Analysis and Commentary on Philosophy and Ethics
Before She Died, “Jane Roe” Said She Was Never Really Pro-Life: Does It Matter?

Cornell law professor Michael C. Dorf comments on the revelation that before she died, Norma McCorvey—the woman who was the plaintiff in Roe v. Wade and who had subsequently become a prominent spokesperson for overturning the decision—said she was never really pro-life after all. Using this example, Dorf explains why, in some ways, the individual plaintiff’s identity does not matter for the purpose of deciding an important legal issue, yet in other ways, the plaintiff’s underlying story can be very important for other reasons.

Can Workers Tell Governors to Drop Dead? The Moral Authority to Defy Lockdowns

In this second of a series of columns about the COVID-19 protests, Cornell law professor Joseph Margulies argues, with some caveats, that workers have the moral authority to reopen their businesses in order to sustain themselves. Margulies notes that while he is not advising anyone to disobey the law (and while he personally supports the lockdown orders), business owners facing the impossible decision whether to follow the law or sustain themselves and their families are morally justified in defying the stay-at-home orders.

Whence Cometh Evil? Making Sense of Human Suffering and COVID-19

Surgeon and bioethicist Charles E. Binkley, MD, offers a perspective on how we might make sense of suffering, particularly in light of the present COVID-19 pandemic. Binkley suggests that through suffering, we are paradoxically able to find good, and in this instance, that good might be the practice of social reciprocity.

Is Retribution Worth the Cost?

Cornell law professor Sherry F. Colb discusses the four purported goals of the criminal justice system—deterrence, incapacitation, retribution, and rehabilitation—and argues that retribution may preclude rehabilitation. Colb considers whether restorative justice—wherein a victim has a conversation with the offender and talks about what he did to her and why it was wrong—might better serve the rehabilitative purpose than long prison sentences do.

The Law Will Not Save Us

Cornell law professor Joseph Margulies reminds us that the rule of law exists in the United States primarily to conceal politics; that is, one cannot rely on having “the law” on one’s side if politics are opposed. Margulies illustrates this point by replacing “the lawyers reviewed the law and decided” with “the high priests studied the entrails and decided”—a substitution that ultimately yields the same results.

Thinking About the Brain

UNLV Boyd School of Law professor Leslie C. Griffin responds to Professor Patricia Churchland’s book, Conscience: The Origins of Moral Intuition, offering contrasting views on morality. While Griffin recommends reading the book, she offers a differing view from that of the author, arguing that the physical brain can and does give rise to reason-centered moral rules to ethics.

A Critical (Non-Dershowitz) Look at Statutory Rape Laws

Cornell law professor Sherry F. Colb cautions against using a disgust reaction alone to justify legislation—particularly legislation involving criminal penalties. Colb points out that disgust can sometimes help us determine that something bad is in fact going on, but we should not to allow disgust to power our moral choices without interrogation.

Herman Melville’s Billy Budd: Why this Classic Law and Literature Novel Endures and Is Still Relevant Today

In recognition of the bicentennial of Herman Melville’s birth, Touro Law Center professor Rodger Citron discusses the continuing relevance of Melville’s Billy Budd. Citron provides a brief summary of the novel, considers a few conflicting interpretations of it, and explains why it is relevant for legal professionals even today.

What’s Missing in the Alabama Human Life Protection Act?

Cornell law professor Sherry F. Colb describes some ideological inconsistencies with the abortion law recently passed in Alabama, which prohibits all abortions except those necessary to protect against a serious health risk to the pregnant woman. Colb points out if an embryo or fetus and the woman carrying it are equally entitled to exist, then the exception for the serious health risk to the woman is inconsistent with that perceived equality. Colb also argues that the decision of Alabama lawmakers to penalize the abortion provider but not the abortion seeker similarly requires accepting on some level that a woman and her embryo or fetus are not co-equal occupants, which is inconsistent with the pro-life vision behind Alabama’s law.

A Police Shooting and the Power of Narratives

Cornell law professor Sherry F. Colb describes two different narrative lenses through which one could perceive (and interpret) the shooting of an unarmed African American man by a white police officer: the “Blue Lives Matter” narrative and the “Black Lives Matter” narrative. Colb explains how such narratives shape public reactions to such incidents, and she calls upon everyone to pay attention to the facts and feel less wedded to our narratives so that we may be better able to deal with and sometimes even prevent future hardship.

#MeToo: Counting the Collective Harm of Missing Women’s Work

In light of recent revelations about Ryan Adams, a powerful musician and music producer, Illinois law professors Robin B. Kar and Lesley Wexler discuss the collective harm the scourge of sexual harassment inflicts on society, depriving it of countless and invaluable contributions. Kar and Wexler point out that research demonstrates that experiences of sexual harassment cause not only individual harms to women (such as decreases in mental and physical well-being) but also organizational withdrawal, decreases in organizational commitment, and decreases in productivity and job performance. The exact losses due to this withdrawal have yet to be measured, but evidence suggests the magnitude is enormous.

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 Associate Provost, Associate Dean of the Faculty and William Nelson Cromwell... more

Lesley Wexler
Lesley Wexler

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