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Category: Legal Theory

3

Of Law and Self-Loathing

“I’m a self-loathing law student,” confessed one of the students in my Critical Race Theory seminar this week. Several others immediately owned up to the same affliction. I will stipulate that self-loathing is probably not an affect we all should strive to achieve. But I was heartened anyway.

Twenty-five years ago when I began teaching law, my social-justice-minded students regularly veered from rage and tears at moral wrongs to a defiant hope. They sustained themselves and one another with a faith that the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice, as Dr. King is thought to have said. And they ultimately placed their trust in law and especially the courts.

My students were not alone. Even by the mid-1980s, many of us lawyers and law professors were still recovering from the collective daze of delight induced by the Second Reconstruction and the Warren and Burger Court eras. Of course, we were already in the throes of affirmative-action backlash and judicial retrenchment; colorblind constitutionalism was shaped before our very eyes; and even as a law student I had studied Harris v. McRae in my equal protection class and learned that the formal declaration of a constitutional right is not the same as the economic security needed to exercise it. Yet the romance, the belief that getting the courts to pronounce a legal right was a mighty blow for justice, lingered on.

Maybe it was the continued influence of the post-war “idea of America as a normative concept,” as Edward Purcell  put it in 1973: the incorporation throughout social and political debate of “terms that were analytically confused but morally coercive – patriotism, Americanism, free enterprise system, mission, and, most grossly, ‘we’re number one.’” In the culture of legal academia, this logic translated into a faith in the jurisprudence of legal process. In my little corner of the world we were all reading Democracy and Distrust and trying to locate neutral principles. The faith that procedural fairness, at least, could be achieved despite a lack of consensus about the good life reinforced a belief in the American rule of law as an unshakable bulwark of democratic fairness. That sentiment was entwined with a professional loyalty to the law: to have gone to law school was in itself a statement about one’s commitment to the law as the royal (I mean “democratic”) road to justice.

So when critical legal studies, feminist legal theory, and then critical race theory hit the academy around this time, the crits (like the Legal Realists before them) were accused of “nihilism” and shown the door. Critical legal theory was not just a disloyalty to the civil rights movement but to the rule of law itself. It was subversive, in those mid-1980s days, to pass around The Hollow Hope  and to insist, as the crits were loudly doing, that “reification” and “legitimation” were basic functions of legal reasoning. The trust that the system works – or, at least, could work if we got it right – was now being dubbed “legal liberalism” by the crits, and being skewered in massively long and ponderous articles about fundamental contradictions. But the critics could be challenged by asking them where their “positive program” was. And they could (sometimes) be silenced by demands that they leave the law altogether.

For the crit project seemed deeply and radically anti-law. We junior professors, reading their work and sometimes contributing to it, felt like outlaws (which brought with it a sense of being dangerous and cool, along with a sense of vulnerability heightened by our lack of tenure and the material consequences of being perceived as a nihilist). At the same time, interestingly, the practice of teaching was not too different for us as it was for our older Legal Process colleagues. It was all about puncturing our students’ illusions, showing them the indeterminacy of legal reasoning and teaching them how to surf on it, questioning the use of words like “fairness.” It was just that we had no shining neutral-principles machine to lift from the bottom of Pandora’s box at the end of the day.

I don’t mean to suggest that legal liberalism and faith in the rule of law as central to the American way ever died. At a conference at Santa Clara Law School last week on race and sexuality, some of the lawyers and academics gathered there bemoaned a “politics of civil rights” that has somehow placed marriage equality at the top of the LGBT agenda. The charge was familiar: too many lawyers and non-lawyers alike believe that “gay is the new black;” that the civil rights movement brought about racial equality and “now it’s our turn;” that if we prove we are just like them, we’ll all be free. The rush to assimilate to mainstream institutions and practices throws under the bus, as usual, those most vulnerable to premature death – those without the racial, economic, and bodily privileges (and/or the desire) to get married, move to the suburbs, and blend in.

What was different was that an alternative position, the “politics of dispossession” as Marc Spindelman named it, was also on the table – not as a stance that made one’s commitment to the law suspect from the get-go, but as an accepted ground for lawyering. When thinking about sexuality we might want to begin, under this politics, not with marriage but with the kids doing sex work on International Boulevard in Oakland, as Margaret Russell pointed out. And, after decades of critical theory, it was taken as a truth in that room — if an inconvenient one — that to do this would mean instantly coming up against poverty, racism, and violence, forms of suffering law is not well positioned to ameliorate.

In this way, lawyering for social justice is a contradiction. Not in the “nihilist” sense, the law-as-a-tool-of-the-ruling-class notion that those who want justice ought to give up their bar cards and go protest in the streets. (My friend Norma Alarcón once identified this romantic position as the desire to “be out in the jungle with Che.”) Rather, the politics of dispossession begins with recognizing that the law is not designed to go to root causes; that fundamental changes in the ground rules, which is what the most vulnerable need, come from organizing;  and that lawyering isn’t useless, but that it looks different if it is prison abolition you want and not a marriage license.

More abstractly, the understanding in that room was that, as Patricia Williams said to the crits in one of the founding texts of critical race theory, law is both inadequate and indispensable in the struggle for justice. Post-legal-liberalism lawyering begins here.

What’s also new is that this commitment to living in the contradiction — accepting the tension between law and justice as a place to work rather than as a source of despair — is increasingly expressed not only by battle-scarred veterans at academic conferences but by law students. The desire to make positive social change has not gone away among my students. They still hope and expect that law can be used in the service of justice. But along with a waning of faith in the courts, they express an increasingly sophisticated awareness of the limits of the law more generally. They know, already, that justice and law are not the same. The task is no longer disillusioning them, but helping them develop the skills for finding what works and what doesn’t.

Okay, so “self-loathing” is probably not the best way to say it. But this wry recognition of the imperfection of law seems to me nevertheless an improvement over the wounded attachment to law as a portal to justice that seemed to mark so many progressive law students a generation ago. As the same student said later in the conversation that day, “That’s my contradiction, and I’m sticking to it.” There’s a wisdom there that’s heartening.

5

Book Review: James’s Fichte’s Social and Political Philosophy

David James, Fichte’s Social and Political Philosophy: Property and Virtue. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814) is the third most important thinker in the tradition of German idealism (Kant and Hegel vying for most important) which later morphed into Marxism and finally into Frankfurt School critical theory as well as into Rawls’ Kantian constructivism. Though idealism is a central strand in contemporary ethics, it has not has as strong an impact in political and legal philosophy where it has been eclipsed by the social contract tradition of which Kant and, to some extent, Fichte are part. However, it is James’ contention that Fichte’s idealism is indeed relevant to his theory of the state and hence to the idea of a social contract and the further vexing question of the relation between morality and right.

In the interest of clarifying what is at stake in a properly idealist understanding of Fichte’s theory of right, let me say some general things about how idealism plays into the debate. The first thing to say, perhaps is that idealism takes as its main opponent realism, the— perhaps more familiar— idea that the world is a certain way and that we, as subject must both discover and then conform our behavior to the way the world actually is. This is captured in empirical social science or socio-biology by the thought that there is an ideal, or maximally efficient, form social organization can take and it is our task to figure out what that is so that we can model actual social organization on this ideal social organization, stripping away the sorts of things which are extraneous to this efficiency. (The case of property, discussed below, shows that this is no idle comparison.)

Idealism, for methodological as well as ethical reasons, takes the opposite approach, insisting by contrast that we, as social and moral beings, construct the world we live in. That is, the social world is not a function of the arrangements of bodies (to which minds must accommodate themselves) but rather of the attitudes of mind in the sense that the social world is the result of our varying attitudes toward each other. This is captured by the familiar claim to rational autonomy which social contract theorists from Hobbes to Rawls all take as axiomatic, to some extent. The basic point is simply that it is the will itself which constructs the world in its own image. The will of others, not their bodies, is likewise the relevant entity of ethical consideration.

This idealist perspective is usually understood as a moral perspective and is to varying degrees understood as at odds with political philosophy which deals with rights, that is with how bodies are arranged. Liberalism, in the Lockean and at least some of the Rawlsian versions, is concerned to maintain a balance between morality and political organization in the sense that it takes itself to be able to abstract from contentful moral commitment in the service of universalizable commitments about how bodies should be treated. That is, its fundamental commitment is to value neutrality with regard to people’s actions which are outside the purview of security and basic necessity.

It is this sort of liberalism which James believes Fichte challenges. Though James does not put this in terms of idealism, I think it is easy enough to put the argument together from James’ book. On the Lockean view, property is something that belongs to us because we invest it with value. This means that I am free to buy and trade it, once I have made it mine. Fichte’s fundamental argument, which actually fits quite well with the neglected third part of A Theory of Justice, is to say that it is rather property which makes subjectivity possible. Putting it this way makes room for the need for a certain kind of redistribution which is meant to facilitate the adequate development of subjectivity in the first place.

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LTAAA Symposium: Complexity, Intentionality, and Artificial Agents

I would like to respond to a series of related posts made by Ken Anderson, Giovanni Sartor, Lawrence Solum, and James Grimmelmann during the LTAAA symposium. In doing so, I will touch on topics that occurred many times in the debate here: the intentional stance, complexity, legal fictions (even zombies!) and the law. My remarks here will also respond to the very substantive, engaged comments made by Patrick O’Donnell and AJ Sutter to my responses over the weekend. (I have made some responses to Patrick   and AJ in the comments spaces where their remarks were originally made).

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LTAAA Symposium: Response to Pagallo on Legal Personhood

Ugo Pagallo, with whom I had a very useful email exchange a few months ago, has written a very useful response to A Legal Theory for Autonomous Artificial Agents.  I find it useful because I think in each of his four allegedly critical points, we are in greater agreement than Ugo imagines.
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LTAAA Symposium: Response to Surden on Artificial Agents’ Cognitive Capacities

I want to thank Harry Surden for his rich, technically-informed response  to A Legal Theory for Autonomous Artificial Agents, and importantly, for seizing on an important distinction we make early in the book when we say:

There are two views of the goals of artificial intelligence. From an engineering perspective, as Marvin Minsky noted, it is the “science of making machines do things that would require intelligence if done by men” (Minsky 1969, v). From a cognitive science perspective, it is to design and build systems that work the way the human mind does (Shanahan 1997, xix). In the former perspective, artificial intelligence is deemed successful along a performative dimension; in the latter, along a theoretical one. The latter embodies Giambattista Vico’s perspective of verum et factum convertuntur, “the true and the made are…convertible” (Vico 2000); in such a view, artificial intelligence would be reckoned the laboratory that validates our best science of the human mind. This perspective sometimes shades into the claim artificial intelligence’s success lies in the replication of human capacities such as emotions, the sensations of taste and self-consciousness. Here, artificial intelligence is conceived of as building artificial persons, not just designing systems that are “intelligent.”

The latter conception of AI as being committed to building ‘artificial persons’ is what, it is pretty clear, causes much of the angst that LTAAA’s claims seem to occasion. And even though I have sought to separate the notion of ‘person’ from ‘legal persons’ it seems that some conflation has continued to occur in our discussions thus far.

I’ve personally never understood why artificial intelligence was taken to be, or ever took itself to be, dedicated to the task of replicating human capacities, faithfully attempting to build “artificial persons” or “artificial humans”. This always seemed such like a boring, pointlessly limited task. Sure, the pursuit of cognitive science is entirely justified; the greater the understanding we have of our own minds, the better we will be able to understand our place in nature. But as for replicating and mimicking them faithfully: Why bother with the ersatz when we have the real? We already have a perfectly good way to make humans or persons and it is way more fun than doing mechanical engineering or writing code. The real action, it seems to me, lay in the business of seeing how we could replicate our so-called intellectual capacities without particular regard for the method of implementation; if the best method of implementation happened to be one that mapped on well to what seemed like the human mind’s way of doing it, then that would be an added bonus. The multiple-realizability of our supposedly unique cognitive abilities would do wonders to displace our sense of uniqueness, acknowledge the possibility of other modes of existence, and re-invoke the sense of wonder about the elaborate tales we tell ourselves about our intentionality, consciousness, autonomy or freedom of will.

Having said this, I can now turn to responding to Harry’s excellent post.
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LTAA Symposium: Response to Matwyshyn on Artificial Agents and Contracting

Andrea Matwyshyn’s reading of the agency analysis of contracting  (offered in A Legal Theory for Autonomous Artificial Agents and also available at SSRN) is very rigorous and raises some very interesting questions. I thank her for her careful and attentive reading of the analysis and will try and do my best to respond to her concerns here. The doctrinal challenges that Andrea raises are serious and substantive for the extension and viability of our doctrine. As I note below, accommodating some of her concerns is the perfect next step.

At the outset, I should state what some of our motivations were for adopting agency doctrine for artificial agents in contracting scenarios (these helped inform the economic incentivizing argument for maintaining some separation between artificial agents and their creators or their deployers.

First,

[A]pplying agency doctrine to artificial agents would permit the legal system to distinguish clearly between the operator of the agent i.e., the person making the technical arrangements for the agent’s operations, and the user of the agent, i.e., the principal on whose behalf the agent is operating in relation to a particular transaction.

Second,

Embracing agency doctrine would also allow a clear distinction to be drawn between the authority of the agent to bind the principal and the instructions given to the agent by its operator.

Third, an implicit, unstated economic incentive.

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LTAAA Symposium: Artificial Agents and the Law of Agency

I am gratified that Deborah DeMott, whose work on agency doctrines was so influential in our writing has written such an engaged (and if I may so, positive)  response to our attempt, in A Legal Theory for Autonomous Artificial Agents, to co-opt the common law agency doctrine for use with artificial agents. We did so, knowing the fit would be neither exact, nor precise, and certainly would not mesh with all established intuitions.
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1

Robots in the Castle

In thinking about what Samir and Lawrence offer us in their new book, A Legal Theory for Autonomous Artificial Agents, I am reminded of the old Gothic castle described in Blackstone’s Commentaries, whose “magnificent and venerable” spaces had been badly neglected and whose “inferior apartments” had been retro-fitted “for a modern inhabitant”.

Feel me, here, I am not dissing the book but, rather, sympathizing about law’s sometimes feeble ability to adapt to modern times and its need to erect what Blackstone described as mass of legal “fictions and circuities”, leaving the law not unlike the stairways in its castle—“winding and difficult.”

Understanding this predicament all too well, I am not surprised to see Ryan Calo’s disappointment in light of the title and description of the book, which seemed to me also to promise something much more than a mere retrofitting of the castle—offering up instead a legal theory aimed at resurrecting the magnificent and venerable halls of a jurisprudence unmuddled by these strange new entities in a realm no longer populated exclusively by human agents.

Samir and Lawrence know full well that I am totally on board in thinking that the law of agency has plenty to offer to the legal assessment of the operations of artificial entities. I first wrote about this in 1999, when Canada’s Uniform Law Commission asked me to determine whether computers could enter into contracts which no human had reviewed or, for that matter, even knew existed. In my report, later republished as an article called “Spirits in the Material World,” I proposed a model based on the law of agency as a preferable approach to the one in place at the time (and still), which merely treats machine systems as an extension of the human beings utilizing them.

At the time, I believed the law of agency held much promise for software bots and robots. The “slave morality” programmed into these automatic beasts seemed in line with those imagined in the brutal jus civile of ancient Rome, itself programmed in a manner that would allow brutish Roman slaves to interact in commence with Roman citizens despite having no legal status. The Roman system had no problem with these non-status entities implicating their owners. After all: Qui facit per alium facit per se (A fancy Latin phrase designating the Roman Law fiction that treats one who acts through another as having himself so acted). What a brilliant way to get around capacity and status issues! And the modern law of agency, as it subsequently developed, offers up fairly nuanced notions like the “authority” concept that can also be used to limit the responsibility of the person who acts through an (artificial) other.

The book does a great job at carrying out the analysis in various domains and, much to my delight, extends the theory to a range of situations beyond contracting bots.

In my view, the genius of agency law as means of resurrecting the castle is that it can recognize and respond to the machine system without having to worry about or even entertain the possibility that the machine is a person. (For that reason, I would have left out the chapter on personhood, proposals for which I think have been the central reason why this relatively longstanding set of issues has yet to be taken seriously by those who have not taken the blue pill). Agency law permits us to simply treat the bot like the child who lacks the capacity to contract but still manages to generate an enforceable reliance interest in some third party when making the deal purporting to act on the authority of a parent.

But in my view—I thought it then and I think it still—using agency rules to solve the contracting problem is still little more than scaffolding used to retrofit the castle. As my fave American jurist, Lon Fuller, might have described it, the need to treat bots and robots as though they were legal agents in and of itself represents the pathology of law:

“When all goes well and the established legal rules encompass neatly the social life they are intended to regulate, there is little occasion for fictions. There is also little occasion for philosophizing, for the law then proceeds with a transparent simplicity suggesting no need for reflective scrutiny. Only in illness, we are told, does the body reveal its complexity. Only when legal reasoning falters and reaches out clumsily for help do we recognize what a complex undertaking the law is.”

The legal theory of both Blackstone and Fuller tell me that there is good reason to be sympathetic to the metaphors and legal fictions that Samir and Lawrence offer us—even if they are piecemeal. To be clear: although the “legal fiction” label is sometimes pejorative, I am not using it in that sense. Rather, I am suggesting that the approach in the book resembles a commonly used juridical device of extremely high value. Legal fictions of this sort exhibit what Fuller recognized as an “exploratory” function; they allow a kind of intellectual experimentation that will help us inch towards a well-entrenched legal theory.

Exploring the limits of the agency rules may indeed solve a number of doctrinal problems associated with artificial entities.

But (here I need a new emoticon that expresses that the following remark is offered in the spirit of sincerity and kindness) to pretend that the theory offered in this book does more than it does or to try to defend its approach as a cogent, viable, and doctrinally satisfying unified field theory of robotics risks missing all sorts of important potential issues and outcomes and may thwart a broader multi-pronged analysis that is crucial to getting things right.

I take it that Samir is saying in his replies to Ryan that he in fact holds no such pretense and that he does not claim to have all of the answers. But that, in my view, was not Ryan’s point at all.

My take-away from that exchange, and from my own reflections on the book, is that it will be also very important to consider various automation scenarios where agency is not the right model and ask ourselves why it is not. This is something I have not yet investigated or thought about very deeply. Still, I am willing to bet a large pizza (at the winner’s choice of location) that there are at least as many robo-scenarios where thinking of the machine entity as an artificial agent in the legal sense does more harm than good. If this is correct, agency law may offer some doctrinal solutions (as my previous work suggests) but that doesn’t in and of itself provide us with a legal theory of artificial agents.

When asked to predict the path of cyberlaw in 1995, Larry Lessig very modestly said that if he had to carve the meaning of the 1st Amendment into silicon, he was certain that he would get it fundamentally wrong. There hadn’t been enough time for the culture of the medium to evolve to be sure of right answers. And for that very reason, he saw the slow and steady march of common law as the best possible antidote.

I applaud the bravery of Chopra and White in their attempt to cull a legal theory for bots, robots and the like. But I share Ryan’s concerns about the shortcomings in the theory of artificial agents as offered. And in addressing his concerns, rather than calling Ryan’s own choice of intellectual metaphors “silly” or “inappropriate,” it might be more valuable to start thinking about scenarios in which the agency analysis offered falls short or is inapplicable and what other models we also might consider and for what situations.

I surely do not fault the authors for failing to come up with the unified field theory of robotics—we can save that for Michael Froomkin’s upcoming conference in Miami!!!—but I would like us to think also about what the law of agency cannot not tell us about a range of legal and ethical implications that will arise from the social implementation of automation, robotic and artificial intelligence across various sectors.

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Neil Richards on Why Video Privacy Matters

Our guest blogger Neil Richards, a Professor of Law at Washington University School of Law, turns his sights on video privacy in this guest blog post.  It whets our appetite for his forthcoming book on Intellectual Privacy.  So here is Professor Richards’s post:

The House of Representatives recently passed an amendment to a fairly obscure a law known as the Video Privacy Protection Act.  This law protects the privacy of our video rental records.  It ensures that companies who have information about what videos we watch keep them confidential, and it requires them to get meaningful consent from us before they publish them.  The House, at the urging of Netflix and Facebook, has passed an amendment that would allow these companies to share our movie watching habits much more easily.  The Video Privacy Act was passed after the Washington City Paper obtained the video rental records of Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork and published them in order to politically discredit him.  It worked.  The Video Privacy Act rests on the enduring wisdom that what we watch is our own business, regardless of our politics.  It allows us to share films we’ve watched on our own terms and not those of video stores or online video providers.

What’s at stake is something privacy scholars call “intellectual privacy” – the idea that records of our reading habits, movie watching habits, and private conversations deserve special protection from other kinds of personal information.  The films we watch, the books we read, and the web sites we visit are essential to the ways we make sense of the world and make up our minds about political and non-political issues.  Intellectual privacy protects our ability to think for ourselves, without worrying that other people might judge us based on what we read.  It allows us to explore ideas that other people might not approve of, and to figure out our politics, sexuality, and personal values, among other things.  It lets us watch or read whatever we want without fear of embarrassment or being outed.  This is the case whether we’re reading communist or anti-globalization books; or visiting web sites about abortion, gun control, cancer, or coming out as gay; or watching videos of pornography, or documentaries by Michael Moore, or even “The Hangover 2.”

For generations, librarians have understood this.  Libraries were the Internet before computers – they presented the world of reading to us, and let us as patrons read (and watch) freely for ourselves. But librarians understood that intellectual privacy matters.  A good library lets us read freely, but keeps our records confidential in order to safeguard our intellectual privacy.   But we are told by Netflix, Facebook, and other companies that the world has changed.  “Sharing” as they call it is the way of the future.  I disagree.  Sharing can be good, and sharing of what we watch and read is very important.  But the way we share is essential.  Telling our friends “hey – read this – it’s important” or “watch this movie – it’s really moving” is one of the great things that the Internet has made easier.  But sharing has to be done on our terms, not on those that are most profitable for business.  Sharing doesn’t mean a norm of publishing everything we read on the Internet.  It means giving us a conscious choice about when we are sharing our intellectual habits, and when we are not.

Industry groups are fond of saying that good privacy practices require consumer notice and consumer choice.  The current Video Privacy Act is one of the few laws that does give consumers meaningful choice about protecting their sensitive personal information.  Now is not the time to cut back on the VPPA’s protections.  Now is the time to extend its protections to the whole range of intellectual records – the books we buy, our internet search histories, and ISP logs of what we read on the Internet.  As a first step, we should reject this attempt to eviscerate our intellectual privacy.

2

Understanding Dignity

My brilliant colleague and co-author Leslie Meltzer Henry is a thought leader on dignity’s jurisprudential and philosophical implications.  University of Pennsylvania Law Review just published her engrossing and important piece entitled “The Jurisprudence of Dignity.”  I’m hoping to have a longer conversation about the piece in the future.  For now, here is the abstract:

Few words play a more central role in modern constitutional law without appearing in the Constitution than “dignity.” The term appears in more than nine hundred Supreme Court opinions, but despite its popularity, dignity is a concept in disarray. Its meanings and functions are commonly presupposed but rarely articulated. The result is a cacophony of uses so confusing that some critics argue the word ought to be abandoned altogether.

This Article fills a void in the literature by offering the first empirical study of Supreme Court opinions that invoke dignity and then proposing a typology of dignity based on an analysis of how the term is used in those opinions. The study reveals three important findings. First, the Court’s reliance on dignity is increasing, and the Roberts Court is accelerating that trend. Second, in contrast to its past use, dignity is now as likely to be invoked by the more conservative Justices on the Court as by their more liberal counterparts. Finally, the study demonstrates that dignity is not one concept, as other scholars have theorized, but rather five related concepts.

The typology refers to these conceptions of dignity as institutional status as dignityequality as dignity, liberty as dignity,personal integrity as dignity, and collective virtue as dignity. This Article traces each type of dignity to its epistemic origins and describes the substantive dignitary interests each protects. Importantly, the typology offers more than a clarification of the conceptual chaos surrounding dignity. It provides tools to track the Court’s use of different types of dignity over time. This permits us to detect doctrinally transformative moments, in such areas as state sovereign immunity and abortion jurisprudence, that arise from shifting conceptions of dignity.