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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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