Analysis and Commentary on Philosophy and Ethics
Dear House Judiciary Committee: In Questioning William Barr, Employ the Ethics Complaint That 27 Distinguished DC Lawyers Filed Wednesday

Frederick Baron, former associate deputy attorney general and director of the Executive Office for National Security in the Department of Justice, Dennis Aftergut, a former federal prosecutor, and Austin Sarat, Associate Provost and Associate Dean of the Faculty and William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence & Political Science at Amherst College, call upon the House Judiciary Committee to carefully read the ethics complaint by 27 distinguished DC lawyers against William Barr before questioning him today, July 28, 2020.

Narrow Debate About the Death Penalty

In light of the federal government’s resumption of executions, Cornell law professor Sherry F. Colb describes some of the common arguments of proponents and opponents of capital punishment. Colb observes that many of the moral arguments are based on a consequentialist perspective and suggests that a deontological perspective might lead to novel arguments and considerations about the death penalty.

Lessons of the Cooper Affair

Cornell law professor Joseph Margulies comments on the recent incident in which Amy Cooper, a young white woman, called the police on Christian Cooper, an African American man who was birdwatching in Central Park. Margulies argues that the repercussions of Ms. Cooper’s actions—her suffering public ridicule and losing the valuable commodity of anonymity—achieve both the consequentialist and retributivist purposes of our penal system, so for the state to prosecute her as well would serve only to humiliate and demonize her

William Barr Has Made the Federal Death Penalty a Weapon in Trump’s Campaign Arsenal

Austin Sarat—Associate Provost, Associate Dean of the Faculty, and William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College—comments on Attorney General William Barr’s recent order to resume federal executions and the political implications of that order. Sarat briefly describes the history of the federal death penalty in the United States and explains that, regardless of what state we live in, when the federal government puts someone to death, it does so in all of our names.

Is My Dog a Psychopath? What Predators May Tell Us About the Insanity Defense

Cornell law professor Sherry F. Colb describes an incident where her dog “K” stalked and killed a rabbit, and she considers what criminal-law inferences we might draw from observing such predators’ behavior toward their prey. Colb ponders what distinguishes a dog who kills a rabbit from psychopaths who commit heinous crimes, noting that among humans, a so-called “moral imbecile” lacks conscience and empathy for others, and our society deems such individuals as deserving punishment.

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.

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