Analysis and Commentary on Philosophy and Ethics

When is Self-Abortion Murder? Lessons of a Tragedy

Updated:

Cornell University law professor Sherry F. Colb comments on a recent situation in which a Tennessee woman was charged with attempted murder for trying unsuccessfully to terminate her pregnancy with a coat hanger at 24 weeks. Colb explains why attempted murder doesn’t seem to be an appropriate charge in this situation, and she explains the role that policies put forth abortion opponents might have played in forcing the woman to attempt an abortion in this manner.

Trump’s Business Conflicts: Total Divestiture Is His Only Answer

Updated:

John W. Dean, former counsel to President Richard Nixon, explains why President-elect Donald Trump must divest himself from ownership in any property or entity that his actions or decisions as president might benefit. Dean draws upon his experience in the Nixon White House to argue that anything less than complete divestiture will not suffice; such is the price of public service.

Why—and How—President-Elect Trump’s Conflicts of Interest Matter

Updated:

Cornell University law professor Michael C. Dorf explains why President-elect Donald Trump’s conflicts of interests are problematic for the country. Dorf argues that the primary risk is that a Trump administration will pursue policies that further Trump’s business interests at the expense of the national interest. Dorf also points out two other risks posed by Trump’s conflicts of interest: the possibility of unjust enrichment and the cultural shift that corruption at the top could catalyze.

Liberal Activism in the Age of Trump

Updated:

Cornell University law professor Michael C. Dorf shares some of the lessons he has learned as a vegan animal rights advocate, and explains how they apply to other policy areas. In particular, Dorf argues that in order to build a world in which presidential candidates do not pander to humanity’s basest otherizing instincts, we should aim to persuade our fellow humans of our point of view, not merely to organize to outvote them.

Ensuring Consent with Sexual Advance Directives

Updated:

Cornell University law professor Sherry F. Colb comments on the idea of a sexual advance directive—a proposed legal device that could provide consent or designate an agent to provide consent in advance of an anticipated persistent period of legal incompetence. Colb explains how a sexual advance directive purports to work, describes some limitations of it, and proposes an alternative solution that addresses those limitations.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg Versus Colin Kaepernick

Updated:

Cornell University law professor Michael C. Dorf discusses Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s recent public criticism (which she has since retracted) of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick for his protesting against police brutality and racial oppression by kneeling during the playing of the national anthem. Dorf distinguishes criticism ex cathedra from criticism given while off the bench and concludes that while Justice Ginsburg was within her right to speak her mind, she was also correct to subsequently take back her comments.

Should Self-Driving Cars Be Mandatory?

Updated:

Cornell University law professor Michael C. Dorf discusses the proposed policy guidelines the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently released that relate to the logistics of self-driving cars. In this column, Dorf looks ahead to a time when the majority of vehicles on the road will be self-driving and considers the potential consequences of regulating the few manual cars that will remain. While there is an argument to be made that people's choices and personal freedom should outweigh government interference, Dorf explains that the benefits to the larger population's welfare that self-driving cars may one day offer is likely to win out over time.

How Zika May Affect Our Thinking About Abortion

Updated:

Cornell University law professor Sherry F. Colb considers whether the termination of Zika pregnancies might affect our thinking about abortion. Specifically, Colb asks (1) whether it is right to end a pregnancy because the baby would be severely disabled if brought to term, and (2) whether it is right at all to take the life of a fetus late in pregnancy, given that birth defects caused by Zika are not detectable by ultrasound until late in pregnancy.

Is Taking Blood from a Dog a “Search” of the Dog’s Owner?

Updated:

In light of a recent decision by the Oregon Supreme Court, Cornell University law professor Sherry F. Colb considers whether taking blood from a dog constitutes a search of the dog’s owner for Fourth Amendment purposes. Colb identifies good and bad features of the court’s opinion and expresses what, in her view, would have been the ideal resolution of the case.

Trump’s Law and Order Versus the Rule of Law

Updated:

Cornell University law professor Michael C. Dorf explains the difference between “law and order,” a term Donald Trump uses to describe his approach to governance, and “rule of law,” a principle that those in positions of authority exercise their power even handedly and consistently, within a framework of public norms. As Dorf explains, Trump’s law-and-order message, taken in conjunction with his observed business practices, is that of an authoritarian ruler—one who imposes rules on others yet sees himself above and unconstrained by law.

Should We Lift the Stigma on “Virtuous Pedophiles”?

Updated:

Inspired by a Dan Savage podcast on the topic, Cornell University law professor Sherry Colb considers both the concept of “virtuous pedophiles” and some of its potential implications. Colb explains what this term means and draws several comparisons to other individuals who may be oriented toward a certain action that is either illegal or prohibited to them, ultimately expressing ambivalence toward the notion of the virtuous pedophile.

Prosecutors Coercing Defendants to Contribute to the Prosecutor’s Favorite Charities

Updated:

Chapman University law professor Ronald Rotunda comments on a practice by federal prosecutors of settling some cases by requiring defendants to pay money to specific charities—organizations that tend to support the present administration. Rotunda explains why this practice is ethically unsound and calls for an end to it.

The Logic of Trump’s Comment Endorsing Punishment for Abortion

Updated:

Cornell University law professor Sherry Colb analyzes Donald Trump’s recent statement—which he subsequently changed—that women who have abortions should be punished for doing so. Colb points out that this position is actually more logically coherent than the more conventional position taken by anti-abortion advocates that the provider be punished for performing an abortion.

The Hidden Atrocities Behind Medical Progress

Updated:

Cornell University law professor Sherry Colb considers the moral question whether we have the right to benefit from discoveries made by outrageous rights violations. Colb considers the example of James Marion Sims—known as the father of modern gynecology—whose research on female slaves, without providing them the available anesthesia, led to his development of a technique to repair obstetric fistulas. Further, Colb calls into question the presumed rightfulness of experimenting on nonhuman animals.

Does a Shoe Salesman With a Foot Fetish Have a Moral Duty to Disclose?

Updated:

Cornell University law professor Sherry Colb examines the boundaries of moral permission to be the object of someone’s fantasies. Colb considers several different situations that are similar but likely elicit various degrees of responses from readers before concluding that fantasy should be the private prerogative of the fantasizer that should not be subject to either legal or moral regulation.

Differing Perspectives on California Law Requiring Pregnancy Clinics to Post Abortion Information

Updated:

Cornell University law professor Sherry Colb considers the perspectives of both sides of the controversy over a relatively new California law requiring licensed pregnancy centers to prominently post a notice about the availability of free or low-cost abortion, contraception, and prenatal care. Colb offers a compelling narrative to illustrate each perspective, ultimately concluding that while she personally agrees with one side neither is “right” in a moral sense.

Do Androids Dream of Animal Rights?

Updated:

Cornell University law professor Michael Dorf explores the relationship between renewed discussions about artificial intelligence (AI) and the rights of non-human animals. Dorf argues that our current portrayals of AI reflect guilt over our disregard for the interests of the billions of sentient animals we exploit, torture, and kill in the here and now.

Frozen Embryo Disputes

Updated:

Cornell University law professor Sherry Colb uses a recent court dispute over a contract governing a divorced couple’s frozen embryos as the basis for considering some important issues that would arise in a frozen embryo dispute with no contract. Colb points out that resolving such a dispute would require careful balancing of the right of one party to procreate, on the one hand, and the right of the other party not to procreate, on the other.

Meet our Columnists

Vikram David Amar

Vikram David Amar is the Dean and Iwan Foundation Professor of Law at the University of Illinois College of Law. Immediately prior to taking the position at Illinois, Amar served as the Senior Assoc... more

Neil H. Buchanan

Neil H. Buchanan is an economist and legal scholar and a Professor of Law at The George Washington University. He teaches tax law and tax policy, and he has taught contract law, law and economics, and... more

Sherry F. Colb

Sherry F. Colb is Professor of Law and Charles Evans Hughes Scholar at Cornell University. Colb teaches courses in constitutional criminal procedure, evidence, and animal rights. She has published a... more

John Dean

John Dean served as Counsel to the President of the United States from July 1970 to April 1973. Before becoming White House counsel at age thirty-one, he was the chief minority counsel to the Judiciar... more

Michael C. Dorf

Michael C. Dorf is the Robert S. Stevens Professor of Law at Cornell University Law School. He has written hundreds of popular essays, dozens of scholarly articles, and four books on constitutional la... more

Joanna L. Grossman

Joanna L. Grossman is the Ellen K. Solender Endowed Chair in Women and Law at SMU Dedman School of Law.  She is an expert in sex discrimination law. Her most recent book,  more

Marci A. Hamilton

Marci A. Hamilton is one of the country’s leading church-state scholars and the Fox Professor of Practice and Fox Family Pavilion Resident Senior Fellow in the Program for Research on Religion in the... more

David S. Kemp

David S. Kemp is an attorney and managing editor at Justia. He received his B.A. in Psychology from Rice University and his J.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law (Boalt Hall)... more

Joseph Margulies

Mr. Margulies is a Professor of Law and Government at Cornell University. He was Counsel of Record in Rasul v. Bush (2004), involving detentions at the Guantánamo Bay Naval Station, and in more

Anita Ramasastry

Anita Ramasastry is the UW Law Foundation Professor of Law at the University of Washington School of Law in Seattle, where she also directs the graduate program on Sustainable International Developmen... more

Ronald D. Rotunda

Ronald D. Rotunda is the Doy & Dee Henley Chair and Distinguished Professor of Jurisprudence, at Chapman University, Fowler School of Law. He joined the faculty in 2008. Before that, he was Univ... more