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Tagged: Heidi Li Feldman

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Take that Constitution and…

…forget about it.  I understand that some folks must continue to fight Constitutional battles, inside and outside the courtroom, even if just to try to hold the line against Supreme Court precedents and federal legislation that encroach on the most basic interests and freedoms people need. Note that I can mention these without reference to rights.  Rights – another term that legal academics of all stripes tend to obsess about to the point of distraction from considering the very goods that recognized rights foster and protect.  The goods are not the rights.  Rights shelter goods and interests.  If they are the only form of cover your adversaries will acknowledge, then you better pitch a rights tent.  If representing the good or interest as covered by a right does not help further the good or interest, then don’t use the representation.  Rights and “rights” are neither objectively problematic nor objectively wonderful.  What’s important is which interests and goods we decide to foster collectively,  how we decide this, and whether law is a suitable social method for fostering any given worthwhile interest or good.  If law is an appropriate mechanism for the task, then there are interesting empirical questions about whether the law should be strongly interventionist, requiring very specific conduct to facilitate and foster these goods or interests, or whether it should be more subtle, creating background institutions and norms which increase the chance that these goods and interests will flourish.

Now, consider areas of law that start not from rights but from duties, areas like tort (publicly created duties, originating in common law or in legislation) or contracts (privately created duties, originating at the nexus of individual agreements and legal endorsement of certains types of agreement but not others – some agreements are endorsed or disqualified by courts, some by legislatures).  Not coincidentally, torts, contract, and restitution have historically been grouped together as the law of obligations, in both Anglo and Continental traditions.  And not coincidentally, these bodies of law presuppose interconnectedness and relationships. The foundational or mythic state of nature that animates contracts, torts, and restitution is one that assumes that people are always and inevitably embarking on relationships, sometimes on purpose sometimes accidentally.  But whether they mean to get involved with each other or not, whether they set out to affect other people or not, people connect.  Connection is basic.  Then the question becomes, which sort of connections engender which sorts of obligations?

Obviously, one can argue for thinner and thicker versions of legal obligation and sometimes such arguments rely on philosophical theories like liberalism (neo or otherwise) or conservativism (neo or otherwise).  But it is interesting to note that reflective legal scholars and lawyers engaged (knowingly or not) in normative jurisprudence regarding the law of obligations actually tend not to invoke the usual political philosophies that undergird and drive so much of the discourse about the Constitution.  A hypothesis about what why that’s so: if our starting point for thinking about and creating law is connection – the inevitable ties that will arise among social creatures – our starting point is already complicated and textured in ways that cry out for more particularistic arguments than those generated by wholesale political theories of any stripe.  Political theories that start from the individual rather than the connectedness of individuals can be more general and less nuanced because it is easier to oversimplify the individual than it is to oversimplify connection.  Likewise, areas of legal discourse and practice that answer to broad political theories tend to obscure particularities that matter tremendously in the course of actual lived experiences.

Mary Anne Franks’s discussion of creepshots and outing anonymous bloggers reveals the significance of starting from assumptions of connection rather than assumptions of individuality.  In our culture, the rhetoric of free speech and consent is premised on a particular Constitutional background.  The minute somebody invokes the phrase “free speech” they will be heard as invoking the First Amendment and the entire kit and caboodle of the Constitution.  This then spills over to and colors how “consent” and “privacy” get discussed – they are understood as subordinate matters, less important than and bounded by the explicitly Constitutionally acknowledged good of free speech.  It is ironic that these are the terms of the debate about an episode in an environment so often characterized as thoroughgoingly social – the web and websites where people go to interact.  If we all forgot about the Constitution, very different first questions might come to mind when thinking about creepshots. Namely, who is affected by the site and how?  What sort of connections does it foster or stunt?  Are these connections we collectively should concern ourselves with? Should we use law to structure the connections that inevitably arise from activity on the web?  If so, what do the parties (intended or unintended)  in  these connections owe to one another, morally, ethically, and legally?

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Justice, Law, and Fellowship: From Coordination to Collaboration

“True peace is not the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice and brotherhood.” — Martin Luther King, Jr. (1955, 1958, 1961)

At the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, Washington DC

Dr. King spoke these words or similar ones on a number of occasions, usually when explaining the relationship between love, law, and civil disobedience. I invoke them here because of their affinity with the idea that law that successfully promotes the common good will not yield simply the absence of anarchy but the presence of fellowship.

In the first major chapter of Normative Jurisprudence, “Revitalizing Natural Law”, Robin West argues for “a reengagement of liberal and progressive lawyers with … the ethical inquiry into the nature of the common good furthered by just law.” This is a terrific project. But it is a more complicated project than either a casual reader or a sophisticated scholar might notice. There are at least two major kinds of complexity involved. One, to which West devotes some attention in the chapter, involves how to specify human good, common or individual. The other, which receives less attention, at least at this phase of the book, involves figuring out what is distinctively legal about a project to promote the common good. In this post, a bit about this second area of complexity. This is not to say that West herself does not appreciate the complexity of and need for sorting out the role of law in a quest for the common good.

West persuasively explains that just because the project of promoting the common good might also be a political one or an overall ethical one, that does not mean it is not also a legal one, a distinctively legal one, or one in which law plays a distinctive role. Throughout “Revitalizing Natural Law”, West emphasizes that achieving the common good, understood as arising from the demands of individual good, necessitates coordinated social action, of the sort law is uniquely positioned to bring about.

Individuals going it alone will not get very far in achieving their own good, notes West. A group of uncoordinated individuals who realize this problem need state-sponsored coordination, in the form of law, to ensure that each of them do better, which means that all of them will do better. Fair enough, as far as it goes. But there is a lot more to coordination, and to coordination implemented by law, than meets the eye.

“Coordination” can be understand more or less thickly. A law dictating whether to drive on the left or the right coordinates thinly. It solves a problem whose solution does not impact the good in question: keeping traffic flowing. The content of the law does not matter, what matters is having one. The activities and instrumentalities involved are understood, practically speaking, largely similarly by all the participants.

Most of the time, though, there is a thicker connection between laws governing collective action or social activity and the content of the laws themselves. Laws against polluting the environment presuppose or stipulate agreement on foundational matters, including what constitutes pollution and how to demarcate the polluters from the environment. Laws regulating research on human subjects presuppose or stipulate agreement on what is research, who is human, and what it means to be a subject of another’s study.

To approach jurisprudence as West urges means noticing and taking quite seriously the role law and legal institutions – all of them, not just legislatures, but courts and agencies and review boards and prosecutors and juries and so on – play in coordinating both the understanding and the lived actuality of the activities and instruments law references. The good is rich stuff, and to get us to it, law must make it possible for us to proceed from strategic interaction in a coordinated setting (e.g. driving on the highway) to substantive cooperation (e.g. creating a functional and legitimate banking system). That sort of cooperation rests on shared background understandings of matters basic, diverse, and particularistic. To enable such cooperation law must not only invite and permit, but also foster, collaboration on a worldview sufficiently shared so that law has a shared meaning for law makers, law appliers, law enforcers, and law abiders (not that these four actors are always distinct and separate).

The flight from ethical normativity that West identifies in Normative Jurisprudence is part of a larger flight from normativity in general – including the normativity of meaning. How much agreement on meaning do we need in order to achieve just law that furthers the common good? What sort of legal actors and institutions do we need to get that agreement? In future posts during this celebration of Normative Jurisprudence, I will continue to examine these questions. I take inquiry into them to be part of the project West urges. I also expect that there will be sharp disagreement among liberal and progressive scholars about how much shared meaning we need and what we are willing to do get it.