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Tagged: law and meaning


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.