Analysis and Commentary on Philosophy and Ethics
Was It Really a Threat to Democracy?

Cornell Law professor Joseph Margulies observes that while the events of January 6, 2021, were “horrific,” “criminal,” and “anti-democratic,” he suggests that they were never a true threat to democracy. Professor Margulies points out that polling may be misleading and that overblown partisan rhetoric, by either side, does not equip us to confront true challenges to democracy when they do arise

Social Media and Social Forgiveness

Cornell Law professor Joseph Margulies explains why social media is, by design, inimical to the idea of a forgiving society. He points out that, in general, we appreciate that a person makes choices not in a vacuum, but in the context of a combination of individual and societal factors, but social media eliminates this nuance and forces us to ignore what we ordinarily accept as the lesson of universal experience.

Alito, Rape, and Incest

In light of the recently leaked draft of a majority opinion by Justice Samuel Alito that would overrule Roe v. Wade, Cornell Law professor Sherry F. Colb comments on the Mississippi law at issue, which lacks an exception for instances of rape incest. Professor Colb suggests that Justice Alito has been waiting to overrule Roe at least since the Supreme Court reversed his decision as an appeals court judge in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, thereby giving voice to his Catholic belief that a zygote could reasonably be characterized as an “unborn child.”

What Happened?

Cornell Law professor Joseph Margulies points out that the language we use—particularly the language we use to describe and talk with incarcerated persons—is unduly limiting and focused on a singular event to the exclusion of broader context. Professor Margulies proposes that rather than asking “What did you do?” we should ask “What happened?”—which is a wider question that wonders, with curiosity and compassion, what factors, perhaps over months, years, or even generations, brought a human being to this place.

Building a Forgiving Society

Cornell Law professor Joseph Margulies describes a society in which no transgression is so severe that society dissolves the bonds that connect all of humanity by its very nature. Professor Margulies points out that we live in an age when demonization is a first impulse rather than a last resort, and the inclination to treat a fellow human being as irredeemably unworthy of membership is, for many people, irresistibly seductive.

Picking Your Own Poison and Capital Defense Lawyers’ Ethical Quandary

Amherst professor Austin Sarat describes the ethical quandary capital defense lawyers face when they have to, under the Supreme Court’s current methods of execution jurisprudence, suggest an alternative readily available method to execute their clients. Professor Sarat argues that the only way to eliminate this ethical quandary is to end the practice altogether, particularly in light of the current Court’s apparent hostility to arguments of death row inmates.

Criminal Justice and the Problem of the In Between

Cornell law professor Joseph Margulies describes the ambivalence and fear many of us feel toward the “in between”—the space between where we are today and where we imagine we could be. Professor Margulies points out that if we allow it, the fear of the in between will always keep us from the world we deserve, so we must find the courage to push past the fear.

How Medical Abortion Challenges the Practice and the Moral Condemnation of Ending a Pregnancy

In response to the December 16 announcement that, Cornell law professor Sherry F. Colb explains the significance of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)’s December 16 announcement that it is permanently allowing doctors to administer medical abortions by telemedicine and through the mail. Professor Colb describes why the change is likely to make terminating a pregnancy more accessible and affordable and less dangerous, and she argues that medical abortion also challenges one ethical argument some anti-abortion advocates have raised.

Our Cages

Cornell law professor Joseph Margulies describes how he arrived at his moral philosophy, summed up as “there is no them, there is only us.” Professor Margulies explains that it comes in part from an understanding that all of humanity is imprisoned by our individual autobiographies—the profound choices that define our existence, like how we respond to loss, shame, rage, and pain.

The Pro-Life Story of How Babies Are Made

Cornell Law professor Sherry F. Colb responds to some of the consensus views among pro-life advocates that reflect how they understand pregnancy. Professor Colb debunks the illogical argument that a zygote is a person and explains why the view of pregnancy as merely the placement of a zygote “somewhere” (i.e., inside a woman) to grow into a person is simplistic and misogynistic.

Three Threats to Future Generations: Should COVID-19 Change Our Thinking About Climate Disaster or the End of Democracy?

UF Levin College of Law professor Neil H. Buchanan considers whether the current COVID-19 pandemic changes the way we think about the ongoing crises of climate catastrophe and the escalating threats to the rule of law. Perhaps counterintuitively, Professor Buchanan concludes that neither this pandemic nor even the threat of future pandemics changes how we should think about our obligations to future generations because nothing about it requires our focus to the exclusion of those two existing threats.

Money, Law, and Other Noble Lies

Cornell Law professor Michael C. Dorf critiques the suggestion that the Treasury might instruct the Mint to create high-value platinum coins to pay federal obligations and avert a debt ceiling crisis. Professor Dorf argues that such action risks eroding public confidence in the very idea that money has value. He recognizes that in a democracy, government should generally trust the People with the truth but says there is sometimes a need to promote a “noble lie” for the good of society.

Some Think Dylann Roof Deserves to Die, But Executing Him Lets Hatred Carry the Day

Amherst College professor Austin Sarat responds to a federal appellate court decision upholding the conviction and death sentence of Dylann Roof for the 2015 murders of nine members of the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, during a meeting of a Bible-study group. Professor Sarat argues that the death penalty is inappropriate even for one of this nation’s most reviled mass murderers because capital punishment has no place in a democratic society.

How To Lose An Argument (or Arrogance for Dummies)

Cornell Law professor Sherry F. Colb explains why listening to people is a better way to persuade them to change their position on an issue than calling them out for inconsistency. Professor Colb navigates a hypothetical conversation to demonstrate how thoughtful attention and humility can be more convincing than arguing or attacking.

To Protect Independence of Inspectors General, Make Them Part of Congress

Guest columnist and former U.S. Congressman Brad Miller comments on recent reports that the Trump administration hindered and delayed investigations by inspectors general. Mr. Miller argues that to ensure that the inspectors general be able to do their job of preventing abuse of power, corruption, and incompetence, they should be made part of the Legislative Branch, rather than the Executive Branch.

How We Resist Positive Change

Cornell Law professor Sherry F. Colb describes some ways in which we resist positive change; specifically, she describes her initial hesitation to becoming an ethical vegan and the rationalizations we use to justify resisting positive change. Professor Colb argues that animals are different from inanimate objects, and we must recognize that when anyone suffers, anyone regardless of species, we have an evil that rightly commands our attention and action.

The Physician’s Conundrum: Assigning Moral Responsibility for Medical Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning

Charles E. Binkley, director of bioethics at Santa Clara University’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, describes some critical ethical issues raised by the use of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) systems for clinical decision support in medicine. Dr. Binkley calls for resolution of these issues before these emerging technologies are widely implemented.

Transitional Justice and Inauguration Poems

Illinois law professor Lesley M. Wexler describes how Amanda Gorman’s The Hill We Climb and Jericho Brown’s Inaugural,’ an Original Poem—as two inaugural poems—fit within the call of transitional justice. Professor Wexler explains how, read together, the two poems provide a roadmap of the transitional justice terrain the government may choose to tread.

Meet our Columnists
Vikram David Amar
Vikram David Amar

Vikram David Amar is the Dean and Iwan Foundation Professor of Law at the University of Illinois... more

Neil H. Buchanan
Neil H. Buchanan

Neil H. Buchanan, an economist and legal scholar, holds the James J. Freeland Eminent Scholar... more

Sherry F. Colb
Sherry F. Colb

Sherry F. Colb is the C.S. Wong Professor of Law at Cornell University. Colb teaches courses in... more

John Dean
John Dean

John Dean served as Counsel to the President of the United States from July 1970 to April 1973.... more

Michael C. Dorf
Michael C. Dorf

Michael C. Dorf is the Robert S. Stevens Professor of Law at Cornell University Law School. He... more

Samuel Estreicher
Samuel Estreicher

Samuel Estreicher is the Dwight D. Opperman Professor, Director, Center for Labor and Employment... more

Leslie C. Griffin
Leslie C. Griffin

Dr. Leslie C. Griffin is the William S. Boyd Professor of Law at the University of Nevada, Las... more

Joanna L. Grossman
Joanna L. Grossman

Joanna L. Grossman is the Ellen K. Solender Endowed Chair in Women and Law at SMU Dedman School... more

Marci A. Hamilton
Marci A. Hamilton

MARCI A. HAMILTON is the Fels Institute of Government Professor of Practice, and Fox Family... more

Joseph Margulies
Joseph Margulies

Mr. Margulies is a Professor of Law and Government at Cornell University. He was Counsel of... more

Austin Sarat
Austin Sarat

Austin Sarat is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at... more

Lesley Wexler
Lesley Wexler

Lesley Wexler is a Professor of Law at the University of Illinois College of Law. Immediately... more