Studying Ancient Law In Philosophy Of Law

This semester in my philosophy of law class, I’ve begun the semester with a pair of class sessions devoted to ancient law: Mesopotamian, Biblical, and Roman. (My class is reading excerpts from a standard law school textbook: Jurisprudence Cases and Materials: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Law and Its Applications by Stephen E. Gottlieb,  Brian H. Bix, Timothy D. Lytton, & Robin L. West.) I chose these sections for class reading and discussion because as the authors put it, “First, it is useful to know about the origins of law….Second, the legal documents from the Ancient Near East offer you a comparative perspective…you will find illuminating points of similarity and difference with our own system of laws, and that will help you to identify seemingly universal features of law and to spot particular characteristics that distinguish our own legal system, characteristics that you may have assumed were universal. Third…studying the earliest attempts to impose law gives us an opportunity to examine the reasons for using law as a means of governing….we will find…hints about the original reasons for choosing law, as opposed to other methods of ruling.” Moreover, these excerpts offer us some of the “earliest attempts to reflect on the rule of law…[they] pose a set of questions that have defined the field of jurisprudence ever since….In contrast to contemporary jurisprudence these ancient writings offer clear distinctions between the different approaches: they present arguments about positivism and natural law in purer form.”

These considerations offer a series of compelling arguments for why the study of ancient law should be included in a philosophy of law course; the description of law as a historically evolving and contingent technology of governance is one that every student of law–philosophical or otherwise–should be familiar with. (I regret never having including these sorts of materials in my previous iterations of this class; philosophy of law anthologies for their part, do not include material on ancient law.) If today’s vigorous class discussion–on a preliminary reading of the laws of Ur-Namma, Lipit-Ishtar, Hammurabi, and Yahdun-Lim was any indication, this syllabus selection has been a hit with my students as well. My students were particularly enthused by an introductory exercise that asked them to write a prologue, a few laws, and a conclusion in the style of these legislators; we then discussed why they picked the prologue and the laws that they did; this discussion allowed me to introduce the concept of the ‘expressive impact of law’ and also the so-called four-fold model of behavioral modification, which shows that law is but one modality by which behavior can be modified (the others are social norms, market pressures, and architectural constraints.) Moreover, these legislative excerpts are written in a very distinctive style, which permitted a preliminary discussion of legal rhetoric as well.

I often get syllabi wrong; and much remains to be done in this semester, but for the time being I’m reasonably pleased that this class–which sputtered so spectacularly last year–is off to a bright start in this new year. Hope springs eternal.

Thinking Of Autonomous Weapons In ‘Systems’ Terms

A persistent confusion in thinking about weapons and their regulation is to insist on viewing weapons in isolation, and not as part of larger, socio-political-economic-legal-ethical systems. This confusion in the domain of gun control for instance, inspires the counter-slogan ‘guns don’t kill people; people kill people.’ Despite its glibness–and its misuse by the NRA–the slogan encapsulates a vital truth: it is singularly unilluminating to consider a weapon in isolation. Indeed, the object we term a weapon is only within the context a large system that makes it one. A piece of metal is a knife because it is used as one, pressed into service as one by a decision-making agent of some kind, to cut objects, vegetable or animal.

Which brings us to autonomous weapons, a domain where the ethical and regulatory debate is quite clearly demarcated. The case for autonomous weapons is exceedingly familiar: they are more humane because of their greater precision; they can be used to reduce the ‘cost’ of war, both human and material; no more carpet-bombing, just precision strikes, delivered by autonomous weapons–which moreover, reduce the strain of killing on humans. (That is, these weapons are kinder to those who kill and those who are killed.) The case against them is similarly familiar: the delegation of lethal decision making to a machine incapable of fine-grained ethical deliberation is an invitation to moral atrocity, to a situation in which lurking catastrophes are triggered by a moral calculus that makes decisions which are only superficially technically correct. The immaturity of such systems and the algorithms they instantiate makes them especially risky to deploy and use.

Autonomous weapons do not exist in isolation, of course; they are more correctly considered autonomous weapons systems–as one part of an economic, military, legal, political, and moral calculus; their use as weapons is not merely function of their machinic code; it is a function, rather, of a much more complex ‘code’ made up of bits of legal regulations, political imperatives, and physical and economic constraints. It is these that act together, in concert, or in opposition, to ‘fire’ the weapon in question. As such, some of the ‘ethical’ arguments in favor of autonomous weapoons systems look a little trite: yes, autonomous weapons system carry the potential to enable more targeted and precise killing, but the imperatives to do so still need to be human directed; their force is channeled and directed and perhaps weakened or strengthened–by all sorts of system level and corporate constraints like political ones. The questions such systems prompt are, as they should be, quite different from those that might be directed at an ‘isolated weapon’: Who owns them? Who ‘controls’ them? What are safeguards on their inappropriate use? Which system’s political and economic and moral imperatives are written into its operational procedures? The world’s deadliest bomber can be grounded by a political command, its engines left idling by politics; it can also be sent half-way around the world by a similar directive.

An illustrative example may be found in the history of computing itself: the wide-scale deployment of personal computing devices in office settings, their integration into larger ‘enterprise’ systems, was a long and drawn out process, one suffering many birthing pains. This was because the computers that were placed in offices, were not, despite appearances, isolated computing devices; they were part of computing systems. They were owned by the employer, not the employee, so they were not really ‘personal’; their usage–hours, security access etc–was regulated by company rules; the data on their drives belonged to the employer. (For instance, to print a document, you accessed a networked printer administered by an Information Systems Group; or, the computers are not accessible on weekends or after hours.) Under these circumstances, it was a category mistake to regard these machines as isolated personal computing devices; rather, they were part of a much larger commercial system; their human users were one component of it. Claims about their capacities, their desirability, their efficiencies were only coherently made within the framework of this system.

Similar considerations apply to autonomous weapons; talk of their roles in warfare, their abilities, and the like, are only meaningfully expressed within a discursive framework that references the architecture of the system the weapon in question functions as a part of.


Ken Englehart’s Exceedingly Lame Argument Against Net Neutrality

Over at the New York Times, Ken Englehart, “a lawyer specializing in communications law, is a senior adviser for StrategyCorp, an adjunct professor at Osgoode Hall Law School and a senior fellow at the C. D. Howe Institute” offers us an astonishing argument suggesting we not worry about the FCC’s move to repeal Net Neutrality. It roughly consists of saying “Don’t worry, corporations will do right by you.” Englehart accepts that the concerns raised by opponents of the FCC–” getting rid of neutrality regulation will lead to a “two-tier” internet: Internet service providers will start charging fees to websites and apps, and slow down or block the sites that don’t pay up…users will have unfettered access to only part of the internet, with the rest either inaccessible or slow”–have some merit for he makes note  of abuses by ISPs that confirm just those fears. But he just does not think we need worry that ISPs will abuse their new powers:

[T]hese are rare examples, for a reason: The public blowback was fierce, scaring other providers from following suit. Second, blocking competitors to protect your own services is anticompetitive conduct that might well be stopped by antitrust laws without any need for network neutrality regulations.

How reassuring. “Public blowback” seems unlikely to have any effect on the behavior of folks who run quasi-monopolies. Moreover, the idea that we might should trust our ISPs to not indulge in behavior that “might well be stopped by antitrust laws” also sounds unlikely to assuage any concerns pertaining to the abuse of ISP powers. It gets better, of course:

Net-neutrality defenders also worry that some service providers could slow down high-data peer-to-peer traffic, like BitTorrent. And again, it has happened, most notably in 2007, when Comcast throttled some peer-to-peer file sharing.

But it’s still good:

So why am I not worried? I worked for a telecommunications company for 25 years, and whatever one may think about corporate control over the internet, I know that it simply is not in service providers’ interests to throttle access to what consumers want to see. Neutral broadband access is a cash cow; why would they kill it?

Because service providers will make all the money they need by providing faster services to premium customers and not give a damn about the plebes?

But don’t worry:

[T]here’s still competition: Some markets may have just one cable provider, but phone companies offer increasingly comparable internet access — so if the cable provider slowed down or blocked some sites, the phone company could soak up the affected customers simply by promising not to do so.

Or they could collude, with both charging high prices because they know customers have nowhere to go?

Is this the best defenders of the FCC can do? The old ‘market pressures will make corporations behave’ pony trick? Englehart’s cleverest trick, I will admit, is the aside that “the current net neutrality rule was put in place by the Obama administration.” That’s a good dog-whistle to blow. Anything done by the Obama administration is worth repealing by anyone connected with this administration. And their cronies, like Englehart.

The Great Bob Mueller Seduction

Blood is in the water: the president of the United States appears to have committed ‘obstruction of justice.’ We know this because a ‘legal dream team’ headed by a special prosecutor, a former head of the FBI, is conducting a long, expensive, and detailed investigation of all the president’s men. The nefarious activities suspected to have been undertaken are varied and detailed; like most Americans, I’m entirely unsure of the precise particulars of the tangled web that is being unwoven for us. But those details seem unimportant; for at the end of it all lies deliverance, the impeachment of Donald Trump, the eviction of the carpetbaggers currently occupying the White House.

For some time now, via television and talk show and social media, we have been treated to the spectacle of–I do not think I exaggerate–millions of Americans salivating over the legal particulars of Bob Mueller’s investigation: how detailed and thorough its collection of evidence and marshaling of witnesses is; its skillful deployment of carrot and–a very big and threatening–stick in making legal plea deals; and so on. An entire cottage industry of tweeting experts has sprung up to inform us, in hushed and breathless tones, of how legally significant the latest development is and just how much shit is currently splattering various fans; these tweets go viral, urged hither and thither, as if merely by talking about how bad things are going to get for Trump and his men, their end can be hastened. There is much gleeful talk of how those  working in the Trump administration will be bankrupted by their legal fees as they are subpoenaed till the cows come home; you cannot escape the clutches of the ‘ace prosecutors’ that this paragon of virtue–a former FBI head–has lined up.

The worst features of our  legal system are on display: the staggering legal fees; the unfettered power of prosecutors. Give ’em hell, we say, because we know the legal system can destroy your life in all these ways; we’re just happy these big guns are turned against our political enemies. (Even if they have never been turned against the corporations that rule the republic’s roost.) It is a strange business for a nation which plays host to the moral and legal atrocity called ‘mass incarceration’ to be so cheering on a bunch of prosecutors–a demographic unfettered in its legal power, and persistently accused of misconduct. It is a peculiar business too that the FBI–whose investigations into political activists have, historically and currently, marked it out as anything but apolitical–is being hailed as the savior of the American Republic and our political knight in armor.

What Mueller’s investigation has done, of course, is turn political resistance to Trump into a spectator sport: we sit back–indeed, many have said just that–grab the popcorn and watch the shit show go down, and the superheroes, er, special prosecutors, will come to our rescue, ridding us of this blight. The legal system and its investigations appear to be working as a sponge, soaking up the political will and energy of Americans who otherwise might have been engaged in serious thinking about their political options. Instead, they have handed over their political agency to a bunch of lawyers appointed guardians of the state and our polity.

But it isn’t the lack of law that got us here; it is that plenty of institutional deformations are written into our laws and therefore respected; they demand for themselves a prima facie legal obligation, because they are burnished by the aura of the law, which is being enhanced by the ‘legal investigation’ under way. But the undemocratic Senate is legal; gerrymandering is legal; Supreme Court rulings that lock particular interpretations of the US Constitution into place are legal; the Electoral College is legal. Governments can be shut down legally; the US Senate can legally–under one interpretation–refuse to even consider a President’s nominee for the Supreme Court. The blocking of Obama’s nominations to the Federal Courts by the Republican Party and the corresponding stuffing of the Federal Courts by Federalist Society nominees was all legal. No dictator need abuse any legal American institutions in order to become a totalitarian despot. (This point has been made, quite eloquently, several times over, by Corey Robin; here is one variant of that claim.) That despotic power is built, legally, into American political institutions, all ready and ripe for hijacking by bad actors. Those bad actors are here, and they’ve hijacked the polity.

We are witnessing an old maneuver, one oft-repeated: take an existing political or social problem, subject it to the law, and pretend it has been solved. The authority of the law, its ideological entrenchment is reinforced, but the social or political problem remains unsolved. What will Bob Mueller’s team rid this republic of? A president, and very optimistically, his vice president too. Mueller cannot impeach the Republican Party (which will, in any case, not impeach Trump.) How then, will this nation’s political crisis be resolved? Mueller’s actions will not bring the Republican Party’s nihilism to heel. Indeed, an even worse hangover awaits us, if as is likely, this entire expensive legal investigation will end only with Trump riding out his term unscathed and going on to greater riches ‘outside.’ When the smoke clears and this prosecution is over, we will be left with the same severely compromised republic we had before. No team of special prosecutors can bring that to heel. We have outsourced the hard work to someone else, expecting to be rescued from a mess we made ourselves. This is ours; we have to clean this up.

Dear Men, Shut Up About ‘Due Process’ Already

From sea to shining sea, on social media pages nationwide, brave men are taking up cudgels on behalf of their brothers-in-sex-and-gender, the ones whose lives are facing ruination because of this country’s #MeToo moment, as accusation after accusation of sexual harassment and assault issue forth from women who’ve previously remained silent. In each case, their defense takes an exceedingly simple form: it is to insist on ‘due process,’ to assert that every ‘accused’ has a ‘presumption to innocence,’ that they are ‘innocent until proven guilty,’ that they fear this business of identifying the men who harass and assault in impunity is all too likely to morph into that most dreaded of social epidemics: the witch hunt. Cease and desist, they say; let us wait till ‘the facts are in,’ till a ‘trial’ has taken place and ‘guilt’ has been conclusively established.

There are several–deliberate, I suspect–confusions at play here. Most prominently, this kind of response confuses the standards for a criminal conviction by the state in a court of law with the usual evidentiary standards that underwrite our usual social judgments of misbehavior. A courtroom furnishes one epistemic context; it addresses the imbalance of power that exists between the state and the accused, and puts the burden on the state to prove its point. This standard of proof is relaxed in civil cases, which only require a ‘preponderance of the evidence’ and do not require guilt to be established ‘beyond a reasonable doubt.’ Our day-to-day social encounters furnish yet other epistemic contexts; within them, we are, on a daily basis, subjected to ‘evidence’ of varying  levels of reliability, submitted by sources whom we trust to varying degrees; we act on the basis of these sorts of claims, assessing them using our socially acquired and developed skills of evidence evaluation; we often act on the basis of incomplete or only partially verified evidentiary claims; indeed, we have to, for stasis and inaction are not options more often than not. That is, we do not sit around, waiting for the standards of a criminal court to be satisfied before we act; social ends, desirable ones, have to be met.

Critical legal studies scholars have, for a long time now, identified one dishonorable ideological function that the law and its institutions–among which is legal language–play in our society: the establishment of a kind of ‘rationality’–the legal kind, which ostensibly aspires to the value-free, fact-laden-and-dependent kind of reasoning followed in the sciences–which can then be used to discredit other kinds of reasoning. The invocation of deployment of criminal law’s standards of evidence and its methodology for determining ‘guilt’ in social contexts outside of courtrooms is a good example of this kind of ideological maneuver. This invocation is particularly problematic when it is realized that courtroom deliberations themselves are anything but value-and-bias-free; determinations of guilt in courtrooms are as socially and politically riven as those that take place elsewhere; it is just that legal decisions lay claim to a presumption of having cleansed themselves of prejudice thanks to their supposed circumscription by ‘legal method.’

This particular technique of obfuscation has a long and dishonorable history–and it looks likely to continue for the established future. After all, maintaining this confusion is necessary for the maintenance of established power relations and for the continuance of bad behavior by serial offenders.

A Persistent Difficulty In Teaching Philosophy Of Law

This semester, I’m teaching Philosophy of Law–again. My syllabus, as always, is a new one, and reflects an altered orientation and focus from those of days past. The current edition is fairly simple: it kicks off with Lon Fuller‘s ‘The Case of the Speluncean Explorers,’ excerpts from H. L. A Hart‘s The Concept of Law, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes‘ ‘The Path of the Law‘ and then moves on to a selection of readings from Alan Hutchinson’s edited collection Critical Legal Studies. And yet again, I’m finding that I have a very hard time explaining or making comprehensible or plausible the distinction between natural law theories of the law and legal positivism, or indeed, even making clear what those theories are.

On the face of it, this should not be too difficult: natural law theories insist on a conceptual connection between law and morality such that legal obligation is a species of moral obligation; positivists, treating law as a matter of social fact, separate law from morality, and find legal obligation grounded in posited social arrangements and their resultant expectations.

But year after year, semester after semester, I find that I cannot get this distinction across clearly. Rest assured, I do not employ the language of the paragraph above, which is quite formally stated. But no matter what language I use, what instructive examples I use–I always kick off my classes on this distinction by asking students to provide me examples of “something that is legal but would be considered immoral by some and something that is legal but would be considered moral by some”–and of course, I offer extensive exposition and encourage discussion of the texts we use, many of my students’ responses–written and oral–make it quite clear the central concepts involved in making the distinction between natural law and positivist theories of the law clear are, in point of fact, not so. (Sometimes I’m tempted–because of my formal education–to say that natural law theorists say that “no matter how you define law, you are going to have morality somewhere on the right hand side”; I can only occasionally resist this temptation.)

I do not think this is my students’ fault. I suspect this is because over the years I’ve come to suspect I don’t understand the supposedly clear-cut distinction myself, especially as I’ve come to believe that natural law theories can in fact be subsumed under positivist theories: a system of morality and the particular moral principles it entails are a kind of social fact, one that has resulted from the ongoing evolution of a particular social formation; the moral principles that we take to be true at any given instant, the ones that command our obligation and allegiance and that help preserve key social distinctions and help realize socially desired ends; natural law theories can then be understood as claiming the social fact of morality as the one that underwrites legal claims and obligations; in this light, you don’t get out of the historically contingent particulars of the social into some transcendent realm of morality. (Or you could give natural law and positivism a Nietzschean twist by claiming as Nietzsche did in The Genealogy of Morals that morality is derived from law.) As Hart had noticed in his Concept of Law, the theory of law he presented did not say anything about the content of rules; they could be amoral or moral. Understood in this light, natural law theories can be understood as both descriptive i.e., making the claim that legal systems do indeed, always strive for moral content in their  laws or prescriptive i.e., legal systems should include moral content in their rules. Where natural  law would then turn out to be false is that they would not capture crucial features of extant legal systems; they would have attempted to make their descriptions exhaustive, capturing some supposed conceptual connection, and failed in the process. This fact, and the distance it puts between a natural law vision of the law and the postivist vision would still be worth pointing out.

Thus far, I have not succeeded in making myself clear though. I’ll keep trying.

Nietzsche’s Inversion Of Natural Law In The Genealogy Of Morals

The radically constructive nature of legal and economic concepts emerges quite clearly in the brilliant second essay of The Genealogy of Morals. Here, Nietzsche sets out his view of how the concept of a contract creates persons, how the ethical subject is not found but made. For Nietzsche, the law, a set of human practices, ‘creates’ its subjects by acting upon humans to make them into beings capable of obeying the law. The inversion Nietzsche forces upon us takes from the notion of a contract as a legally enforceable promise to the notion of a promise as a morally enforceable contract.

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