More Things in Heaven and Earth: What the Law Can Teach Moral Philosophers

by Michael C. Dorf

Last week and weekend, I had the good fortune to attend the 12th annual Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress (RoME), hosted by the University of Colorado Center for Values and Social Policy. Prof Colb gave one of three keynote addresses during the four-day conference, in a speech that was also the 2nd annual Tom Regan Memorial Lecture, co-sponsored by the Culture & Animals Foundation. For those unfamiliar with Regan's work, he was a pioneer in the animal rights movement. I italicize "rights," because while Peter Singer's Animal Liberation inspired much of the modern movement, Singer is a utilitarian who, following Bentham, regards rights as nonsense on stilts. Regan was the first philosopher to make a comprehensive set of deontological arguments for animal rights as such.

Although Prof Colb and I acknowledge the importance of Regan's work, as she put the point in her lecture, the way that scholars pay tribute to one another is by critical engagement with their ideas, and so she offered a critique of a point Regan made. Although Regan was (like us) a vegan who thought nearly all animal exploitation unjustified, he also thought that in triage situations, it is morally permissible, indeed obligatory, to prefer human life to other animal life. Thus, to use his examples, should four humans and one dog find themselves on a lifeboat that could only support four such mammals, the dog should be thrown overboard. Even more arrestingly, Regan said that one should throw over a million dogs before tossing a single human.

In her lecture, Prof Colb explained that although Regan thought experimentation on animals is wrong, his lifeboat examples open the door to experimentation and ultimately to all animal exploitation. I won't attempt to summarize the lecture (other than to say it was awesome), because my main interest in this essay is in the rest of the conference. As one of two legal scholars attending a conference of philosophers, I came away thinking there are many opportunities for fruitful engagement between legal scholars and philosophers. We legal scholars see where philosophy can be helpful; I'm going to suggest that philosophers can do more with the law.

The legal academy includes a fair number of scholars with philosophical training. Just on my own faculty at a relatively small law school, I have four colleagues with doctoral degrees in philosophy (Emad Atiq, Andrei Marmor, Jens OhlinEmily Sherwin), three others with substantial training in philosophy (Steve Garvey, Eduardo Peñalver, Brad Wendel), and two with graduate degrees in Divinity that included work in philosophy (John Blume, Nelson Tebbe). And a great many of us have read philosophy on our own and taken courses in it. For example, as an undergrad, I took a course taught by John Rawls, another taught by Robert Nozick, and yet another taught by Jennifer Whiting (in which Derek Parfit was a guest speaker). As a law student, I took a course taught by Michael Sandel. So there is no gainsaying that we legal scholars recognize the relevance of moral philosophy, epistemology, and many other areas of philosophy to our work.

With some notable exceptions, however, the door does not swing both ways. In a moment, I'll give some examples from the conference to illustrate how philosophers could benefit from some greater knowledge of the law. But first I want to address what might seem like an asymmetry. One might think that the interaction between moral philosophers and legal scholars is appropriately a one-way street because of the nature of the two enterprises.

Here's the objection: The law might or might not reflect morality. Unwise legislators and judges could implement what they believe to be moral principles, but they could be mistaken. Or their judgment could be distorted by considerations of interest. A moral philosopher considering what duties, if any, we owe to future generations to preserve the natural environment will not be influenced by the coal lobby. The same cannot necessarily be said for a legislator. Thus, a public-regarding legislator, executive official, lawyer, judge, or legal scholar will be wise to turn to moral philosophy to address what the law should say, because moral considerations can be, should be, and often are at least part of what goes into the making of the law. By contrast, however, the law--reflecting a jumble of sometimes poorly reasoned moral views and the pull of interest--holds no special relevance for philosophers.

That objection fails, because the law can be valuable for moral philosophers in various ways. Consider that much of contemporary moral philosophy works via so-called intuition pumps, that is, hypothetical examples that prompt moral intuitions that one then attempts to harmonize with other moral intuitions, usually guided by some broader theory. Do you throw the switch to divert the trolley onto the track with one rather than five? Do you push the fat man off the bridge to stop the trolley? Do you disconnect the violinist to whom you have unwittingly become attached? Etc.

One problem with intuition pumps is that sometimes different people have different intuitions. Moral philosophers may have intuitions that have been shaped by their comprehensive views. For example, act-utilitarians will say throw the switch and push the fat man; act/omission deontologists will say do neither; deontologists who accept double effect will say throw the switch but don't push the fat man. (I explained these distinctions here.) How do we know whose intuitions are best?

Insofar as the law in constitutional democracies reflects a kind of averaged out and smoothed over conventional morality, it can be a source of guidance. Whether and how much epistemic deference to give stable legal principles is not entirely clear, but the answer need not be "none."

Let me illustrate with an example from the conference. Philosopher (and medical doctor) Eric Chwang presented a fascinating paper addressing the following question: Why do many people who believe that women ought to have a right to abortion, which involves the killing of a fetus, also believe that women ought not to have a right to endanger their fetuses by heavy drinking or heavy drug use, given that the resulting harm will injure but not kill the resulting baby? The intuitions seem backwards, right? After all, killing is worse than injuring. Chwang's presentation aimed to provide an account of why these seemingly contradictory intuitions are in fact reconcilable. In a generally sympathetic response, philosopher David Boonin offered a somewhat different approach to reconciling the intuitions.

Yet, as Prof Colb pointed out in a question, our law shows that the premise could be wrong. She noted that the Eighth Amendment permits the death penalty for intentional murder but does not permit a sentence of say, being beaten on a daily basis or having an arm chopped off. To be sure, the Eighth Amendment jurisprudence could be wrong. Many people think the death penalty is itself cruel and unusual punishment. But can we say that the law here reflects contradictory views? Is it backwards in the way that the setup for Chwang's paper supposes? Maybe, but maybe not. Looking to the law might have led Chwang to frame the puzzle--and therefore perhaps the answer too--in a different way.

Even when the law provides no epistemic guidance for moral philosophy, it can be a useful source of examples. The violinist example to which I alluded above was introduced in a well-known 1971 essay by philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson. It aims to show that abortion ought not to be prohibited even if the fetus is a person. Yet one problem with the argument is that Thomson's examples (you find yourself chained to a violinist; "people-seeds drift about in the air like pollen") are so unfamiliar that the audience may have no reliable moral intuitions about them at all.

During the Q-and-A at Professor Chwang's session, one eager philosopher in the audience formulated a hypothetical in which a person finds herself in a room with three switches with different effects, throws one of them, then later learns that one of the switches she didn't throw actually has a different effect from what she thought it had and now must decide whether to go back to the room. The example was so complex that even if one could follow it (and it appeared that none of the assembled very smart people in the real room in which the question was asked could follow it), one has difficulty even locating a moral intuition.

To the extent that I could make sense of the question about the three switches, it seemed to be asking about how the available alternative courses of action bear on the permissibility of a chosen action. If so, the law of torts could have provided numerous realistic examples, given that "reasonableness" typically means reasonableness in light of the available possibilities. If the questioner was asking about the relevance of mistaken beliefs, there too tort law, as well as criminal law, could have provided realistic and easy-to-understand examples.

Or consider a poster session I attended, in which Oxford graduate student Linda Eggert addressed another puzzle. Suppose, she said, that a passerby notices a person in need of rescuing but that the passerby would face a serious risk to herself from attempting the rescue. Even people who believe in Good Samaritan duties would say the passerby has no duty to attempt the self-endangering rescue. Doing so would be, in philosophical jargon, supererogatory (that is, good but above and beyond). Yet, Eggert said, now suppose that the passerby can affect the rescue in one of two ways posing exactly equal risk to the rescuer. One way would rescue the person completely unscathed; the other would result in the rescuee losing an arm. If the passerby chooses the second mode of rescue, we think the passerby acts wrongly, even though the rescuee in this case is substantially better off (alive with one arm) than he would have been had the passerby done nothing (dead), which she was morally permitted to do because the rescue is supererogatory. Eggert's poster argued (persuasively in my view) that once one attempts the rescue, the option of doing nothing should no longer be the baseline.

Yet the poster (and eventual paper) would be substantially stronger were the example more realistic. Anyone who attempts the self-endangering rescue and then for no good reason gratuitously does so in a way that leads the rescuee to lose an arm seems like a completely unrealistic combination of Good Samaritan and moral monster. I proposed to Eggert that she would do better to rely on the following case drawn from actual tort law: Although at common law there is no duty to rescue a stranger, even if one can do so at no risk to the passerby, if a doctor attempts a rescue, the doctor has a duty to complete the rescue. That scenario has the same morally relevant features but is much more realistic than the rescuer who gratuitously sacrifices the rescuer's arm. And to her credit, Eggert seemed eager to learn more about the relevant law (so I followed up in an email).

Accordingly and more broadly, moral philosophers could do better by engaging more with the law.