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The Moral Imagination and the Common Law

In Arts & Letters, Conservatism, History, Humanities, Law, Legal Education & Pedagogy, Philosophy on June 12, 2019 at 6:45 am

I thought I knew a lot until I had kids. One hot Sunday summer afternoon in Alabama, when I was driving my family home from church, my son, Noah, then five, asked about the origin of roads. From a father’s perspective, this curiosity was a sweet, welcome alternative to questions about where babies come from. I explained with resolute immodesty how road construction operated, under what timelines and conditions, and using which tools and implements. I smiled, thinking the matter settled, and turned up the radio.

Then my son, in his little-boy manner and vocabulary, objected that his inquiry was, in effect, less about the technicalities of engineering or labor and more taxonomical or definitional in concern. Why wasn’t the trail near our home, trodden beneath innumerable feet, a road?  Why weren’t the sidewalks in downtown Auburn roads? What made a road a road? How did construction workers know where to build roads? From whom did they take orders and derive their authority? Could he, Noah, build a road if he wanted to? How could anyone build a road from here to there if the property along the way belonged to someone else, even multiple owners?

I turned down the radio.

This perplexing interrogation led Noah—who, again, possessed merely the lexicon and sophistication of a child—to more grating appeals for clarity and qualification. What, he wondered, empowered governments to authorize the creation and maintenance of roads? Were there roads beyond government control? What was the difference between public and private? What was government? Where did it come from? Why did we have it?

The moment I caught myself trying to explain social contract theory to a five-year-old, I realized I had been not only humbled and humiliated but overmatched, not by Noah necessarily but by the impressive sum of human ignorance about everyday experience and activity.

Though not impulsively so, I’m reflectively Hayekian and thus managed to articulate to Noah my abiding belief in the limitations of human knowledge, the selectivity of human memory, and the fallibility of human intuition, and to emphasize the importance of subjecting our most cherished principles to continued testing so they may be corrected or refined as we mature in our understanding. Roads could not be the inevitable product of one man’s awesome imagination working in isolation; rather they were the concrete product of aggregated, uncountable ideas, applied variously depending on local circumstances. This fancy way of saying “I don’t know” seemed to satisfy Noah, who grew quiet about his objections and marvels and turned his attention elsewhere.

I, however, couldn’t quiet my restless urge for the kind of comforting certitude that ultimately cannot be achieved. It wasn’t roads but knowledge itself and its embodiment or expression in the law—in particular in our Anglo-American common-law tradition—that suddenly bothered and intrigued me. Noah’s inquisitiveness had reminded me of the opening lines to a learned book on the common law:

Legal history is a story which cannot be begun at the beginning. However remote the date at which we start, it will always be necessary to admit that much of the still remoter past that lies behind it will have to be considered as directly bearing upon the later history. […] [T]he further back we push our investigations, the scantier become our sources, and the more controversial and doubtful their interpretation.[1]

The common law is not just an historical and governmental system for resolving disputes through courts and case precedents, traceable to eleventh-century England and adopted by the United States and nearly half of the countries on earth, but also a mode of preserving and transmitting knowledge about the human condition that develops out of ascertainable facts rather than abstract speculation. It’s bottom-up, reflecting the embedded norms and values of the community as against executive command or legislative fiat.

To continue reading about the common law and the moral imagination, please download the remaining essay here at SSRN.

 

[1] Theodore F. T. Plucknett, A Concise History of the Common Law 3 (1956) (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2010).

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Prospective Law Students Should Consider These Questions

In Law, Law School, Legal Education & Pedagogy, Teaching on June 5, 2019 at 6:45 am

An earlier version of this post appeared here at Faulkner University’s blog.

When you’re visiting law schools, remember to ask questions about the faculty and class size. Law school is more than just classrooms and libraries: It’s your home for three years, and you’ll be connected to your law school throughout your professional life.

To make sure you’re choosing the institution that’s right for you, be sure to ask these less common but crucial questions during your visit.

Does the law school offer scholarships after the first year?

Most law schools consider all new students for merit-based scholarships based on their LSAT scores, undergraduate GPAs, and other criteria such as demonstrated leadership and service. During your visit to a law school, admissions professionals will probably tell you about their merit-based scholarships and the amount you might expect to receive as an incoming student. But in most cases, those awards are guaranteed only for the first year of law school—so it’s important to ask whether similar scholarships are also available for the second and third year. At Faulkner Law, for instance, we review each student’s record at the end of the academic year to determine scholarship eligibility for the following year.

How does the law school help students secure internships or employment?

Getting into law school is an important achievement, but most people expect it to be just one more step on the path to securing the job they want. Having a J.D. after your name, however, doesn’t automatically open doors to employment; most law students secure internships while in school and rely on their law school’s career services to help them network and find employment.

At Faulkner Law, we place more than 200 students in internships every year. Our post-graduate employment rate is close to 90 percent and trending upward, and our employment rate for JD-required positions is 70 percent.

What’s it like to live here?

Most law students hope to enjoy cultural attractions, a vibrant restaurant scene, and a safe and friendly environment outside of school. Find out about the culture and community near the law school you’re considering. Consider what forms of entertainment will be available to you during the next three years when you’re not attending class or studying.

At Faulkner Law, we want our students to succeed, not just professionally but also personally and spiritually. The River Region is vibrant, and the revitalized downtown in Montgomery features several restaurants, minor-league baseball, parks, concerts, museums, historic landmarks, and tourist attractions. Many students relocate here to attend law school and then choose to make Montgomery their permanent home.

What is the law school’s vision for the future?

Law school is a choice for life, not just for three years. Faulkner Law equips students to become competent, reliable attorneys with a passion for learning and service. Our graduates dedicate their careers to solving problems, representing clients with vigor and diligence, improving lives and institutions, and cultivating an ethic of candor, civility, integrity, and professionalism.

Philip Levine and Allen Mendenhall on “Meet the Authors”

In Arts & Letters, Books, Creative Writing, Humanities, Literature, Writing on May 29, 2019 at 6:45 am

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