory laid the foundation for the development of legal positivism.

Criticisms of the Imperative Theory

Despite its influential status, the Imperative Theory of Law has faced substantial criticisms from various quarters.

Inadequacy in Explaining Modern Legal Systems

One major criticism is that the Imperative Theory struggles to adequately explain the complexity of modern legal systems. In contemporary societies, laws often emerge from legislative bodies, courts, and other institutions rather than a single sovereign authority. The intricate interplay between different branches of government and the decentralised nature of law-making challenge the simplistic notion of a sovereign issuing commands.

Normative Aspects and Moral Considerations

Critics argue that the Imperative Theory overlooks the normative aspect of law. Laws are not merely commands but are also imbued with values, principles, and moral considerations. The theory’s strict separation of law and morality is seen as unrealistic, as laws often reflect societal values and ethical norms.

Limited Scope of Legal Obligations

The theory’s reliance on sanctions as the basis of legal obligation is also contested. Legal obligations can arise from sources other than fear of punishment, such as social norms, professional duties, and ethical considerations. Moreover, the presence of laws that lack clear sanctions or are unenforced challenges the idea that all laws are commands backed by threats.

The Problem of Unjust Laws

The Imperative Theory is criticised for its inability to address the issue of unjust laws. Since the theory posits that any command from a sovereign constitutes a law, it provides no framework for assessing the legitimacy or justice of laws. This has led to debates about whether unjust laws should be considered valid.

Impact on Contemporary Legal Thought

Despite these criticisms, the Imperative Theory of Law has had a lasting impact on legal philosophy and jurisprudence.

Legal Positivism

The Imperative Theory is a cornerstone of legal positivism, which asserts that laws are human-made constructs distinct from moral or ethical considerations. This school of thought has influenced many legal scholars and continues to shape debates about the nature of law and its role in society.

Analytical Jurisprudence

Austin’s analytical approach to law has contributed to the development of analytical jurisprudence. This field focuses on the precise and systematic analysis of legal concepts, structures, and relationships. The Imperative Theory’s emphasis on clarity and definition has been instrumental in advancing this analytical tradition.

Debates on Law and Morality

The distinction between law and morality proposed by the Imperative Theory has sparked ongoing debates. Legal theorists continue to explore the interplay between legal rules and moral principles, questioning whether laws can or should be entirely divorced from ethical considerations.

Modern Interpretations and Adaptations

While the Imperative Theory in its original form may be considered outdated, modern legal theorists have adapted and reinterpreted its core ideas to address contemporary legal realities.

Hart’s Critique and Refinement

H.L.A. Hart, a prominent legal philosopher, provided a significant critique and refinement of Austin’s Imperative Theory. In his seminal work “The Concept of Law” (1961), Hart argued that the theory fails to account for the internal aspect of legal rules—the sense of obligation felt by those who follow the law. He introduced the concept of the “rule of recognition,” a social rule that provides criteria for identifying valid legal norms. Hart’s work represents a more nuanced understanding of the nature of law, incorporating both the external and internal dimensions of legal systems.

Legal Realism

Legal realism, another influential movement in legal theory, challenges the simplistic notion of laws as mere commands. Legal realists argue that the application and interpretation of laws are influenced by social, political, and economic factors. They emphasise the importance of understanding how laws function in practice rather than focusing solely on their formal structure.

Contemporary Legal Positivism

Modern legal positivists have built on Austin’s foundational ideas while addressing the limitations of the Imperative Theory. Scholars like Joseph Raz and Neil MacCormick have explored the complex relationship between law, authority, and social practices. They acknowledge the importance of sanctions but also recognise the multifaceted nature of legal obligation and the role of legal institutions in shaping societal norms.


The Imperative Theory of Law, despite its criticisms and limitations, remains a foundational concept in legal philosophy. It provides a clear and systematic framework for understanding the nature of law as a set of commands issued by a sovereign authority. While modern legal systems and theories have evolved beyond the simplicity of Austin’s original formulation, the core principles of the Imperative Theory continue to influence legal thought and debates.

The theory’s emphasis on the separation of law and morality, the role of sanctions, and the nature of legal obligation has shaped the development of legal positivism and analytical jurisprudence. Moreover, ongoing discussions about the relationship between law and ethics, the complexity of legal systems, and the sources of legal authority continue to draw on the foundational ideas of the Imperative Theory.

In summary, the Imperative Theory of Law serves as a crucial starting point for exploring the nature of law and its role in society. Its enduring legacy lies in its ability to provoke critical examination and dialogue about the fundamental principles that underpin legal systems, guiding scholars and practitioners in their quest to understand and improve the legal frameworks that govern human behaviour.

Imperative Theory Of Law FAQ'S

The Imperative Theory of Law is a legal theory that suggests that laws are commands issued by a sovereign authority and must be followed by individuals within a society.

The Imperative Theory of Law was developed by legal philosopher John Austin in the 19th century.

Unlike other legal theories that focus on moral or natural law principles, the Imperative Theory of Law emphasises the importance of a central authority issuing commands that must be obeyed.

According to the Imperative Theory of Law, the sovereign authority holds the power to create and enforce laws, and individuals are obligated to obey these laws.

According to the Imperative Theory of Law, the morality or justice of a law is irrelevant. As long as the law is issued by a legitimate sovereign authority, individuals are obligated to follow it.

In the Imperative Theory of Law, judges are seen as mere interpreters and enforcers of the law. Their role is to apply the law as it is written, without considering personal opinions or moral judgments.

The Imperative Theory of Law does not provide for exceptions or limitations to following laws. Individuals are expected to obey the law without question, regardless of their personal circumstances or beliefs.

Critics argue that the Imperative Theory of Law fails to account for the complexities of legal systems and the role of morality in shaping laws. It is also criticised for its rigid approach, which does not allow for flexibility or adaptation.

While the Imperative Theory of Law may not be directly applicable to modern legal systems, its influence can be seen in the emphasis on the authority of the state and the obligation of individuals to follow laws.

While no country strictly adheres to the Imperative Theory of Law, its principles can be found in legal systems that prioritize the authority of the state and the enforcement of laws without considering moral or ethical considerations.

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This glossary post was last updated: 7th June 2024.

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