ABSTRACT Some commentators recognise a distinction between policy and principle and regard private law as exclusively a matter of principle. Variants of this approach are found in Dworkin and corrective justice and ‘rights’ theorists. For these commentators, the distinction is fundamental to the character of private law, and to its development through the common law. Other commentators, in particular proponents of policy-oriented accounts, including the economic analysis of law, deny that there is any basis for such a distinction. I discuss in outline some of the attractions and difficulties of these approaches, and I set out a version of the principle/policy distinction in terms of the ‘standpoint limitation’, which I argue determines the character of private law. I consider how the standpoint limitation gives rise to the characteristic structural features of private law, focussing on contract and negligence in tort. I also show how, on one approach to the common law, the standpoint limitation is implicit in ordinary common law reasoning.