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What Is Positive Law?

Positive law refers to the body of legal statutes and regulations enacted by a government to regulate the behavior of its citizens, distinguishable from natural law, which is based on moral principles. Curious about how positive law shapes society? Explore the impact with us.
Jan Hill
Jan Hill

Positive law refers to a body of man-made laws that may regulate conduct in a certain area. This type of law may be traced back to ancient times and is typically passed by government at the local, regional, or national level. It is sometimes contrasted with natural law, which is typically based on moral principles. These types of laws might set the standards for acts that are required as well as those that are prohibited.

The term "positive" may have been used to describe positive laws because they are typically "imposed" on the citizens of a particular area. Some examples of these laws might include statutes, judicial verdicts, and ordinances. Laws may be written and enacted by government lawmakers, courts, and administrative agencies. Those who are physically present where these types of laws have governing power are typically required to obey such laws.

Some Christians consider the Ten Commandments as positive laws.
Some Christians consider the Ten Commandments as positive laws.

Positive law may have originated thousands of years ago. The Ten Commandments of Christianity can be used as an example of this type of law. Christians might consider the Ten Commandments valid not only because they are rooted in moral principles, but also because they may have been etched in stone by God and given to the Biblical prophet Moses. Positivists commonly share the view that to be obeyed, laws must be enacted by figures of authority.

The Ten Commandments, which are considered positive law, can be found in the Bible.
The Ten Commandments, which are considered positive law, can be found in the Bible.

Ethics are sometimes woven into positive law, but behaving in an unethical way is not necessarily considered a violation of the law. For example, it may be considered unethical for a corporation to minimize profits for its own gain. If this behavior is performed under the applicable positive law, it may not be illegal.

Legal positivism is sometimes compared with natural law. Natural law commonly refers to the natural order, or a moral and ethical code that people share as human beings. Positive law is artificial order and consists of rules of conduct that people place upon each other. Natural law is inherent and may not require government enforcement, while positive laws are the legal ones that people are typically expected to follow.

Legal positivists may feel that for a law to be valid, it should be codified, or written down, and recognized by some type of government authority. They might reject the theory that people will obey inherent law based on moral values. Positive laws may be made by those with authority to ensure that if they are broken, a penalty will ensue.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is positive law?

Positive law is a legal system based on written laws and regulations enacted by a governing authority. It establishes a framework that defines rights, obligations, and legal procedures within a society. Through statutes, regulations, and legal codes, positive law provides a clear structure for individuals, businesses, and governments to operate within. It is distinguishable from natural law, as positive law is man-made and subject to change through legislative processes. Positive law varies across jurisdictions, reflecting the unique legal frameworks of different societies. Understanding positive law is crucial for navigating the legal landscape, promoting order and justice, and protecting individual rights.

How does positive law differ from natural law?

Positive law differs from natural law in that it is based on laws and regulations enacted by human authorities rather than deriving from inherent moral and ethical principles. It is created and enforced by governmental institutions, whereas natural law is believed to exist independently of human legislation. Positive law is subject to change through legislative processes, while natural law is considered immutable. Positive law's jurisdictional variations reflect the diverse legal frameworks of different societies, whereas natural law is thought to have universal applicability. Both positive law and natural law play important roles in legal systems, with positive law providing the legal structure while natural law offers a moral and philosophical foundation.

What are some examples of positive law?

Positive law encompasses various legal instruments found in different areas of legal systems. It includes statutes enacted by legislatures, such as criminal codes, civil codes, and tax laws, which provide a comprehensive framework for societal behavior. Additionally, positive law consists of regulations issued by executive bodies, such as administrative agencies, that govern specific areas like environmental protection, labor laws, and health and safety standards. International treaties and agreements adopted by countries also form part of positive law, facilitating cooperation and regulating cross-border interactions. Positive law covers a wide range of legal subjects, including property law, contract law, family law, and constitutional law, addressing the rights and responsibilities of individuals and ensuring order and justice within society.

How does positive law impact individuals and society?

Positive law has a profound impact on individuals and society as a whole. It provides a legal framework that defines rights, obligations, and procedures, establishing order and stability. Positive law governs the interactions between individuals, businesses, and governments, ensuring that individuals are held accountable for their actions and that justice is served. It safeguards individual rights and freedoms, facilitates business transactions, and provides a mechanism for resolving disputes through the legal system. By upholding positive law, societies promote social cohesion and enable institutions to function effectively. It creates a just and harmonious environment in which individuals and communities can thrive, ensuring that rights are protected, obligations are fulfilled, and justice is upheld.

How does positive law evolve to meet changing societal needs?

Positive law evolves to meet changing societal needs through a dynamic legislative process. As societies progress and new challenges arise, legislative bodies introduce new statutes or amend existing laws to address emerging issues and reflect evolving norms. Judicial interpretation also contributes to the evolution of positive law, as courts interpret and apply laws to specific cases, shaping legal principles and precedents. Additionally, societal debates, public opinion, and advancements in technology and social movements influence the evolution of positive law. The dynamic nature of positive law allows it to adapt to new circumstances, incorporate societal changes, and respond to the evolving needs of individuals and communities. This ensures that positive law remains relevant, effective, and capable of promoting justice, equality, and the rule of law.

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Discussion Comments


@Melonlity -- Interesting, but I think a real problem shows up under the positive law theory when people assume that an orderly society with more rules than you can shake a stick at is a desirable thing. All people have to do is follow the law and everything is fine, right?

When we trend toward natural law, we have fewer laws and people accept more responsibility for the actions and to each other.

I'll tell you right now I'd rather deal with natural law and responsibility than positive law and the notion that everything we do is fine so long as it is legal.


The problem with positive law, natural law or any of that stuff is that people turn very, very strange when there are too many laws imposed. Once you turn into a legalistic society instead of a moral one, then there will never be enough laws on the books to curb people's behavior.

There is an old saying suggesting that there is a major difference between legally right and morally right. Once a society fixates on doing what is legally right, then you may have an orderly society with a lot of rules but you will not necessarily have an open and inviting one.

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    • Some Christians consider the Ten Commandments as positive laws.
      By: nickolae
      Some Christians consider the Ten Commandments as positive laws.
    • The Ten Commandments, which are considered positive law, can be found in the Bible.
      By: Magdalena Kucova
      The Ten Commandments, which are considered positive law, can be found in the Bible.