John Austin (1790-1859) and the Command Theory of Law

John Austin, a 19th-century British legal philosopher, left a lasting mark on jurisprudence with his positivist theory of law. Central to his thinking is the concept of law as a command issued by a sovereign, backed by the threat of sanction. This article delves into the details of Austin’s philosophy of the Command Theory of Law.

Command Theory of Law
Photo of John Austin taken from Wikipedia on Wikipedia legal philosophy blog

Law as Command in the Command Theory of Law

Austin argued that law is not synonymous with morality or natural law. Instead, he defined law as a general command issued by a sovereign to a political society. Here’s a breakdown of these key terms:

  • General Command: Laws are not directed at specific individuals but apply to a group of people within a society.
  • Sovereign: The sovereign is the supreme authority within a political society. This could be a monarch, a parliament, or even a combination of entities depending on the specific system. The crucial aspect is that the sovereign habitually obeys no one else.
  • Sanction: A sanction is a negative consequence imposed for disobeying the law. This could be punishment like imprisonment, fines, or other forms of disadvantage.

According to Austin, the threat of sanction is what distinguishes law from other social norms. Moral codes or religious teachings may prescribe behavior, but they lack the enforcement mechanism of legal sanctions.

Characteristics of Positive Law

Austin’s theory is often referred to as legal positivism. This is because he focused on positive law, which refers to the actual laws enacted by a particular legal system, rather than on abstract concepts of natural law or morality. Here are some core features of the Command Theory of Law by Austin’s concept of positive law:

  • Command-based: As mentioned earlier, law is a command issued by a sovereign.
  • Habitual Obedience: The sovereign is the entity habitually obeyed by the population, but itself obeys no other authority.
  • Sanction-enforced: Laws are backed by the threat of sanctions for non-compliance.
  • Clarity and Certainty: Positive law should be clear and precise to avoid ambiguity and ensure fairness.

Criticisms of the Command Theory of Law

While influential, the Command Theory of Law by Austin’s has faced criticism. Some argue that it fails to account for laws that emerge organically from custom or judicial precedent, which may not directly stem from a sovereign’s command. Additionally, critics point out that the theory doesn’t address the question of why laws should be obeyed, focusing solely on the mechanism of enforcement.


John Austin’s theory of law as a command issued by a sovereign has sparked debate and shaped legal scholarship. While it may not provide a complete picture of law, it offers a valuable framework for understanding the core elements of a legal system and its relationship with the concept of sovereignty.

Additional Reading

  1. Firstly read the blog by us Understanding Positive Law Jurisprudence: The Law “As Is”
  2. Secondly read Jeremy Bentham and the Foundations of Classical Legal Positivism: Dissecting the Command of the Sovereign
  3. Thirdly read Legal Realism Jurisprudence: Bridging the Gap Between Law and Social Reality.
  4. finally read Ditch the Dust: Unveiling the Power of Positive Law and Why It’s Actually Interesting!

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