From Angels to Humans: Law, Coercion, and The Society of Angels Thought Experiment

Lucas Miotto Lopes*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Whether legal systems are necessarily coercive raises normative concerns. Coercion carries a presumption of illegitimacy and a special justificatory burden. If legal systems are necessarily coercive, coerciveness necessarily taints our legal institutions. Traditionally, legal systems have been regarded as contingently coercive. This view is mainly supported by the society of angels thought experiment. For the past few years, however, this traditional view has been under attack. Critics have challenged the reliability of the thought experiment and have urged us to centre the discussion on typical legal systems: legal systems made by humans to address human needs. Once we do so – they claim – we would inevitably reject the traditional view. This paper argues that the critics are wrong. After discussing key features of the society of angels thought experiment and responding to objections, it is argued that even typical legal systems are contingently coercive. Coerciveness is a feature that our legal systems can and should strive to get rid of.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)277-303
Number of pages27
JournalLaw and Philosophy
Issue number3
Early online date1 Dec 2020
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2021




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