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Tagged: jurisprudence

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This is Water

It is both an honor and a great pleasure to participate in this discussion of Robin West’s brilliant book, NORMATIVE JURISPRUDENCE. There are so many ideas to laud in this work, many of which have been ably raised by other commentators within this conversation. But reflecting upon this work, I have been particularly struck (as I first was as a student) by Robin’s extraordinary capacity to illuminate aspects of our legal landscape that, while foundational and ubiquitous, remain invisible. Robin’s chalk-outline of a missing progressive normative jurisprudence calls to mind a parable told by the too-soon departed David Foster Wallace. In a commencement address at Kenyon College, Wallace told the story of two young fish out for a swim who happen upon an older fish. The older fish says: “Good morning boys. How’s the water?” After the older fish passes by them, one of the young fish turns to the other and says: “What the hell is water?”

In NORMATIVE JURISPRUDENCE, Robin offers us an opportunity to rethink the “water” of our analytic practices. Most significantly, she presents the possibility of a jurisprudence in which normative argument constitutes the “water” of our analytical practice. Normative argument, she argues, should occupy a central rather than marginalized role in our jurisprudence. Moreover, she observes that progressives’ absence from the normative table has relegated our jurisprudential conversations to an unduly narrow and adjudicatorally-obsessed preoccupation with explicating the law that we already have. This positivist analytic jurisprudence (or, in Robin’s helpful Benthamite parlance, “expository” jurisprudence) has consciously and perhaps even aggressively eschewed normative argument to the peril of the project of legal reform and the promotion of social justice. Robin’s point is not that the project of exposition should be set aside in favor of a project of developing normative/critical (or, again in Robin’s Bethamite vocabulary, “censorial”) jurisprudence, but rather that room should be made in the center stage of our jurisprudential tradition for normative/critical/censorial jurisprudence.

Yet within Robin’s rendering lies room for the hypothesis that the agnosticism that we take as a matter of course to be a basic precept of analytic jurisprudence is itself a tacit manifestation of a conception (or, more accurately, varying conceptions) of the good. Robin’s argument raises potential doubts about the capacity of our conventional analytic jurisprudence to maintain agnosticism about conceptions of the good. In this rendering, competing conceptions of the good are the “water” that our various jurisprudential projects are already immersed in. While we may have become acculturated to understanding and explaining the law in a way that is formally divorced from conceptions of the good (e.g. whether wise or not, our tort law is committed to a principle of corrective justice), is it nonetheless possible that we have, all the while, been swimming in it?

Of course this is not Robin’s principal point. Whether or not our existing analytic jurisprudence is capable of the moral agnosticism it formally espouses, Robin would have us draw our foundational moral conceptions (whatever their source or origin) out into the light where they could serve more prospective and ambitious (rather than merely descriptive and thereby modestly – in the service of continuity to past practice – prescriptive) ends. Nonetheless, the question of whether our analytic jurisprudential practices necessarily depend upon a conception (or conceptions) of the good seems to me to be an important one in light of Robin’s thesis. Not only does the question seem to be intimately tied to her overall picture of progressives’ commitment to neutrality that figures centrally in her argument, but if this hypothesis bears out, it strikes me that it has potential to significantly undermine potential pragmatic objections to Robin’s thesis. It is, therefore, a question that I think merits some attention. Read More

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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.