Legal Theory Lexicon
This is a collection of the Legal Theory Lexicon posts from Legal Theory Blog. A new entry appears each week on Sunday. The most recent posts appear on this page. To access older posts use the "Table of Contents" below. (Many of the Legal Theory Lexicon posts have benefitted from comments by Ken Simons of the Boston University School of Law.)
Friday, February 09, 2007
Sunday, July 23, 2006
Sunday, July 10, 2005
Distributive justice is one of the central topics of political philosophy and plays a key role in contemporary debates about normative legal theory. Should contract law take distributive consequences into account? Should tort law aim at "risk spreading"? Should the Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution be read as guarantee of the equal distribution of rights or resources? In order to answer these and similar questions, we need to have some account of distributive justice? What makes the distribution of liberties, income, and wealth fair? Should the law aim at equality? And if it should, what sort of equality?
This entry in the Legal Theory Lexicon will provide a brief introduction to distributive justice. As always, the Lexicon is aimed at law students (especially first-year law students) with an interest in legal theory.
Context A prior entry in the Lexicon provided a brief overview of the idea of Justice. (Legal Theory Lexicon 018: Justice) In that entry, we divided the general topic of justice into four parts: (1) distributive justice, (2) corrective justice, (3) political justice, and (4) procedural justice. Corrective justice is concerned with the righting of wrongs: so, in criminal law, we might be concerned with punishing crimes, and in tort law, we could focus on the rectification of wrongfully inflicted harms. Political justice is concerned with issues such as voting rights, democracy, legitimacy, and authority. Procedural justice addresses questions about the fairness of civil and criminal proceedings. Our topic today is distributive justice. As a rough and ready starting point, let's say that distributive justice addresses questions about the distribution or allocation of liberties, wealth, and income. As we shall see, one of the major debates about distributive justice will call this rough and ready starting point into question, because "liberties, wealth, and income" may be the wrong target for theories of distributive justce. But let's put that concern aside for now.
Rawls's Theory of Distributive Justice: Justice as Fairness Discussions of distributive justice usually start with the work of John Rawls--the most influential political philosopher of the 20th century. It really isn't possible to do justice to Rawls's theory in a paragraph or two, but I'm going to try.
Let's start with the historical roots of Rawls's theory. Rawls saw his theory as an extension of the social contract tradition--associated with Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Traditional social contract theory posits a state of nature--in which there is no government--and then asks what would be the content of a social contract--an agreement to enter civil society. If we assume that the state of nature and the social contract are hypothetical (not actual), we can then ask the question: is an agreement reached in the state of nature fair? The answer to this question might be, "No, a social contract reached in the state of nature would not be fair, because it would favor those who are advantaged by the conditions of the state of nature, e.g. the strong, the smart, and the powerful." Rawls attempted to correct that problem with classical social contract theory by positing what he called the "original position." In the original position, the parties are to agree on principles of justice to govern the basic structure of society. Unlike the state of nature, however, the original position includes a "veil of ignorance," which prevents the parties from knowing the specific characteristics of those whom they represent.
Rawls argues that the parties to the original position would choose two principles of distributive justice:
1. The Equal Liberty Principle: Each person has an equal claim to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic rights and liberties, which scheme is compatible with the same scheme for all; and in this scheme the equal political liberties, and only those liberties, are to be guaranteed their fair value.
2. The Difference Principle: Social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions: (a) They are to be attached to positions and offices open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity; and (b), they are to be to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society.
In this very short introduction, we won't try to recreate the reasoning that would lead the parties to the original position to adopt the two principles. The basic idea of Rawls's argument is that the parties behind the veil of ignorance would have to take into account the possibility that they represent the least fortunate members of society. To protect the interest of those who are worst off, they would first make sure that everyone's basic rights--liberty of conscience, freedom of speech, due process--were protected: that is the role of the equal liberty principle. Then, the parties in the original position would attempt to make sure that wealth and income (and other basic goods) were were distributed so as to make the worst-off members of society as well off as they could be made: that is the role of the difference principle.
Rival Approaches to Distributive Justice What are the alternatives to justice as fairness? Let's take a quick look at four rivals to Justice as Fairness: (1) utilitarianism, (2) egalitarianism (or "strict equality"), (3) desert, and (4) libertarianism.
Classical utilitarianism suggests that we should maximize the sum total of utility--Jeremy Bentham's slogan was "the greatest good for the greatest number." For classical utilitarians, the distribution of goods and resources doesn't matter in and of itself. What matters is how much good can be produced, not how it is distributed. This does not mean, however, that utilitarians do not care about the distribution of wealth and income. For example, a utilitarian might argue that wealth and income have "diminishing marginal utility." That is, the first $1000 of income is very important--it allows you to buy essentials like food and shelter. But the difference between $100,000 and $101,000 may be very minor--it allows you to buy a nicer car. Therefore, the utilitarian might argue that egalitarian distributions of resources will tend to increase total welfare--unless there is some countervailing reason such as increased incentives to produce useful goods and services that might result from unequal distributions of wealth and income.
Utilitarians are frequently criticized on the ground that they lack a princpled objection to gross inequalities. Suppose, for example, that the total welfare of society could be improved by enslaving a small group. If this were the case, then utilitarians would be committed to the consequence that such slavery is "just" or "good," but this seems counter intuitive. Utilitarians can reply to this point in many ways, but one argument is that, in fact, slavery does not increase total utility, but actually is quite harmful. Critics are likely to say that this may usually be the case, but that utilitarianism falters on the exceptional cases where gross inequalities lead to net welfare gains. Of course, the argument can be extended by both sides, but you get the general idea.
Utilitarians are likely to object to Rawls's second principle--the difference principle--on the ground that it requires that we pay a huge penalty in total welfare to produce a small benefit for those who are least advantaged. For example, suppose that the average income could be increased by $10,000 per year if the income of the worst-off group were decreased by $10 per year. Utilitarians argue that it is wrong to deprive a large group of a very substantial amount of income in order to preserve a small amount of income for a small group. Once again, the arguments will go back and forth, but you can see how the issue is framed.
Egalitarianism Another rival of justice as fairness is "strict egalitarianism." The difference principle permits inequalities of wealth and income if those inequalities benefit the worst-off group in society. For example, it it could be shown that private ownership of capital was required to produced economic growth that benefits even the poorest members of society, the difference principle might allow Bill Gates to accumulate billions of dollars while the poorest members of society subsisted on a tiny fraction of that. Strict egalitarians maintain that distributive justice requires that each person recieve the same share--even if the consequence is that everyone (including the worst-off) gets less than they could if inequalities were permitted.
Desert Yet another view of distributive justice would link distributive shares with desert or deservingness. In a very broad sense, one might say that all theories of distributive justice are desert-based. Egalitarian theories simply say that everyone deserves the same share. Fair enough! But I want to focus on a special kind of desert-based theory--one that focuses on merit or effort or some other quality as the basis for desert. For example, one might believe that wealth and income ought to be distributed in proportion to social contribution. If I work hard and create valuable goods or services, then I deserve a greater share of wealth and income, as compared with someone who makes a lessor contribution.
This kind of desert-based theory is quite different from justice as fairness, utilitarianism, or egalitarianism. This difference could be expressed in one of two ways. We might say that these other theories have a different conception of desert: for example, egalitarians may believe that each person is equally deserve of resources. Or we might say that the other theories deny the relevance of deserve; for example, egalitarians may believe that contribution-based desert is morally irrelevant.
Libertarianism Libertarianism represents another approach to distributive justice. On the one hand, libertarians are likely to endorse some version of what Rawls called the equal liberty principle. That is, libertarians are likely to believe that each individual should have an equal right to basic liberties (or autonomy). On the other hand, most libertarians reject that the idea that there should be any principles that govern the distribution of resources. For libertarians, the distribution of wealth and income flows from the free choices made by individuals. That might result in relatively equal distribution of wealth and income, or it might result in massive inequalities. For the libertarian what matters is whether the transactions or transfers are themselves just. If I freely choose to sell you Whiteacre, and I gamble away the proceeds while you grow rich, then the resulting inequality is just because it result from voluntary transactions.
In a sense, then, libertarians reject the idea of "distributive justice" as applied to the distribution of wealth and income. At the same time, however, libertarians tend to be strict egalitarians when it comes to the distribution of basic liberty rights, because most libertarians believe that the basic liberties (freedom of conscience, self-ownership) cannot themselves be alienated.
One possibility is "wealth and income." That is, we might believe that each person should be entitled to the same annual income. That answer becomes problematic, however, because different persons have different needs. Suppose that strict equality of income would produce a share of $20,000 per person per year. You are young and in good health, and can do quite well on that sum. I am elderly and in poor health; $20,000 per year will not even pay for the medical care necessary to sustain my life.
Here is another possibility. We might aim for equality of "welfare." Of course, we would need to define welfare, and that's a tough job. Let's assume that welfare is a subjective state, produced by the satisfaction of preferences. Equality of welfare might require substantial disparities in the distribution of resources. Those who are ill or developmentally disable might require a larger share of resources to produce an equal share of welfare. Even that might be problematic. For example, those with really severe needs might require enormous resources--the possibility of very expensive high technology medicine has hightlighted this possibility.
There is, however, another problem with equality of welfare. Suppose that you have simple tastes, and I have expensive tastes. You are happy with a modest house, simple food, and vacationing in the countryside. For me to achieve the same welfare level, I need a personal Gourmet chef, the finest wines and caviar, a mansion, and vacations at the Ritz in Paris. It seems quite odd to say that distributive justice requires that I get more resources than you, simply because my tastes are more expensive than yours.
I think you can alreay see how interesting and exciting the equality-of-what debate can be. Let me just mention some additional moves, and then stop. Another step would be to introduce the idea of equal opportunity. Thus, we might decide that it is not "equality of welfare" but "equality of opportunity for welfare" that should be the criterion for distributive justice. Another important theory, associated with the economist Amartya Sen focuses on the "capacities for valuable functionings" as the subject of equality.
Conclusion This is another Lexicon entry that is both too long and too short. Too long because it is a bit much to swallow in one quick read, but too short because the topic of distributive justice requires many multiples of the words devoted to it here--for even a short treatment. Nonetheless, I hope I have provided enough of an introduction to get you thinking!
I've included a short bibliography and some links to other resources on the Internet! Bibliography
Ackerman, Bruce, Social Justice in the Liberal State (1980)
Joh Locke, Two Treatises of Government Student edition (Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought) (1988)
Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, & Utopia (1974)
John Rawls, Justice as Fairness: A Restatemetn (2001)
John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (1971)
Jean-Jacques Rousseau,'The Social Contract' and Other Later Political Writings (Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought) (1997)
Fred D'Agostino, Contemporary Approaches to the Social Contract, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Ann Cudd, Contractarianism, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Julian Lamont, Distributive Justice, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Fred D'Agostino, Original Position, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Amartya Sen, Equality of What (PDF)
Sunday, June 26, 2005
The dominant approaches to normative legal theory in the American legal academy converge on fairly robust role for the state and government subject to the constraints imposed by an equally robust set of individual rights. Normative legal theorists of all stripes--conservatives and liberals, welfarists and deontologists—tend to agree that the institution of law is fundamentally legitimate and that the legal regulation has a large role to play. There is, however, a counter-tradition in legal theory that challenges the legitimacy of law and contends that the role of law should be narrowly confined. This entry in the Legal Theory Lexicon will examine libertarian theories of law. As always, the Lexicon is aimed at law students—especially first year law students—with an interest in legal theory.
The libertarian tradition of social, political, and legal thought is rich and varied, no brief summary can do it justice. So the usual caveats apply. This is a brief introduction to libertarian thought with an emphasis on its role in normative legal theory. Debates about the true meaning of the term “libertarian” will largely be ignored, and will disputes over the advantages of “liberalism,” “classical liberalism,” and “libertarianism” as the best label for libertarian ideas. Enough with the caveats, here we go!
Historical Roots of Contemporary Libertarianism One good way to approach contemporary libertarian legal theory is via its historical roots. A good place to begin is with John Locke’s conception of the social contract.
John Locke and the Social Contract
The idea of a “social contract,” by which individuals in a state of nature contract with each other (or with a sovereign) to enter a “civil society” is one of the most important in all of political philosophy. Hobbes, Rousseau, and Locke all have distinctive theories of the social contract, but Locke’s version is important—both to libertarian theory and American constitutionalism. For the purposes of this discussion, the important idea is that a legitimate (or perhaps just) civil society has authority that is limited to those powers that the citizens-to-be would agree to delegate to the government in a social contract. Locke himself argued that the inconveniences of the state of nature would motivate a social contract that delegated to the government the power to protect property—understood in a broad sense that encompasses personal security and liberty—and the power to resolve disputes. But the Lockean social contract would not authorize government to restrict fundamental liberties or to take property from one citizen and transfer it to another. Of course, there is much more to day about Locke, but we are concerned here only with getting the gist of those Lockean ideas that are historically important to libertarian theory.
Kant and Spheres of Autonomy
Kant also made an important contribution to libertarian theory via his ideas of autonomy. There is no good way to summarize Kant’s theory of autonomy in a sentence or two, but the gist of his notion is the humans, as rational beings, have an interest in being autonomous in the sense of “self governing.” The role of law is to protect individual “spheres of autonomy” or “zones of liberty” in which individuals can act without interference from others. Suppose then, that our theory of proper legislation was that the laws should create maximum equal liberties for each, consistent with the same liberty for all. These two Kantian ideas—autonomy and maximum equal liberty—have played an important role in libertarian thinking about law.
John Stuart Mill and the Harm Principle John Stuart Mill was a liberal utilitarian, and so, in a sense, it is odd that he is also the author of one of the most important works in the libertarian tradition, On Liberty, a rich, complex, and easily misunderstood work. I am afraid I may be contributing to the misunderstanding by emphasizing just one idea from On Liberty--the so-called “harm principle.” Here is how Mill states the principle:
. . . the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right...The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.
The consequentialist case for libertarianism is contingent—it depends on empirical and theoretical questions about the effects that various legal regimes have. Consequentialist libertarians believe that minimum government interference with individual liberty and free markets produces better consequences that extensive government regulation or redistribution of income. Historically, both John Stuart Mill and Adam Smith are associated with both libertarianism and consequentialism.
There are many different flavors of consequentialism, but in the legal academy, the most prominent strands of consequentialist thinking are associated with law and economics and assume a preference-satisfaction (or “welfarist”) notion of utility. Even among theorists who accept welfarism, there are major disagreements about how much and when government should regulate. But the general idea behind the consequentialist case for libertarianism is that markets are more efficient than regulation. This conclusion follows from fairly straightforward ideas in neoclassical microeconomics. Markets facilitate Pareto-efficient (welfare enhancing) transactions; regulations thwart such transactions.
Markets may lead to substantial disparities in wealth and income, but from the consequentialist perspective, such inequalities may not justify legislation that redistributes wealth and income. First, for a strict utilitarian, the distribution of utility itself is of no moral significance: classical utilitarians believe that the sum of utilities should be maximized, even if that means that some will be very well off and others very poor. Of course, there is a well-known utilitarian argument for the redistribution of wealth and income based on the idea of diminishing marginal utility, but this argument might be outweighed by the massive utility losses caused by redistributive programs—providing a utilitarian argument against government-mandated redistribution of wealth and income. Second, even consequentialists who believe in some form of egalitarianism might believe that the worst off members of society will be better served by a libertarian regime than by a social-welfare state. We are already on a tangent, so I’m going to leave the topic of redistribution—noting that this is an issue upon which consequentialists themselves many differ in a variety of ways.
In contemporary legal theory, Richard Epstein is the “libertarian” thinker who is most strongly associated with consequentialist foundations. Because he is a consequentialist, Epstein may not be a pure libertarian, but on a variety of issues (e.g. antidiscrimination laws), Epstein takes strongly libertarian positions.
Deontological Foundations Although some libertarians are consequentialists, many others look to deontological moral theory for the foundations of their libertarianism. There are many different strategies for arguing for libertarianism based on deontological premises. One method starts with the idea of self-ownership or autonomy. Each of us has a moral right to control our own bodies, free of wrongful interference by others. This might imply that each individual has a right against theft, battery, false-imprisonment, enslavement, and so forth. Of course, these rights might justify a certain kind of government—one that protects us against invasions of our rights. But when government goes beyond the protection of these rights, then government itself operates through force or threats of force. For example, the redistribution of income might be accomplished by taxing income to finance a welfare system. Taxes are not voluntary; tax payments are “coerced” via threats of violence and imprisonment. Without consent, it might be argued, these threats are wrongful actions.
In my mind, the deontological approach to the foundations of libertarian political theory is most strongly associated with the late Robert Nozick and his magnificent book, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (see reference below).
Pluralist Foundations There is an obvious problem with locating the foundations of a political theory, like libertarianism, in a deeper moral theory, such as some form of deontology or consequentialism. In a pluralist society, it seems very unlikely that any one view about morality will ever become the dominant view. Instead, modern pluralist societies are usually characterized by persistent disagreements about deep moral questions. If a particular form of libertarianism rests on deep moral foundations, then most of us will reject that form of utilitarianism, because we reject the foundations. One alternative would be to try to argue for libertarianism on the basis all of the different moral theories, but that is obviously a very time-consuming and difficult task. Another approach would be to articulate shallow foundations for utilitarianism—foundations that are “modular” in the sense that they could be incorporated into many different comprehensive theories of morality. This general strategy was pioneered by the liberal political philosopher, John Rawls—himself, of course, no libertarian.
One contemporary libertarian legal theorist who has pursued the pluralist strategy is Randy Barnett. In his book, The Structure of Liberty, Barnett argues that anyone who wishes to pursue their own interests—whatever those might be-- have good reasons to affirm a generally libertarian framework for government. Barnett’s case for libertarianism is complex, but his basic idea is that human nature and circumstances are such that the law must establish and protect property rights and liberty of contract. The key to Barnett’s argument is his identification of what he calls the problems of knowledge, interest, and power. For example, the problems of knowledge include the fact that each individual has knowledge of his or her circumstances that are relevant to how resources can best be utilized. This fact, combined with others, make decentralized control of resources through a private property regime superior to a centralized command and control system. For our purposes, it is not the details for Barnett’s argument, but his general strategy that is important: Barnett attempts to create a case for libertarianism that does not depend on either consequentialist or deontological moral theory.
Modest Libertarian Reforms: Deregulation, Privatization, and Legalization
At the very least, libertarians favor less government—as measured against the baseline of the current legal order in the United States. So, libertarians are likely to be in favor of more reliance on markets and less reliance on government. Hence, libertarians are likely to support programs of deregulation and privatization. Deregulation might include measures like abolition of consumer product safety regulations and the elimination of rent control laws. Privatization might include the federal government selling off the national park system or the Tennessee Valley Authority.
A libertarian reform agenda might also include the legalization of various forms of conduct that are currently prohibited. Examples of this kind of reform might include the legalization of recreational drugs, the end of prohibitions on various consensual sexual activities, and the elimination of restrictions on gambling and prostitution.
Comprehensive Libertarian Reform: The Night-Watchman State A more ambitious libertarian agenda might be the establishment of what has been called the night-watchman state. The idea is that government would limit its role to the protection of individual liberty. Government would continue to provide police protection, national defense, and a court system for the vindication of private rights (property, tort, and contract rights, for example), but nothing else. In other words, the function of law would be limited to those activities that are necessary for the protection of private property and liberty.
The difference between the advocacy of modest and comprehensive libertarian reform may be more a matter of tactics than of principle. One might believe that there is no realistic chance of a transition to a night-watchman state. Those who advocate such comprehensive reform may undermine their own political effectiveness by sounding “radical.” So as a matter of practical politics, it may be that libertarians are most effective when they advocate marginal reforms that move the system incremental in libertarian directions.
Libertarian Revolutions: Anarchy and Polycentric Constitutional Orders Some libertarians advocate an agenda that is even more radical than the night-watchman state. One might question whether there is a need for the nation state at all. One version of this more radical approach is pure anarchism—the view that no government is necessary because individuals can coexist and cooperate without any need for state action. Another variation of this idea is sometimes called a “polycentric constitutional order.” The idea is that individuals could subscribe to private firms that would provide the police and adjudication functions of the night watchman state. Such a society would have entities that functioned like governments in some ways—with the important exception that individuals would enter into voluntary agreements for their services.
Another rival to libertarianism is the view that legislation should aim at the promotion of virtue in the citizenry. If one believes that the aim of government is to make humans into better people, then one is likely to see a variety of restricts of liberty as justified. (Let’s call views that see virtue as the end of government “aretaic political theories.”)
Aretaic political theorists are likely to disagree with libertarians over what might be called “moral legislation.” For instance, one might believe that legal prohibitions on gambling, drugs, and prostitution are justified because they help promote a moral climate where most citizens don’t want to engage in these activities. Many libertarians would say it is simply not the business of government to decide that a taste for gambling is a bad thing; whereas many virtue theorists are likely to say that this is precisely the sort of work that governments should be doing.
Conclusion Libertarian legal theory is interesting on the merits—as one of the most significant normative theories of law. But there is another important reason for legal theorists to be interested in libertarianism even if they ultimately reject it. Libertarian legal theories call into question the very purpose of law and government. A really careful evaluation of libertarianism requires that one form views about the function of law and the purposes of government, and to confront a variety of criticisms of conventional views about those topics. For that reason, thinking about libertarian legal theory is an excellent way of thinking about the most fundamental questions in normative legal theory.
Once again, this entry is bit too long, but I hope that I’ve provide a good starting point for your investigations of libertarianism. I’ve provided a very brief set of references for further exploration.
Randy E. Barnett, The Structure of Liberty: Justice and the Rule of Law (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).
Richard A. Epstein, Skepticism and Freedom : A Modern Case for Classical Liberalism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003).
Robert Nozick, Anarchy State and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1977).
Sunday, June 19, 2005
The counter-majoritarian difficulty may be the best known problem in constitutional theory. The phrase is attributed to Alexander Bickel—a Yale Law School Professor—who is said to have introduced it in his famous book The Least Dangerous Branch. Whatever Bickel actually meant by the phrase, it has now taken on a life of its own. The counter-majoritarian difficulty states a problem with the legitimacy of the institution of judicial review: when unelected judges use the power of judicial review to nullify the actions of elected executives or legislators, they act contrary to “majority will” as expressed by representative institutions. If one believes that democratic majoritarianism is a very great political value, then this feature of judicial review is problematic. For at least two or three decades after Bickel’s naming of this problem, it dominated constitutional theory.
- There are many different theories of democratic legitimacy, and only some of them emphasize “majoritarianism” as the key factor.
- Some theories of democratic legitimacy rely on the idea of “consent of the governed,” but it is very difficult to mount an argument for actual consent to existing majoritarian institutions or their actions.
- The idea of “legitimacy” is itself deeply controversial and might even be called obscure. What legitimacy is and why it is important are themselves deep and controversial questions.
This entry in the Legal Theory Lexicon explores the counter-majoritarian difficulty, efforts to solve the problem and to dissolve it. As always, the Lexicon is aimed at law students, especially first-year law students, with an interest in legal theory. As is frequently the case with the Lexicon, we will explore a very big topic in just a few paragraphs. Many articles and books have been written about the counter-majoritarian difficulty; we will only scratch its surface. Moreover, any really deep discussion of the counter-majoritarian difficulty would lead (sooner or later) to almost every other topic in constitutional theory. The Lexicon is “quick and dirty,” and definitely not deep, comprehensive, or authoritative.
Democracy and Majoritarianism The counter-majoritarian difficulty is rooted in ideas about the relationship between democracy and legitimacy (see the Legal Theory Lexicon entry on Legitimacy ). We all know the basic story: the actions of government are legitimate because of their democratic pedigree, and democratic legitimacy requires “majority rule.” Of course, it isn’t that simple. Among the complexities are the following:
Constitutional Limits on Majoritarianism The counter-majoritarian difficulty is sometimes characterized as a problem with the institution of judicial review, but it could also be understood as a difficulty for any constitution that constrains majority will. Of course, there could be constitutions that impose no limits at all on the will of democratically elected legislatures. For example, a regime of unicameral parliamentary supremacy might be said to have a constitution that allows a parliamentary majority to pass any legislation that it pleases and to override the courts or executive whenever the legislature is in disagreement with their actions. Of course, even this simple constitution might constrain the legislature in a certain sense. For example, legislation that attempts to constrain the action of a future legislature might be “unconstitutional.” Another example might be legislation that abolishes elections and substitutes a system of self-perpetuating appointments. Similarly, a legislature might pass a “bill of rights” that purports to bind future legislatures, even in the absence of an institution of judicial review.
The Institution of Judicial Review Even though the counter-majoritarian difficulty might be a feature of any system with a binding constitution, the difficulty is especially acute for a regime that incorporates the institution of judicial review incorporating judicial supremacy. In the United States, for example, the courts have the power to declare that acts of Congress are unconstitutional, and if the Supreme Court so declares, the Congress does not have the power to override its decision.
The institution of judicial review is counter-majoritarian in part because federal judges are not elected and they serve life terms. Presidents are elected every four years; members of the House of Representatives every two years; and Senators serve staggered six year terms. Of course, judges and justices are nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate and these features create some degree of democratic control of the judiciary. Nonetheless, on the surface, it certainly looks like judicial review is an antidemocratic institution. Unelected judges strike down legislation enacted by elected legislators: that is certainly antidemocratic and antimajoritarian in some sense.
The counter-majoritarian difficulty is compounded by the nature of judicial review as it has been practiced by the modern Supreme Court. If the Supreme Court limited itself to enforcing the separation of powers between the President and Congress or to the enforcement of the relatively determinate provisions of the constitution that establish the “rules of the game” for the political branches, then the counter-majoritarian difficulty might not amount to much. But the modern Supreme Court has been involved in the enforcement of constitutional provisions that general, abstract, and seemingly value laden—examples include the freedom of speech, the equal protection clause, and the due process clause of the constitution. The counter-majoritarian difficulty seems particularly acute when it comes to so-called “implied fundamental rights,” like the right to privacy at issue in cases like Griswold v. Connecticut and Roe v. Wade.
Answering the Countermajoritarian Difficulty How have constitutional theorists attempted to answer the counter-majoritarian difficulty? The problem with answer that question is that there are so many answers that it is difficult to single out three or four for illustrative purposes. So remember, the “answers” that are discussed here are arbitrary selections from a much longer list.
Discrete and Insular Minorities
One famous answer to the counter-majoritarian difficulty focuses on the idea of “discrete and insular minorities.” The background to this answer is the premise that in the long run, most individuals win some and lose some in the process of democratic decision making. Shifting coalitions among various interest groups “spread the wealth” and the pain—no one wins all the time or loses all the time. Or rather, normally wins and losses are spread across the many different groups that constitute a given political society. However, there may be some groups that are excluded from the give and take of democratic politics. Some groups may be so unpopular (or the victims of such extreme prejudice) that they almost always are the losers in the democratic process. The famous “Footnote Four” of the United States Supreme Court’s decision in the Carolene Products case can serve as the germ of an answer to the counter-majoritarian difficulty. Judicial review is arguably legitimate when it serves to protect the interests of “discrete and insular minorities” against oppressive actions by democratic majorities.
Anti-Democratic Political Theory Another answer to the counter-majoritarian difficulty admits that judicial review is antidemocratic but seeks to justify this feature by appeal to some value that trumps democratic legitimacy. This isn’t really just one answer to the difficulty—it is a whole lot of answers that share a common feature—the appeal to anti-democratic political values. For example, it might be argued that “liberty” is a higher value than “democracy” and hence that judicial review to protect liberty is justified. Or it might be argued that “equality” is a higher value, or “privacy,” or something else. Obviously, there is a lot more to be said about this kind of answer to the counter-majoritarian difficulty, but for the purposes of this Lexicon entry, this incredibly terse explanation will have to suffice.
Dualism and High Politics Yet a third approach to the counter-majoritarian difficulty attempts to turn the problem upside down—arguing that judicial review is actually a democratic institution that checks the antidemocratic actions of elected officials. Whoa Nelly! How does that work? This third approach is strongly associated with the work of Bruce Ackerman—perhaps the most influential constitutional theorist since Alexander Bickel. Ackerman’s views deserve at least a whole Lexicon entry, but the gist of his theory can be stated briefly. Ackerman argues for a view that can be called “dualism,” because it distinguishes between two kinds of politics—“ordinary politics” (the kind practiced every day by legislators and bureaucrats) and “constitutional politics.” What is “constitutional politics”? And how is it different from “ordinary politics”? Ackerman’s answers to these questions begin with the idea that ordinary politics isn’t very democratic. Why not? We all know the answer to that question. Ordinary politics are dominated by self-interested politicians and manipulative special interest groups. The people (or “We the People” as Ackerman likes to say) don’t really get involved in ordinary politics, and therefore, ordinary politics are not really very democratic. Constitutional politics, by way of contrast, involve extraordinary issues that actually “get the attention” of the people. For example, the ratification of the Constitution of 1789 caught the attention of ordinary citizens, as did the Reconstruction Amendments (the 13th, 14th, and 15th) following the Civil War. When “We the People” become engaged in constitutional politics, we are giving commands to our agents—Congress and the President—and the Courts are merely enforcing our will when they engaged in judicial review—so long as they are faithful to our commands.
Whew! That was a lot of “We the People” talk. I need a break from channeling Ackerman, before I can finish this entry! OK. I’m back!
Ackerman’s theory emphasized the idea of distinct regimes that resulted from “constitutional moments”—periods of intense popular involvement in constitutional politics. Recently, Jack Balkin and Sandy Levinson have advanced a similar theory—which emphasizes that idea of “high politics”—the great popular movements that seek to influence the decisions of the Supreme Court on issues like abortion or affirmative action. I can’t do justice to their theory here, but the idea is that the Supreme Court may be responding to democratic pressures when it makes the really big constitutional decisions.
There is another side to this story. There may be reasons why elected politicians prefer for the Supreme Court to “take the heat” for some decisions that are controversial. When the Supreme Court acts, politicians may be able to say, “It wasn’t me. It was that darn Supreme Court.” And in fact, the Supreme Court’s involvement in some hot button issues may actually help political parties to mobilize their base: “Give us money, so that we can [confirm/defeat] the President’s nominee to the Supreme Court, who may cast the crucial vote on [abortion, affirmative action, school prayer, etc.].” In other words, what appears to be counter-majoritarian may actually have been welcomed by the political branches that, on the surface, appear to have been thwarted.
Conclusion Once again, I’ve gone on for too long. I hope you will forgive me, and I hope that this Lexicon entry has given you food for thought about the counter-majoritarian difficulty. Below, I’ve included a list of references to articles that focus on the difficulty itself and also to some of the authors who have attempted to give answers to Bickel’s famous problem.
References This is a very incomplete list, emphasizing the works that are focused on “the counter-majoritarian difficulty” in particular and omitting many important works of constitutional theory that deal with the counter-majoritarian difficulty as part of a larger enterprise.
Bruce Ackerman, We the People: Foundations (1993) & We the People: Transformations (1998).
Jack M. Balkin & Sanford Levinson, Understanding the Constitutional Revolution, 87 Va. L. Rev. 1045 (2001).
Alexander Bickel, The Least Dangerous Branch: The Supreme Court at the Bar of Politics 16-18 (2d ed. 1986).
Steven G. Calabresi, Textualism and the Countermajoritarian Difficulty, 66 Geo. Wash. L. Rev. 1373 (1998); Barry Friedman, The Counter-Majoritarian Problem and the Pathology of Constitutional Scholarship, 95 Nw. U. L. Rev. 933 (2001).
Barry Friedman, The History of the Countermajoritarian Difficulty, Part One: The Road to Judicial Supremacy, 73 N.Y.U. L. Rev. 333, 334 (1998).
Barry Friedman, The History Of The Countermajoritarian Difficulty, Part II: Reconstruction's Political Court , 91 Geo. L.J. 1 (2002).
Barry Friedman, The History Of The Countermajoritarian Difficulty, Part Three: The Lesson Of Lochner, 76 N.Y.U. L. Rev. 1383 (2001).
Barry Friedman, The History Of The Countermajoritarian Difficulty, Part Four: Law's Politics, 148 U. Pa. L. Rev. 971 (2000).
Barry Friedman, The Birth Of An Academic Obsession: The History Of The Countermajoritarian Difficulty, Part Five, 112 Yale L.J. 153 (2002).
Ilya Somin, Political Ignorance and the Countermajoritarian Difficulty: A New Perspective on the Central Obsession of Constitutional Theory, 89 Iowa L. Rev. 1287 (2004).
Mark Tushnet, Policy Distortion and Democratic Debilitation: Comparative Illumination of the Countermajoritarian Difficulty, 94 Mich. L. Rev. 245 (1995).
Sunday, June 12, 2005
Legitimacy. It’s a word much bandied about by students of the law. “Bush v. Gore was an illegitimate decision.” “The Supreme Court’s implied fundamental rights jurisprudence lacks legitimacy.” “The invasion of Iraq does not have a legitimate basis in international law.” We’ve all heard words like these uttered countless times, but what do they mean? Can we give an account of “legitimacy” that makes that concept meaningful and distinctive? Is “legitimacy” one idea or is it several different notions, united by family resemblance rather than an underlying conceptual structure.
- The distinctive feature of the principle is that it makes reasons count. That is, the principle bases legitimacy on reasonable endorsement “in the light of principles and ideals acceptable to . . . common human reason.” Readers of past lexicon entries will note that Rawls’s is referring her to his idea of public reason.
- The principle does not require that citizens actually endorse the constitutional essentials. Rather, the requirement is that citizens “may reasonably be expected to endorse” the constitutional essentials. In other words, the constitutional essentials must be justified by public reasons in such a way that the justification is one that reasonable citizens could be expected to accept.
- Citizens are asked to endorse the constitutional essentials “as free and equal”. That is, the principle assumes a certain political conception of citizens as free and equal members of society. The reasons are addressed to citizens conceived in this way, and not to citizens as they are, if that includes their rejection of the notion that each and every citizen should be regarded as a free and equal member of society.
This entry in the Legal Theory Lexicon theory will examine the concept of legitimacy from various angles. As always, the Lexicon is aimed at law students, especially first-year law students, with an interest in legal theory.
Normative and Sociological Legitimacy Let’s begin with the distinction between normative legitimacy and sociological legitimacy. On the one hand, we talk about legitimacy as a normative concept. When we use “legitimacy” in the normative sense, we are making assertions about some aspect of the rightness or wrongness of some action or institution. On the other hand, legitimacy is also a sociological concept. When we use legitimacy in the sociological sense, we are making assertions about legitimacy beliefs--about what attitudes people have. Although these two senses of legitimacy are related to one another, they are not the same. That’s because an institution could be perceived as legitimate on the basis of false empirical beliefs or incorrect value premises. The opposite can be true as well: a controversial court decision (Roe, Bush v. Gore, etc.) could have been perceived as illegitimate, even if it had been a legitimate decision.
Conceptions of Legitimacy
Concepts and Conceptions
The distinction between normative and sociological legitimacy is important, but, by itself, it doesn’t get us very far. What does “legitimacy” mean? How is “legitimacy” different from “justice” or “correctness”? Those are deep questions—deserving of a book-length answer. My general policy in the Lexicon series is to steer a neutral course—avoiding controversial assertions about debatable matters of legal theory. But when it comes to legitimacy, it is difficult to stick to this plan. The difficulty is not so much that legitimacy is the subject of a well-defined debate; rather, the problem is that the concept of legitimacy is usually ill-defined and undertheorized.
So here is the strategy we will use. Let’s borrow the concept/conception distinction for a starting point. Let’s hypothesize that there is a general concept of legitimacy but that this concept is contested—different theorists have different views about what legitimacy consists in. Some theorists think that legitimacy is conferred by democratic procedures; others may think that legitimacy is a function of legal authorization. Let’s take a look at four different notions of legitimacy.
Four Conceptions of Legitimacy
Legitimacy as Democratic Process
One very important and influential idea of legitimacy is connected with democratic procedures. Let’s begin with a simple example. Suppose you belong to a small-scale organization of some kind—maybe a law-school faculty. The executive of the organization can take various actions on her own authority, but there are some matters that must be decided by democratic procedures. For example, suppose the Dean of a law school decided that all first-year classes should be taught in small-groups with cooperative-learning techniques and without the traditional case method and Socratic questioning. This might be a marvelous innovation. (I’m not saying it would be.) But if the Dean made the decision without the input of the faculty (or a vote of the faculty), then it is quite likely that there would be vociferous opposition to the new organization of the curriculum on the grounds that the Dean’s decision lacked democratic legitimacy.
Let’s take a more familiar example. Federal judges are not directly elected. They are appointed for life terms. Although the President (who nominates federal judges) and the Senate (which confirms them) are both elected bodies, the judges who sit at any given time have an indirect and diffuse democratic pedigree. Moreover, there life terms make them relatively insular. So there is a question of legitimacy about the institution of judicial review. Does the fact that Supreme Court Justices are not elected make it illegitimate for them to invalidate actions taken by elected officials? Of course, that’s a big question. For our purposes, the important point is that the question itself is one of democratic legitimacy.
Legitimacy as Legal Authority Another conception of legitimate seems to focus on legal authority. For example, when President Truman ordered the seizure of the steel mills during the Korean War, there was not question but that he had been elected in 1948. But despite the fact that Truman was elected democratically, there was still a question about the legitimacy of his action. Even if his action was democratic, it may not have been legal. When an official acts outside her sphere of legal authority, we sometimes say that here decision was “illegitimate.” When we use “legitimacy” in this way, we seem to be relying on the idea that legitimacy is connected to legal authority. Actions that are not legally authorized are frequently called “illegitimate” whereas actions that are lawful are sometimes seen as legitimate for that reason.
Legitimacy as Reliability Yet another theory ties legitimacy to the reliability of the process that produces the decision. To see the point of the “reliability conception” of legitimacy, we need to step back for a moment. There is a difference between the “correctness” or “justice” of a decision, on the one hand, and its “legitimacy” on the other. Indeed, this seems to be a crucial feature of “legitimacy.” We think that an incorrect decision can nonetheless be legitimate, whereas a correct decision can lack legitimacy.
Reliability theories acknowledge this “gap” between legitimacy and justice, but insist that there is nonetheless a strong connection between the two. The idea is that legitimacy requires a decision making process that meets some threshold requirement of reliability. So tossing a coin would not be a legitimate method for deciding legal disputes. Even if the coin toss came out the right way and the party that would have won in a fair trial did win the coin toss, the decision that resulted from the flip of a coin would be criticized as illegitimate.
One important example of a reliability theory of legitimacy is found in Randy Barnett’s book, Restoring the Lost Constitution. Barnett argues that the legitimacy of a constitution depends on its reliability in producing just outcomes. A legitimate constitution guarantees a tolerable level of justice. A constitution that does not provide such a guarantee is illegitimate—or so Barnett argues.
The Liberal Principle of Legitimacy Let’s do one more theory of legitimacy. John Rawls’s has advanced what he called “the liberal principle of legitimacy.” Here is how Rawls states the principle:
[O]ur exercise of political power is fully proper only when it is exercised in accordance with a constitution the essentials of which all citizens as free and equal may reasonably be expected to endorse in the light of principles and ideals acceptable to their common human reason.”
Is it really the case that the various conceptions of legitimacy compete with one another? There is another possibility—that some (or all) of these conceptions are complementary. For example, we might say that a given judicial decision has legitimacy in the sense that it was made by legally authorized officials, but that the same decision lacks democratic legitimacy, because it was made by unelected judges contrary to the will of democratically elected legislators. If this way of talking is sensible, then it may be the case that the various conceptions of legitimacy do not compete with one another, but rather exist in some sort of complementary relationship.
Sunday, June 05, 2005
The legal academy is not the only locus for serious study of the law. Legal phenomena are examined in a variety of other disciplines—ranging from philosophy and sociology to history and anthropology, but political science (or “politics” or “government”) is the academic discipline that is most strongly associated with the study of law outside of the law schools. This entry in the Legal Theory Lexicon introduces two distinctive traditions for the study of the law from the perspective of political science. The first of these is the so-called “attitudinal model”—an approach that views courts—especially the United States Supreme Court—as policymaking institutions that are similar to legislatures and administrative agencies. The second approach is sometimes called “the new institutionalism” and it integrates a concern for legal doctrine and rules with other social science tools.
As always, this entry in the Lexicon is aimed at law students, especially first-year law students, with an interest in legal theory. Many of you were political science majors, and this may be “old hat” to you, but others will be exposed to these ideas for the first time. A word of warning: the dominant response of the legal academy to the study of law by political scientists is ignorance. It may seems strange, but it is nonetheless true that many law professors have barely heard of the attitudinal model and would have to guess what the “new institutionalism” might be. Don’t make this mistake. Political scientists bring a rich set of tools and concepts to legal theory, and the legal academy has much to learn from them. One more thing: this entry discusses only a small portion of the political science that is relevant to the study of law. Political science includes many different approaches—including rational choice and game theoretic approaches that have much in common with what is called “law and economics” in the legal academy.
The Legal Model and the Attitudinal Model Suppose you were a political scientist and you wanted to explain and predict the behavior of a court—for example, the United States Supreme Court. What variables would serve as the best predictors? One possibility is that you would seek to predict Supreme Court decisions using legal concepts. For example, you might use the text of the Constitution as the basis for predicting the outcome of constitutional cases or the text of federal statutes to predict the outcome of cases that hinged on questions of statutory interpretation. Let’s call this approach to the explanation and prediction of legal decisions, the “legal model.”
Even first-year law students are likely to see that the legal model may not do a very good job of predicting the outcome of appellate cases. Once you study constitutional law, you are likely to learn that decisions of the contemporary Supreme Court are rarely based on a simple application of preexisting legal rules to the facts (as they are presented to the Court given the procedural posture of the case). Instead, contemporary legal education is likely to emphasize the political dimension of the Supreme Court—with liberal, moderate, and conservative Justices lining up in more or less predictable patters, especially with respect to certain politically-charged issues—implied fundamental rights, federalism, and criminal procedure, for example.
Within the legal academy, the connection between judicial decisionmaking and politics is associated with American legal realism (and, more recently, with the Critical Legal Studies movement). But in political science, this same insight has been developed in an empirically more rigorous way, and frequently is called “the attitudinal model.”
The basic insight of the attitudinal model is that judicial decisions can, in at least some circumstances, be explained and predicted by the attitudes of judges. Thus, a simple attitudinal model might code each justice as occupying a point on a real line from left to right. A judge at the left-most point on the line would be very liberal. A judge on the right-most point of the line would be very conservative. The model might then predict how a judge’s attitudes (or position in attitudinal space) would correlate with positions on particular issues. Conservative judges are likely to vote against a right to abortion; liberal judges may be likely to uphold assertions of national power against challenges on federalism grounds.
Which model does a better job of predicting judicial behavior? If we limit our attention to the United States Supreme Court, it looks, at first blush, like the attitudinal model “beats the pants” off the legal model. But appearances may be deceiving. The United States Supreme Court does not hear very many “easy cases”—cases in which the application of preexisting legal rules control the outcome of the dispute. Indeed, the Supreme Court has a discretionary appellate jurisdiction (for the most part), and the Court rarely grants the writ of certiorari in cases in which the law is clear. Instead, the Court tends to focus on those cases in which the law is uncertain, the lower courts are divided, or there is a perceived need for a change in the law. Moreover, cases which are controlled by clear rules of law are usually settled. It is extremely rare for a party to spend the hundreds of thousands of dollars required to litigate a case to the Supreme Court on a sure-fire loser!
There is another reason why we would not expect the Supreme Court’s decisions to be predicted by a simple “legal model.” The Court does not consider itself bound by its own prior decisions. Given that the Court has the legal power to depart from precedent, it is hardly surprising that the Court does not behave as if it were so bound.
When the legal model is applied to the decisions of lower courts and to the behavior of litigants who settle disputes “in the shadow of the law,” legal rules and doctrines have much more explanatory power. For example, defendants will rarely pay large sums to settle claims that have no legal merit. Of course, this point needs to be qualified in various ways. If a case has sufficient merit to get to a jury, it may have settlement value, even if an “ideal” jury would find against the plaintiff. Similarly, litigation itself is costly, and meritless claims may have “nuisance value” so long as they cannot be thrown out of court at an early stage—by a demurrer or motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.
More broadly, most legal practitioners (lawyers and judges, for example) are likely to think that a very simple attitudinal model is missing something. Even if politics is important and legal doctrine is not the only important factor that shapes legal behavior, any story about legal institutions that leaves the law out of the story seems to be missing something that is crucially important—both to the understanding of the law and to understanding American politics.
The New Institutionalism And that brings us to what is sometimes called “the new institutionalism,” a somewhat eclectic movement within political science that seeks to integrate legal doctrine and the distinctive character of legal institutions in political-science approaches to the study of law. When I say “somewhat eclectic,” I mean that there is no single methodology or doctrine that characterizes all of the work that fits under the “new institutionalism” umbrella. And of course, the name of this approach, the new institutionalism, points backwards to an old institutionalism—the approach commonly associated with figures like Corwin and McCloskey (and more recently with Martin Shapiro). One way to look at the work in the “new institutionalist” tradition is to use the distinction between internal and external perspectives that is familiar to legal theorists.
From the internal perspective, new institutionalist work is work that takes “the law,” broadly defined to include legal institutions, concepts, categories, and doctrines seriously. But new institutionalist work is not the same as doctrinal legal scholarship. The new institutionalists situate “the law” in political contexts. Where a doctrinalist analysis aims at producing a restatement of a legal rule, institutionalists are more likely to be focused on an elaboration of the development of legal thought in a wider social context.
From the external perspective, new institutionalists are interested in the causal influences on and of legal phenomenon. Some new institutionalists embrace the attitudinal model as a starting point for their analysis, whereas others may be more critical of attitudinalism, but any work that looks at law from the external perspective will step outside of legal doctrine and ask questions about the causal influences that shape legal institutions.
Conclusion It is hardly surprising that a brief Lexicon entry cannot do justice to a whole body of work. The best way to learn about the attitudinal model and the new institutionalism is to read some work. If I might be permitted to play favorites, I would strongly suggest The Constitution Besieged: The Rise and Demise of Lochner Era Police Powers Jurisprudence by Howard Gillman as a book the exemplifies the important contribution that political science can make to the study of law!
Lawrence Baum, The Puzzle of Judicial Behavior (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997).
Howard Gillman, The Constitution Besieged: The Rise and Demise of Lochner Era Police Powers Jurisprudence (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1993).
Jeffrey A. Segal and Harold J. Spaeth, The Supreme Court and the Attitudinal Model (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993).
Martin Shapiro, Law and Politics in the Supreme Court (New York, Free Press 1964).
Howard Gillman, “What Has Law Got to Do With It?” 26 Law & Social Inquiry 465-504 (2001).
Rogers Smith, "Political Jurisprudence, the 'New Institutionalism,' and the Future of Public Law," 82 American Political Science Review 89-108 (1988). (available on JSTOR, follow this link.)
Supreme Court Decision-Making: New Institutionalist Approaches (edited by Howard Gillman & Cornell W. Clayton) (University of Chicago Press, 1999).
The Supreme Court in American Politics: New Institutionalist Interpretations (edited by Howard Gillman & Cornell W. Clayton) (University Press of Kansas, 1999).
Sunday, May 29, 2005
The Legal Theory Lexicon series usually explicates some concept in legal theory, jurisprudence, or philosophy of law. But what are those fields and how do they relate to each other? Is “jurisprudence” a synonym for “philosophy of law” or are these two overlapping but distinct fields? Is “legal theory” broader or narrower than jurisprudence? And why should we care about this terminology?
As always, this entry in the Legal Theory Lexicon series is aimed at law students, especially first-year law students with an interest in legal theory.
Who Cares About Terminology Why should we care about terminology? Who cares what goes under the label “jurisprudence” or “philosophy of law” or “legal theory”? Well, of course, there is a sense in which we shouldn’t care at all. What matters in a deep way is the substance of theorizing about law. On the other hand, these labels are important for a different reason—because their use tells us something about the sociology of the academy. When people argue about what “jurisprudence” really is, the terminological dispute may reflect a conflict over “turf” and “authority.”
Disciplinary Lines and Theorizing About Law Very broadly speaking, the turf of high-level legal theory is disputed by at least four groups. First and (still) foremost are the academic lawyers, those whose graduate-level training is exclusively (or almost exclusively) in law as it is taught in the legal academy. Second, there are the economists—some of whom are primarily (or exclusively) trained in economics; while others legal economists were trained primarily by law professors. Third, there is the “law and society” movement—broadly defined as the study of law from a social science (but noneconomic) perspective. Law-and-society theorists may have been trained in political science or sociology or criminology, but many may have been trained in the legal academy as well. Fourth, there is the law-and-philosophy movement, with “analytic legal philosophy” as the focal point of a variety of philosophical approaches. Many philosophers of law have formal philosophical training, but some were trained in law or political theory.
So, what about the turf wars? Those who use the phrase “philosophy of law” tend to be philosophers, while the term “jurisprudence” is more strongly associated with the legal tradition of theorizing about the law, but there is frequently a blurring of the these two terms. From the 1960s on, a single figure had a dominant influence in defining the content of “philosophy of law” courses in philosophy departments and “jurisprudence” courses in the law schools—that figure was H.L.A. Hart. Of course, there were many, many exceptions, but for quite a long time the standard course in both disciplines included as a central, organizing component, an examination of Hart’s ideas, either The Concept of Law, Hart’s great book, or the Hart-Fuller debate in the Harvard Law Review. When I was a student in the 70s and early 80s, I thought that “jurisprudence” and “philosophy of law” were synonymous—and that both were references to analytic philosophy of law in the tradition of Hart and included figures like Dworkin and Raz. One consequence of the “philosophicalization” of jurisprudence was the move to fold moral and political philosophy into jurisprudence. I have a very clear memory of browsing the law shelves of the textbook section of the UCLA bookstore in the late 70s, and discovery John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice and Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia as the texts for the jurisprudence course. I have always assumed that similar courses were offered elsewhere, although I could be wrong about that.
Philosophy is important as a matter of the sociology of the legal academy, but it is not the only important interdisciplinary influence: economics, political science, and sociology, each of these also has a major influence. Given that the “jurisprudence” course was “captured” by philosophers, how could these other approaches to legal theorizing express their theoretical framework in the law school curriculum. One mode of expression was the alternative theory course—“Law and Economics” and “Law and Society” were the two leading competitors of “Jurisprudence.” Moreover, the tradition of distinctively legal thinking about high legal theory has never died out. American Legal Realism was largely the product of the law schools—although many other disciplines figured in the realist movement. Likewise, Critical Legal Studies was largely a phenomenon of the legal academy. Some jurisprudence or legal theory courses incorporate philosophy of law, law and economics, and law and society into a course that is taught from a distinctively legal point of view.
What can we say about our three terms—jurisprudence, philosophy of law, and legal theory?
Jurisprudence My sense is that most Anglo-American legal academics view “jurisprudence” as mostly synonymous with “philosophy of law”. This is not a unanimous view. There is still a lingering sense of “jurisprudence” that encompasses high legal theory of a nonphilosophical sort—the elucidation of legal concepts and normative theory from within the discipline of law. Moreover, in other legal cultures, for example, in Europe and Latin America, my sense is that the move to identify jurisprudence with philosophy of law never really took root.
Philosophy of Law The meaning of the phrase “philosophy of law” is inevitably tied up in the relationship between the two academic disciplines—philosophy and law. In the United States and the rest of the Anglophone world, “philosophy of law” is a subdiscipline of philosophy, a special branch of what is nowadays frequently called “normative theory.” Of course, there are many different tendencies within academic philosophy generally and the philosophy of law in particular. Still, the dominant approach to philosophy of law in the Anglophone world is represented by “analytic legal philosophy,” which might be defined by the Hart-Dworkin-Raz tradition on the one hand and by the larger Austin-Wittgenstein-Quine-Donaldson-Kripke tradition on the other.
Coexisting with the analytic tradition in the philosophy of law are many other philosophical approaches. These include Hegelianism, neo-Thomism, Marxism, as well as the contemporary continental philosophical tradition, ranging from Habermas (with close affinities to the analytic tradition) to Foucault and Derrida (with much more tenuous links).
The philosophy of law covers a lot of ground. An important line of development focuses on the “what is law?” question, but much contemporary legal philosophy is focused on normative questions in specific doctrinal fields. The application of moral and political philosophy to questions in tort and criminal law is an example of this branch of contemporary legal philosophy.
Legal Theory Legal theory is a much broader and encompassing term, encompassing the philosophy of law and jurisprudence as well as theorizing from a variety of other perspectives, including law and economics and the law and society movement. In my opinion, “legal theory” is currently the best neutral term for referring to legal theorizing, broadly understood. It allows us to avoid the turf wars and sectarian disputes that make the word “jurisprudence” somewhat problematic.
Conclusion When you start theorizing about law, you are likely to adopt some term or phrase to describe your activity. “I’m doing jurisprudence,” or “I’m a philosopher of law.” I hope that this entry in the Legal Theory Lexicon will help you use these labels with some awareness of their history and the controversies that surround their use.
Sunday, May 22, 2005
American law students learn about formalism instrumentalism early on—although those particular terms may not be introduced. Many law students hunger for “black letter law,” for legal rules that can be applied to the facts in a more or less determinate fashion. But in most law school classrooms, this hunger is not satisfied. Instead, the discussion is likely to focus on another set of questions: What should the rule be? What is the purpose of the rule? Would the application of the rule to these facts serve its purpose? Does that rule make sense? And so on. Of course, different professors have different ideas about what makes for good legal rules. Some emphasize good consequences—perhaps as defined by the economic concept of efficiency. Others might emphasize considerations of fairness or distributive justice.
- Judges should apply the law and not make it.
- There are legal rules that constrain what legal actors may lawfully do.
- There is a difference between following the law and doing what you think is best.
- Judges should decide cases in accord with the text of the applicable constitutional or statutory provision or with the holding of controlling precedents.
In constitutional law, “black letter law” sometimes seems to disappear entirely. Instead, there is a Supreme Court that seems to act as some sort of super-legislature, resolving the great questions of the day, whether it be “Who shall be President?” or “May states criminalize gay sex?” or “Shall abortion be legal?” Moreover, students quickly learn that the constitutional text is not much of a barrier to a result that the Court really wants to reach. An obvious example is Bolling v. Sharpe in which the Supreme Court applied the substance of the equal protection clause to the federal government—even though it is unmistakably clear that the 14th amendment applies only to the state.
But even today (and in some ways, especially today), law students are likely to be exposed to another set of ideas about the law. They may have a rather old fashioned professor who insists on discussing cases or statutes as if they did provide rules that decided cases. Some students encounter constitutional law professors who insist on the “original meaning” of the Constitution—discussing lots of history (and fewer cases) than their colleagues. In some courses, students run into professors who talk about “plain meaning” approaches to statutory interpretation.
In other words, the legal academy is divided in its allegiance to various forms of legal formalism and legal instrumentalism. This entry in the Legal Theory Lexicon introduces the formalism-instrumentalism debate. As always, the discussion is aimed at law students—especially first year law students—with an interest in legal theory.
Legal Formalism What is legal formalism? The terms “formalism” and “formalist” are thrown around quite a bit, but they turn out to be surprisingly difficult to define. In fact, many law students and even some legal academics have only a very vague notion as to what “legal formalism” really means. You may have heard something like the following
Legal formalism? That’s “mechanical jurisprudence,” when a judge decides a case without thinking about the consequences or the purpose of the rule.
We can do better than that. Let’s begin with some of the things that scholars or judges who self-identify as formalists say:
1. The law consists of rules.
2. Legal rules can be meaningful.
3. Legal rules can be applied to particular facts.
4. Some actions accord with meaningful legal rules; other actions do not.
5. The standard for what constitutes following a rule vel non can be publicly knowable and the focus of intersubjective agreement.
Legal Instrumentalism Legal instrumentalism is one of the ideas that are strongly associated with American legal realism—the great movement in legal thought that is usually associated with Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.—as a sort of parent—and with figures like Roscoe Pound, Karl Llewellyn, Felix Cohen, and Jerome Frank. Like formalism, instrumentalism is often ill defined, but most instrumentalists would agree on the idea that legal rules should be interpreted in light of their purposes. When applying the letter of the law would undermine its purpose, then the rule should be interpreted so that it does not apply. And likewise, if the spirit of the law would be served by its application, then judges should give the rule an expansive interpretation. Some instrumentalists may go beyond this, and argue that judges should sometimes nullify statutes that are bad policy or create judge-made rules, when that would serve the ends of good policymaking.
The Realist Critique of Legal Formalism It is easy to see how realists or instrumentalists would critique legal formalism. If a formalist judge follows the plain meaning of a statute, that might lead to its application even in cases where it would be harmful and contrary to the intentions of its drafters. This is “unthinking” or “mechanical jurisprudence. Moreover, some realists argued that legal formalism was actually as sort of fraud. Judges don’t really follow the plain meaning—the argument goes. Rather, so-called formalist judges really decide on the basis of their own policy preferences and then dress up the results in the language of legal formalism. Ideology does the work; legal formalism dresses it up so that it looks pretty.
The Modern Revival of Legal Formalism Despite the sustained realist critique, legal formalism has been making a come back of late. One reason for the comeback is a realization that extreme versions of instrumentalism make it very difficult to know what the law is, in advance of a judge’s decision in a particular case. The point of hard law (determinate legal rules which draw relatively “bright lines”) is that they provide certainty, stability, and predictability to the law. Purposes provide less guidance, and different judges are likely to have different opinions about what the true purposes of the rule may be.
Political ideology has also played a role in the formalist revival. Some (but not all) formalists are especially disturbed by the results reached by the Warren and Burger Courts in prominent constitutional cases—like Roe v. Wade. Some of these critics may see legal formalism as a judicial philosophy that can rationalize the dismantling of these controversial precedents.
Conclusion The debate between formalists and realists is lively and fundamental, but frequently conducted in a fairly simplistic manner. The best advice I can give for approaching this debate is to be careful about how the conceptual territory is mapped and the terms are defined. Much of the seeming disagreement between formalists and instrumentalists flows from different conceptions of where the dividing lines lie.
Sunday, November 14, 2004
Most law students begin realize that consent is a powerful legal and moral concept early in the first year of law school. A physical blow to the person is a battery—unless the blow was landed in a boxing match, in which case consent turns the battery into something that is legally permissible and not actionable, even if it results in serious harm. Intercourse without consent is the very serious crime of rape; intercourse with consent is quite something else.
The basic legal structure is easy to grasp. But what is consent? Why does it have the legal and moral force that it does? When is it valid and when is it invalid?
This entry in the Legal Theory Lexicon is about the idea of consent in legal contexts involving interpersonal (but not political) relationships. The entry will explore what consent is and why consent is important, both legally and morally. Our investigation will also explore the conditions under which consent might be said to be “invalid,” e.g. in cases where consent was obtained through deception, coercision, or in which the consenting person lacked capacity to give consent. As always, the Legal Theory Lexicon is aimed at law students, especially first-year law students, with an interest in legal theory.
The Ontology of Consent What is consent? We all know about paradigm cases of consent and its absence. Consent is clearly present (ceteris paribus) when someone says “I consent” and really means it. Consent is absent when someone says, “I object” and really means it. But the ability to distinguish clear cases of consent and its absence is not sufficinet for a theory of consent.
In general, there are two families of theories about the nature of consent. One theory is that consent is a mental state—either an affective state such as desire or a volitional state such as choice. The second theory is that consent is a performative—a speech act in which one person agrees to something by communicating with another person (or persons). Each of these two approaches to consent requires some additional explanation.
Consent as a Mental State
The first possibility is that consent is a mental state. But what kind of mental state? Is a consent a willing, a wish, a desire, a choice, a preference, or something else? We can investigate two possibilities:
Consent as an Affective Mental State
One possibility is that when Alice consents to be kissed by Ben, her consent consists in a certain attitude towards the kiss. For example, if Alice wants (or desires) Ben to Kiss her, then we might be tempted to say that Alice has consented to the Kiss. Another candidate for the relevant affective mental state might be preference. We might say that Alice consents to Ben’s kiss if Alice prefers Ben’s kissing her to the alternative.
Consent as a Volitional Mental State There is another possibility. It might be that consent is not attitude but a decision, choice, or willing. Thus, we might say that Alice consents to Ben’s kiss if Alice had chosen that Ben kiss her.
Affective mental states like desires or preferences are not identical to volitional mental states like choosings or decisions. To want something is different than to having chosen to do it. Of course, there may be a close relationship between affective and volitional states. For example, you might believe that when you have an all-things-considered desire to be kissed, then the choice—the choosing to be kissed—follows more or less automatically. These are deep waters that we can elide for the purposes of this bare-boned introduction to the idea of consent.
Consent could be a performative--a communicative act in which the speaker communicates permission for or agreement to a course of action.
The Moral and Legal Force of Consent Assuming we knew what consent is, we can ask the further question, “What legal and moral effect does consent have and why?
The Moral and Legal Significance of Consent
Sometimes it is said that consent works moral magic. What does that mean? The idea is that consent has a tranformative moral power: consent can tranform a wrongful action into a rightful action. Batteries are both morally wrong and and subject to legal sanctions (both criminal and civil), but consent somehow drains the punch of its moral and legal offense. Taking my property with the intent of permanently depriving me of use and enjoyment is theft, but taking my property with consent is simply accepting a gift.
Why Does Consent Have Moral and Legal Force Once we recognize that consent does have some kind of transformative moral and legal force, the next question we might ask is why? There are lots of way to approach the question why consent has moral force. For example, we might approach the question from the perspectives of the major families of moral theories. Let’s give that a whirl.
Autonomy and Consent
Some moral theories make “autonomy” a central moral idea. Of course, autonomy isn’t easy to describe—especially in a sentence or so. We might say that the core idea of autonomy is self-direction or self control. An autonomous person is one who directs her own life, and not someone whose life is controlled by others. Of course, we can’t all do whatever we would like without running the risk of interfering with each other. Hence, from the idea of autonomy, we might derive the idea of moral rights and duties that create for each individual a sphere of autonomous action, in which each individual can direct her own life without interfering with the like freedom of others to do the same. The moral force of consent comes naturally if one accepts autonomy as a central moral value. Consent allows others to enter one’s sphere of autonomy. So long a consent is freely given, consented-to rights violations seem perfectly consistent with the idea that rights protect a sphere of individual choice.
Utility and Consent Can utilitarians account for the moral force of consent? Of course, for a utilitarian, consent really can’t be said to be “moral magic.” For utilitarians, the bottom line question is whether a particular state of affairs involves greater utility than the alternatives. So, on the surface, it might seem like consent is not, per se, morally relevant. Consent is just a fact; only good and bad consequences are morally significant.
But it is more complicated than that. There are many possible forms of utilitarianism, and one dimension of variation concerns the various conceptions of utility. One important form of utilitarianism holds that there utility consists in the satisfaction of preferences. Suppose that one also believed that consent was the mental state of preferring the consented-to action to the alternatives. If no third parties were affected (and assuming that consent was freely given on the basis of adequate information), then the consented-to activity would maximize utility. So for at least some utilitarains, consent would be presumptive evidence that the consented-to action would maximize utility and hence be the morally best action.
Virtue and Consent Consent will also be relevant to aretaic (or virtue-based) moral theories. One of the virtues is justice, and humans with this virtue will not violate the rights of others without their consent. Virtue ethics differs from deontological and utilitarian theories in part because virtue ethics denies that there is any decision procedure for ethics. That is, a virtue ethicist is unlikely to believe that consent can work “moral magic,” but instead is likely to believe that the moral salience of consent is contextual—depending on the particular circumstances of the case. Virtue ethics is also likely to ask the question whether the person given the consent is a virtuous agent. Humans without the virtues are likely to give consent when they shouldn’t—when, for examploe, the consented-to action might actually cause unjustified harm to the fortunes or capacities of the consenting agent. In such circumstances, virtue ethics might deny that consent works moral magic. A virtuous agent might regard herself as obligated not to take advantage of consent—despite the fact that the consent was freely given by an agent who meets the legal standard of competence in circumstances without coercion or deception.
Consent obtained by deception may be invalid, either morally or legally or both. For example, if Alice consents to Ben’s kiss, because Ben tells Alice that he likes her very much, but Ben in fact does not like Alice at all, then Alice’s consent may not be morally valid. Because Ben obtained Alice’s consent by deception, Ben is not morally authorized to kiss Alice. In this case, however, the law would not consider Alice’s consent to be legally invalid. Although Ben may be morally wrong if he kisses Alice, he will not have committeed the crime of sexual assault or the tort of battery. Legally, this kind of deception is not sufficient to invalidate Alice’s consent.
Outright fraud—intentionally making false statements about something materially relevant to the decision at hand—is the most obvious form of deception. But deception may involve nondisclosue as well as lying. If Ben fails to disclose to Alice that Ben is married, then Alice’s consent may not be morally transformative—although once again, the law will still treat Alice’s consent as legally valid.
Coercion Consent may also be invalid because it is coerced. For example, if Alice consents to Ben’s kiss because Ben has threatened to harm her if she does, then her consent is invalid. And this is true, both morally and legally. Because consent was coerced, Ben should not kiss Alice and if he does, he will have acted tortiously and perhaps criminally as well.
One problem with coercion is distinguishing threats from offerss and warnings. Consent is not invalidated because it is induced by an offer or warning, but it will be invalidated if induced by a threat. How do we differentiate threats from offers and warnings. One strategy is to specify a baseline of legal and/or moral entitlement. We call a communication promising an action in exhange for consent a threat, if the action would move the party below the baseline of entitlements. We call a communication promising an action in exchange for consent, if the action would move the consenting party above the baseline of moral and/or legal entitlements. So if Ben promises Alice that he will let her choose the movie in exchange for a kiss, that is an offer. If he promises to force Alice to watch a movie she doesn’t like if she doesn’t consent to a kiss, that is a threat.
Warnings are neither offers nor threats. Warnings predict consequences outside the control of the party seeking consent. If Ben predicts to Alice that she will feel silly if she doesn’t consent to a kiss, then he has warned her of a consequence, but he has neither made a threat nor an offer.
Incapacity Consent requires capacity. For example, children cannot consent to sexual relations as a matter of law—hence, consent is no defence to a charge of statutory rape. On the other hand, children can consent to lots of things, including rough play such as wrestling. Other examples of incapacity include mental illness, profound developmental disability, or severe intoxication. If Ben consents to Alice’s taking Ben’s new Mini Cooper on a two-week road trip while Ben is completely blotto (and Alice knows this), then his consent may be invalid and hence Ben may be legally entitled to demand that Alice return his car.