Category: Law and Humanities


A2K, Practice, Nonknowledge

Congratulations to all involved on the publication of the A2K volume!  I think A2K is a provocative way of framing some contemporary debates around knowledge, information, community, property, intellectual or otherwise.  It feels like every week brings us some new shift which is being linked to A2K issues: Tunisia; Egypt; WikiLeaks to name just a few.  In many of these situations, what’s at stake is the way that knowledge is legally characterized as property: state property; private property etc.  And the ways in which our ability to reproduce and disseminate knowledge radically shifts our understanding of what an object or subject of knowledge is, bringing into being new publics and new kinds of archive.

For me, the point made at the end of Amy’s introduction, about the need to separate “knowledge” from “information” is a key one, in that if all knowledge is rendered as information and more specifically information stored and passed around in digital data networks, then knowledge has already been reified or turned into a commodity.  Perhaps I might even wonder if there was a more fundamental kind of access than “access to knowledge” that was at stake in contemporary struggles about intellectual property.  For example if communities and individuals are constituted by practices of copying, things like pleasure, affect, relation are all there, even “being”. It’s always possible to instrumentalize those things are forms of knowledge or “ethical know how” as Buddhist neurologist Francisco Varela termed it.  But it may be the case that something important gets lost if one overemphasizes knowledge at the expense of other forms of being in the world.

In my own work, I’ve emphasized the importance of practice as being important in itself, regardless of the “content”.  How do we defend particular practices of copying that may or may not be centered on knowledge production but which nonetheless are culturally significant? There’s an important body of work in critical theory, from Bataille and Blanchot through Agamben and Nancy on the importance of “nonknowledge” and “unworking” (désoeuvrement). These concepts can seem very abstract and removed from the concrete struggles of social activists, but I wonder to what degree they might be helpful in thinking and making spaces where openness and sharing prevail, spaces that can’t necessarily be defined in advance as public domain or commons  etc.


Book Review: Hirschl’s Constitutional Theocracy

Ran Hirschl, Constitutional Theocracy (Harvard University Press, 2010), pp.249, $45.00

Religion-state relations have always been a staple topic in comparative constitutional law scholarship. This is, however, the first work that takes a broad and comprehensive overview of a not-so-new but largely ignored landscape which Ran Hirschl calls “constitutional theocracy.”  This term describes and at the same time, zeroes in on the basic issue that form part of every dilemma with regard to the proper relationship between religion and state.  How does one reconcile divine and man-made law?

In this counterintuitive, rich and fascinating book, Hirschl identifies the prevalence of a new form of political phenomenon called a constitutional theocracy which he situates at the intersection between a pure theocracy and a liberal constitutional democracy. According to him, constitutional theocracy has four elements: first, it adheres to elements of modern constitutionalism including judicial review, second, there is usually an established state religion, third, the religion and its corresponding texts are considered sources of state legislation, and lastly, parallel religious tribunals exist alongside the civil adjudication system.

The conventional understanding is that we should view this development with caution. Hirschl identifies that view with local secular elites who see religion with disdain, both for its seeming irrationality and its propensity for unpredictability. Paradoxically, the solution that secular elites came up with is to embrace this development. To constitutionally incorporate religious symbols and directives is ultimately the most prudent and rational response to the pressures brought about by the rise of political religion. For one, it facilitates the deployment of various means of political control, such as delegation and cooptation. To get from one to the other, Hirschl’s previous work on the origins and consequences of new constitutionalism offers a clue.

In Towards Juristocracy, Hirschl advanced the hegemonic preservation thesis in which threatened political elites who seek to preserve or enhance their hegemony empowered the judiciary to decide even highly political matters in order to insulate policy-making processes from the vicissitudes of democratic politics. One can see similar themes at play in his new book, particularly the divide between secular elites and the religious masses, and the peculiar role of constitutional courts in managing political hot potatoes, which, in this setting, refers to religion.

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College Preparedness, Law, and the Structure of Standards

The Pathway of Preparedness

There is a current debate concerning whether the standard of college preparedness should be written into the structures of education law.  The college preparedness argument has been rising to the fore due to the revisions to the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act-popularly known as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLBA)-proposed in the Obama Administration’s “Blue Print for Reform.”  President Obama’s suggested revisions would replace the current NCLBA math, English language arts, and science proficiency standards as a means of evaluating schools with various other measurements, including whether students at schools are being prepared to be “college and career ready.”   The proposed change to the legal federal assessment standard is driven by the administration’s view that post-secondary education is essential to individual, communal, and national competitiveness in the Twenty-First Century. President Obama has announced the goal of regaining the global lead in the proportion of the citizenry obtaining post-secondary degrees by 2020.  In the realm of education, law is increasingly being relied upon to create incentives, structures and values which have traditionally been thought to be in the realm of private production.  The traditional conception of the public school is properly being recast from a provider of information and skill, to the central institution in communal renewal.

However, the federal focus on college preparedness, as with many educational initiatives of the Obama administration, has received criticism.  Critics of this emphasis argue that college preparedness is a one size fits all category which will inevitably stigmatize students without the ability or proclivity to attend college, and thus contribute to greater levels of failure and higher school drop out rates due to psychological pressures.   Such critics contend that there are many solid middle class trade careers of value which can be viable options for students without the skill level or desire for college.   However, defenders of college preparedness are often concerned with a specific context-the inadequacy of our educational systems to address the needs of dis-empowered minority groups, especially in the urban context. College preparedness champions often believe that critics do not fully understand and/or acknowledge the causation of the extreme racial disparities in educational outcomes.

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Book Review: Raz’s Between Authority and Interpretation

Joseph Raz, Between Authority and Interpretation (Oxford University Press, 2009), 424 pp.

H. L. A. Hart’s The Concept of Law (1961) revitalized the field of jurisprudence in much the same way Rawls’ A Theory of Justice gave new impetus to political philosophy a decade after. A Concept of Law presented a new theory of law blending arguments from the philosophy of language and previous versions of positivism. (Rawls himself claimed to have gotten the idea of proceduralism from Hart. See A Theory of Justice, p. 48) But as is often the case, a theory needs an adversary to reveal its deepest implications. This adversary came first with Lon Fuller’s “Positivism and Fidelity to Law”, a rebuttal to Hart’s essay “Positivism and the Separation of Law and Morals” (both 1958), and then with a series of essays by Ronald Dworkin published successively as Taking Rights Seriously (1977) and Law’s Empire (1986).

Hart’s positivism argues roughly that law and morality are at least separate in the sense that law cannot be reduced to morality. This means that we can study law scientifically without getting involved in disputes about substantive questions concerning the good. But since it is clear that in order to be obeyed, laws ought not merely to rely on force, laws require some source of authority which can only come through deliberation. Such deliberation, however, is need not be moral but can be thought of as merely normative. Hart holds that the authority of the law is provided by rules of recognition: these are secondary or meta-rules which specify the authority of law derived from particular social practices. A rule of recognition, for instance, is that, in the United States, laws are passed by congress according to a certain procedure. This specifies the way the law receives its authority but not what the law is (which is a matter of primary rules).

Much of the debate surrounding Hart’s theory has been about whether the rule of recognition could indeed do without moral support, that is, whether the separation of law and morality could be maintained. Dworkin, as Fuller had argued before him, contended that the rule of recognition could not be normative without also being moral because, in the case of legal interpretation for instance, the law will need to be extended to deal with difficult cases (a point Hart vacillated on). Extending the law can only be done through recourse to extra-legal principles of controversial political morality or policy, not already specified by law. So law is not free standing after all.

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What Will Future Generations Condemn us For?

In the Washington Post, Anthony Appiah takes up this topic. He mentions the US prison system, the treatment of animals in things like CAFOs, and isolation of the elderly. The article reminded me of a recent podcast with William Gibson, where the renowned futurist would predict only that future generations would “regard us with contempt” for all the opportunities we missed.

Projecting future mores is a difficult task. Consider this prophecy from 1918, authored by sociologist Herbert Stewart:

It may turn out that the life of idiotic ostentation makes humanity quite as despicable as the life of a drunkard, and that the image of God is less defaced in a saloon of the Bowery than in those jeweled birthday parties for dogs with which the New York Four Hundred disgust all civilized mankind. That much of this is, in the face of the world’s needs, an enormity for which all defense is mere shamelessness no conscientious person will deny. . . . Take the advertisement of a present-day ‘millionaire’s hotel,’ with the assurance it gives of ‘the very last word in sumptuousness.’ Is this not one of the features of our time upon which we all trust that a wiser age will look back, not only with condemnation, but with a sense of nausea?

We’re still waiting for that wiser age to arrive.


Chatroulette, Julia Child, and the Virtues of Virtual Friendship

A Hispanic teenager listening to music through headphones, a masturbating man, 3 young caucasian women (probably American), two young middle eastern men dressed in army fatigues and a child with a kafiah covering his face shouting something in Arabic and smiling, another masturbating man, 3 japanese young women.

This was what I saw in ten minutes of Chatroulette, an intriguing web site that anyone with a webcam can try. I wanted to try it and blog about it after reading an interesting article in the New Yorker on its teenage Russian founder. You turn on your webcam and are randomly paired with someone else on the site with their webcam on, to whom you can chat vocally or by typing. Either party can push a button that spins the wheel again at any time to be connected with a new partner, and there is no penalty for doing so.

Perhaps 31-year-old law professors are not the favored species in this realm, but I was “nexted” almost immediately in each of the cases except the middle eastern men at whom I started laughing and they laughed back as well. At some point, though, I felt uncomfortable enough myself that I ended the interaction.

Chatroulette is only the newest and strangest instantiation of a phenomenon I’ve been thinking about – virtual friendship. Can one be friends with someone that one has never met, and what kinds of benefits do this form of friendship offer over or to compliment non-virtual friendship? In recently watching Julie and Julia, I was struck by a scene where Julia meets up with the woman, Avis, she has been writing throughout the film.  We discover that the two women have never actually met in person despite being extremely close; they have just been pen pals for years.

The disadvantages of virtual friendship are pretty straightforward, but what might the advantages be? Total honesty if it retains an air of anonymity or removal from one’s social circle? The ability to compose oneself (like a piece of music), that is present a very specific slice of oneself? Many people I’ve talked to of a certain age (usually under 35, those who have had socializing technologies for some period of their youth) have had a virtual friend or two at some point.  These relationships, however, do not seem very long-lived, certainly not like the decade long correspondence of Avid and Julia. Is that just because our social circles are thicker or there is more competing stimuli than in earlier periods?

To add a legal angle on chatroulette, after seeing Robin Wilson present her paper on Sex Play In Virtual Worlds at a conference this summer, I wondered whether the masturbating men on the site might be subject to criminal liability in some jurisdictions if some of their viewers turned out to be children.  Robin (she’ll correct me if I have this wrong) was of the view that on Second Life or other virtual environments that don’t even involve actual images of actual people, under existing doctrine in some states adults can be criminally liable for sexually suggestive remarks and virtual activities.  Under existing doctrine this is true even if those minors represent themselves as adults, the perpetrator has a good faith belief they are adults, and even if the service has an 18+ policy (even if enforced by something like requiring a credit card).  If that’s right, the comparably less virtual and less regulated domain of chatroulette would seem to be full of potential criminal liability.  I am neither a criminal law nor a cyberlaw scholar so I will be curious what those with more expertise think….


Clarifying Commodification

I’ve found both in published work and in classroom and workshop discourse that people often mean different things when they talk about commodification concerns as an argument for blocked exchanges – e.g., forbidding the sale of kidneys from live donors, prostitution, the sale of surrogacy services, etc.

I thought it might be useful to try and sort out some of these different meanings (for those looking for a more formal discussion with citations, this old paper of mine may be useful). This is my own classification (though it builds off work by my colleague Michael Sandel among others). I will be interested to see if others think one should add to or reformulate the taxonomy.  It is also worth emphasizing at the threshold that while money is the focus of most anti-commodificationist arguments that for each version barter can also give rise to the same objections.

At the top-level we can divide commodification into three large categories (the 3 C’s if you will): Coercion, Corruption, and Crowding-Out. For the purposes of this post my goal is not to evaluate these arguments, just to parse them better.

(1) Coercion:

(a) Voluntariness. This concern, also known as exploitation, is framed as concern about the voluntariness of the transaction in a way that demands more than minimal notions of consent.  It is the fear that only the poor will sell organs or that only destitute women will consent to act as commercial surrogates, and argues for blocking the exchange to protect those populations. It thus depends on some empirical facts about the population the argument seeks to protect; one occasionally seeks proposals to limit organ or surrogacy services sales to people above a certain income bracket to blunt the concern.  It also depends on views about the validity of blocking an exchange due to these somewhat paternalistic concerns.  Thus, sometimes it is argued that it is hypocritical to block an exchange preventing a badly-off person from improving their station in life unless we are also committed to a redistributive plan that makes them as well-off as they would be if the exchange was permitted.   It is important to understand that this objection is not focused on a claim that the buyer and seller are giving up unequally (in amount, see below regarding mismatches of type) valued things, the “raw deal” problem that parallels one strand of substantive unconscionability doctrine in contracts; instead, it is about the seller’s poverty and their susceptibility towards “an offer you can’t refuse” even if the good is valued fairly.  While one solution to some forms of unconscionability may be to re-write the terms to be more favorable to the seller, adding extra compensation here would worsen not improve the exchange from the point of view of this objection.

(b) Access: Somewhat less frequently the objection is made almost in reverse. While the voluntariness version treats the exchange as representing a “bad” that the poorer party in the exchange suffers in one respect involuntarily, the access variant instead views the exchange as representing a “good” that only the better-off party has access to because of the existence of the market.  For example, the sale of “premium” eggs is something only the wealthy will have access to, or the during Civil War the practice of commutation where one could pay three hundred dollars to avoid serving in the draft was only available to wealthier stratas of society. This objection also depends on notions of background unjust inequalities in resource distribution to get going.

Price caps may be a partial solution to either form of the coercion objection because they will lower the price to make it not-so-attractive as to make us question voluntariness (the “offer you can’t refuse”) and also move the purchase of the good into the range of access for more of the population.  It is only a partial solution because it usually results in shortages.  One could also imagine “mixed” systems that do better at addressing one concern than the other — so the state could be the only permitted buyer of organs and then distribute them through the current transplant system rather than willingness to pay — this would go a long way to blunting the access concern, but not necessarily the voluntariness one (and indeed might make the corruption objection below even worse).

(2) Corruption: A second version of the objection is that a market exchange “corrupts,” “taints,” or “denigrates” the things being exchanged — for instance, the argument that prostitution devalues women’s bodies by attaching a price tag to their sexuality.  Cass Sunstein offers a good starting formulation of the corruption argument: an exchange is corrupting when “the relevant goods cannot be aligned along a single metric without doing violence to our considered judgments about how these goods are best characterized.”  Incommensurability and Kinds of Valuation: Some Applications in Law, in INCOMMENSURABILITY, INCOMPARABILITY, AND PRACTICAL REASON 234, 238 (Ruth Chang ed., 1997).  More specifically, one might suggest that there are various “spheres” (sometimes called “modes”) of valuation, and an exchange is corrupting when it ignores the differences between these spheres of valuation and forces us to value all goods in the same way.  For example, exchanging children for money corrupts the value of children because money and children belong in different spheres of valuation.

As I have described in depth, that requires both a theory of sphere differentiation and a theory of what it is about exchanges that “does violence,” neither of which are that easy to articulate.  For present purposes, though, I want to merely distinguish versions of the argument along two dimensions.

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Hypotheticals, the Classroom, and Moral Biology

Hypotheticals are a ubiquitous pedagogical tool in both the law and philosophy classrooms. I have recently been thinking about the different functions they serve and whether they are well-suited for the weight we give them. These reflections were prompted by a conference on “Moral Biology,” hosted by the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School (which I co-direct), in cooperation with The Project on Law and Mind Sciences at Harvard Law School, the Gruter Institute, the Harvard Program on Ethics and Health, and the MacArthur Law and Neuroscience Project.

I may blog a little bit later about some other of the marvelous things I learned over these two days, but for now I wanted to concentrate on some thoughts that stemmed from a public portion of the conference that can be seen here, involving Josh Greene from Harvard’s Psychology Department, William Fitzpatrick from the University of Rochester’s Philosophy Department, Adina Roskies from Dartmouth’s Philosophy Department, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong from Duke’s Philosophy Department, and Tim Scanlon, from Harvard’s philosophy department.

At around the 43 to 50 minute mark in the video, Josh discusses Trolley Problems (which ask participants a thought experiment about whether to divert a trolley from one track to another with many versions of the hypothetical) and an experiment done on them by Fiery Cushman (and a collaborator, Switzgable I believe, I could not find the actual paper) in Josh’s lab.  In the experiment, before being asked whether they would endorse the principle of double effect, ethicists with PhDs were asked to reason about variants of the Trolley problem (switch vs. footbridge) presented in different orders. The experiment found that if one varied the order in which the versions were presented (but always presented all of them,) ethicists reached different conclusions about whether they would endorse the principle. [This is Josh’s description in the video, again if anyone can find the paper he is discussing I will try and like to that].  The result is surprising in that it appears even those with PhD training in ethics are susceptible to order effects in reasoning about a very fundamental issue.

As Josh concedes, and others (in the panel and in written pieces discussing his work emphasize) the fact that these ordering effects occur is not itself fatal to the enterprise of philosophical analysis using intuitions. It depends on further views about how one uses these kinds of intuitions in the analysis. For present purposes, though, I want to partially side-step that question in favor of thinking about the law classroom, and how this experiment might should us a little more careful about the way we use hypotheticals.

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Prop 8, Gays, Homosexuals, and What is In a Name

Like many, I was glued to the blogosphere waiting for the decision in Perry v. Schwarzenegger yesterday, the Prop 8 decision. One seemingly superficial issue I have been interested in is how the court would refer to the class to which the plaintiffs belonged: as “gay” men and women or homosexuals?

I actually first started thinking about this a few months ago. A wonderful midwest law school in a smaller city invited me to a conference and arranged to have a student pick me up at the airport. This was unusually gracious, and I appreciated it, but a funny thing happened on the ride. I asked the student about the city, and what it was like to live there, etc. The student at one point said to me: “Oh, and we have a really vibrant homosexual community.”

I was a little amused that he focused on this element of the city, though perhaps something I said had primed him, or this was just a testament to the perceived role of gays in the rise of the creative classes and a city’s hipness factor. What surprised me the most, though, was actually his language — his use of the term “homosexual” in a positive way. My own anecdotal experience is that people use the term “homosexual” when they want to ascribe negative connotations, and “gay” when they want a more neutral or positive ones. A quick (and very unscientific) google search of the terms “homosexual marriage” and “gay marriage” this morning seems to confirm this.

On this view it is unsurprising, then, that Judge Walker in the Perry opinion repeatedly refers to the plaintiffs and their group as “gays and lesbians”.  What is more surprising is that I expected I would find a split in usage between Justice Kennedy and Scalia’s majority and dissenting opinions in Lawrence v. Texas, with “homosexual” being dominant in the Scalia’s opinion.  Interestingly, both opinions use “homosexual.”

So here are a few questions I am thinking about: Was my initial instinct that which term to use reflects a political valence correct? Does it instead reflect something else? Geography (think of the student driving me)? Age? A change in time over which term is more acceptable, a little bit like the way the term “handicapped” has given way to “disabled” to “people with disabilities”?  Is the usage of “homosexual” by people who do not want to expand rights for the group a subtle attempt to bring the “sex” (in the intercourse sense) back into people’s minds?  Which word do you use in the classroom? Would Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual students be offended by the term “homosexual,” and if so, is that a good reason not to use it?


UCLA Law Review Vol. 57, Issue 5 (June 2010)

Volume 57, Issue 5 (June 2010)


Introduction to the Symposium Issue: Sexuality and Gender Law: The Difference a Field Makes Nan D. Hunter 1129
Elusive Coalitions: Reconsidering the Politics of Gender and Sexuality Kathryn Abrams 1135
The Sex Discount Kim Shayo Buchanan 1149
What Feminists Have to Lose in Same-Sex Marriage Litigation Mary Ann Case 1199
Lawyering for Marriage Equality Scott L. Cummings Douglas NeJaime 1235
Sexual and Gender Variation in American Public Law: From Malignant to Benign to Productive William N. Eskridge, Jr. 1333
Sticky Intuitions and the Future of Sexual Orientation Discrimination Suzanne B. Goldberg 1375
The Dissident Citizen Sonia K. Katyal 1415
Raping Like a State Teemu Ruskola 1477
The Gay Tipping Point Kenji Yoshino 1537