It is both an honor and a great pleasure to participate in this discussion of Robin West’s brilliant book, NORMATIVE JURISPRUDENCE. There are so many ideas to laud in this work, many of which have been ably raised by other commentators within this conversation. But reflecting upon this work, I have been particularly struck (as I first was as a student) by Robin’s extraordinary capacity to illuminate aspects of our legal landscape that, while foundational and ubiquitous, remain invisible. Robin’s chalk-outline of a missing progressive normative jurisprudence calls to mind a parable told by the too-soon departed David Foster Wallace. In a commencement address at Kenyon College, Wallace told the story of two young fish out for a swim who happen upon an older fish. The older fish says: “Good morning boys. How’s the water?” After the older fish passes by them, one of the young fish turns to the other and says: “What the hell is water?”
In NORMATIVE JURISPRUDENCE, Robin offers us an opportunity to rethink the “water” of our analytic practices. Most significantly, she presents the possibility of a jurisprudence in which normative argument constitutes the “water” of our analytical practice. Normative argument, she argues, should occupy a central rather than marginalized role in our jurisprudence. Moreover, she observes that progressives’ absence from the normative table has relegated our jurisprudential conversations to an unduly narrow and adjudicatorally-obsessed preoccupation with explicating the law that we already have. This positivist analytic jurisprudence (or, in Robin’s helpful Benthamite parlance, “expository” jurisprudence) has consciously and perhaps even aggressively eschewed normative argument to the peril of the project of legal reform and the promotion of social justice. Robin’s point is not that the project of exposition should be set aside in favor of a project of developing normative/critical (or, again in Robin’s Bethamite vocabulary, “censorial”) jurisprudence, but rather that room should be made in the center stage of our jurisprudential tradition for normative/critical/censorial jurisprudence.
Yet within Robin’s rendering lies room for the hypothesis that the agnosticism that we take as a matter of course to be a basic precept of analytic jurisprudence is itself a tacit manifestation of a conception (or, more accurately, varying conceptions) of the good. Robin’s argument raises potential doubts about the capacity of our conventional analytic jurisprudence to maintain agnosticism about conceptions of the good. In this rendering, competing conceptions of the good are the “water” that our various jurisprudential projects are already immersed in. While we may have become acculturated to understanding and explaining the law in a way that is formally divorced from conceptions of the good (e.g. whether wise or not, our tort law is committed to a principle of corrective justice), is it nonetheless possible that we have, all the while, been swimming in it?
Of course this is not Robin’s principal point. Whether or not our existing analytic jurisprudence is capable of the moral agnosticism it formally espouses, Robin would have us draw our foundational moral conceptions (whatever their source or origin) out into the light where they could serve more prospective and ambitious (rather than merely descriptive and thereby modestly – in the service of continuity to past practice – prescriptive) ends. Nonetheless, the question of whether our analytic jurisprudential practices necessarily depend upon a conception (or conceptions) of the good seems to me to be an important one in light of Robin’s thesis. Not only does the question seem to be intimately tied to her overall picture of progressives’ commitment to neutrality that figures centrally in her argument, but if this hypothesis bears out, it strikes me that it has potential to significantly undermine potential pragmatic objections to Robin’s thesis. It is, therefore, a question that I think merits some attention. Read More