Monad Laws

Every data structure has not just a signature, but some expected behavior. For example, a stack has a push and a pop operation, and we expect those operations to satisfy certain laws:

  • for all x and s, it holds that peek (push x s) = x
  • for all x, it holds that pop (push x empty) = empty
  • etc.

The laws for a given data structure usually follow from the specifications for its operations, as do the two examples laws given above.

A monad, though, is not just a single data structure. It's a design pattern for data structures. So it's impossible to write specifications of return and >>= for monads in general: the specifications would need to discuss the particular monad, like the writer monad or the Lwt monad.

On the other hand, it turns out that we can write down some laws that ought to hold of any monad. The reason for that goes back to one of the intuitions we gave about monads, namely, that they represent computations that have effects. Consider Lwt, for example. We might register a callback C on promise X with bind. That produces a new promise Y, on which we could register another callback D. We expect a sequential ordering on those callbacks: C must run before D, because Y cannot be resolved before X.

That notion of sequential order is part of what the monad laws stipulate. We will state those laws below. But first, let's pause to consider sequential order in imperative languages.

Sequential Order in Imperative Languages

In languages like Java and C, there is a semicolon that imposes a sequential order on statements, e.g.:


First x is printed, then incremented, then printed again. The effects that those statements have must occur in that sequential order.

Let's imagine a hypothetical statement that causes no effect whatsoever. For example, assert true causes nothing to happen in Java. (Some compilers will completely ignore it and not even produce bytecode for it.) In most assembly languages, there is likewise a "no op" instruction whose mnemonic is usually NOP that also causes nothing to happen. (Technically, some clock cycles would elapse. But there wouldn't be any changes to registers or memory.) In the theory of programming languages, statements like this are usually called skip, as in, "skip over me because I don't do anything interesting."

Here are two laws that should hold of skip and semicolon:

  • skip; s; should behave the same as just s;.

  • s; skip; should behave the same as just s;.

In other words, you can remove any occurrences of skip, because it has no effects. Mathematically, we say that skip is a left identity (the first law) and a right identity (the second law) of semicolon.

Imperative languages also usually have a way of grouping statements together into blocks. In Java and C, this is usually done with curly braces. Here is a law that should hold of blocks and semicolon:

  • {s1; s2;} s3; should behave the same as s1; {s2; s3;}.

In other words, the order is always s1 then s2 then s3, regardless of whether you group the first two statements into a block or the second two into a block. So you could even remove the braces and just write s1; s2; s3;, which is what we normally do anyway. Mathematically, we say that semicolon is associative.

Sequential Order with the Monad Laws

The three laws above embody exactly the same intuition as the monad laws, which we will now state. The monad laws are just a bit more abstract hence harder to understand at first.

Suppose that we have any monad, which as usual must have the following signature:

module type Monad = sig
  type 'a t
  val return : 'a -> 'a t  
  val (>>=) : 'a t -> ('a -> 'b t) -> 'b t

The three monad laws are as follows:

  • Law 1: return x >>= f behaves the same as f x.

  • Law 2: m >>= return behaves the same as m.

  • Law 3: (m >>= f) >>= g behaves the same as m >>= (fun x -> f x >>= g).

Here, "behaves the same as" means that the two expressions will both evaluate to the same value, or they will both go into an infinite loop, or they will both raise the same exception.

These laws are mathematically saying the same things as the laws for skip, semicolon, and braces that we saw above: return is a left and right identity of >>=, and >>= is associative.
Let's look at each law in more detail.

Law 1 says that having the trivial effect on a value, then binding a function on it, is the same as just calling the function on the value. Consider the maybe monad: return x would be Some x, and >>= f would extract x and apply f to it. Or consider the Lwt monad: return x would be a promise that is already resolved with x, and >>= f would register f as a callback to run on x.

Law 2 says that binding on the trivial effect is the same as just not having the effect. Consider the maybe monad: m >>= return would depend upon whether m is Some x or None. In the former case, binding would extract x, and return would just re-wrap it with Some. In the latter case, binding would just return None. Similarly, with Lwt, binding on m would register return as a callback to be run on the contents of m after it is resolved, and return would just take those contents and put them back into an already resolved promise.

Law 3 says that bind sequences effects correctly, but it's harder to see it in this law than it was in the version above with semicolon and braces. Law 3 would be clearer if we could rewrite it as

(m >>= f) >>= g behaves the same as m >>= (f >>= g).

But the problem is that doesn't type check: f >>= g doesn't have the right type to be on the right-hand side of >>=. So we have to insert an extra anonymous function fun x -> ... to make the types correct.

Composition and Monad Laws

There is another monad operator called compose that can be used to compose monadic functions. For example, suppose you have a monad with type 'a t, and two functions:

  • f : 'a -> 'b t
  • g : 'b -> 'c t

The composition of those functions would be

  • compose f g : 'a -> 'c t

That is, the composition would take a value of type 'a, apply f to it, extract the 'b out of the result, apply g to it, and return that value.

We can code up compose using >>=; we don't need to know anything more about the inner workings of the monad:

let compose f g x =
  f x >>= fun y ->
  g y

let (>=>) = compose

As the last line suggests, compose can be expressed as infix operator written >=>.

Returning to our example of the maybe monad with a safe division operator, imagine that we have increment and decrement functions:

let inc (x:int) : int option = Some (x+1)
let dec (x:int) : int option = Some (x-1)

The monadic compose operator would enable us to compose those two into an identity function without having to write any additional code:

let id : int -> int option = inc >=> dec

Using the compose operator, there is a much cleaner formulation of the monad laws:

  • Law 1: return >=> f behaves the same as f.

  • Law 2: f >=> return behaves the same as f.

  • Law 3: (f >=> g) >=> h behaves the same as f >=> (g >=> h).

In that formulation, it becomes immediately clear that return is a left and right identity, and that composition is associative.

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