Analysis and Commentary on Philosophy and Ethics
The Significance of Blind Spots in Moral Reasoning

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb takes strong issue with a set of hypothetical scenarios that NYU professor Jonathan Haidt presents in his book, published earlier in 2012, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. While focusing on these moral dilemmas insofar as they affect humans, Colb argues, Haidt exposes his own blind spot with respect to the morality of eating animals. Colb then offers her own, fresh set of hypothetical moral dilemmas, in order to illustrate her contention that Haidt has not isolated all the pertinent questions and issues that his own moral hypotheticals raise. Even while considering the less significant issue of humans doing harmless but disgusting things to animals who are already dead, Colb notes, Haidt fails to consider the much more important issue of humans killing animals.

Donald Langevoort: A Thoughtful Legal Thinker

Justia columnist and former counsel to the president John Dean comments on the the work of legal scholar Donald Langevoort, a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center, specializing in business organizations and securities regulation, who uses cognitive psychology in his work in order to explain why attorneys at times have ethical lapses. Dean comments on various interesting aspects of Langevoort’s work, such as his explanation as to how lawyers can fail to see a problem that should have been obvious to them, and his work regarding the organizational and psychological factors that may influence lawyers’ perception and judgment. Dean also discusses a list of certain cognitive biases to which lawyers may fall prey.

How Lawyers Can Minimize Professional Mistakes During a Scandal Like That at Penn State: Part Two in a Two-Part Series of Columns

Justia columnist and former counsel to the president John Dean concludes his two-part series of columns on how attorneys can avoid making errors when serving as counsel to a person or institution enmeshed in a scandal. With the Freeh Report strongly suggesting a cover-up of Jerry Sandusky’s child sexual abuse, Dean notes that the same question that arose in the Enron and Watergate scandals also arose regarding the Penn State scandal: Where were the lawyers? Dean offers some intriguing answers as to why lawyers may not function as they should in cover-up situations—noting that general counsels, though they are working for an institution, may tend to feel loyalty to the person, or persons, with whom they directly work, instead. Dean also introduces readers to the psychology of cover-ups, and especially the concept of the “loss frame,” drawing on the work of Richard Painter, Richard Kahneman, and Amos Tversky to explain why attorneys may get caught up in cover-ups. Dean also gives advice for those—whether they are attorneys or not—who find themselves in a loss-frame (roughly, a losing) situation, and notes what the ABA’s Model Rules counsel in such situations.

Talking With an Expert About Serious Attorney-Client Privilege Confusion During the Penn State Child-Abuse Scandal

In Part One of a two-part series regarding attorney-client privilege and the Penn State child-sex-abuse scandal, Justia columnist and former counsel to the president John Dean comments on potentially serious attorney-client privilege confusion relating to the scandal. Louis Freeh—the former judge and FBI director, and the author of the Freeh Report that was commissioned by Penn State regarding the scandal—has raised serious questions about the roles of the University’s General Counsel and its outside counsel, respectively, with respect to the scandal. With the assistance of Thompson Hine partner Jim Robenalt, who answered a series of questions posed by Dean, Dean seeks to illuminate the relevant legal and ethical rules in this oft-misunderstood area. In addition, Dean notes some parallels here to Watergate, during which questions also arose about attorneys’ representation of entities, such as the presidency, rather than persons, such as the president.

A German Court Bans Circumcision

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb comments on a German court’s recent ruling banning circumcision under the criminal law. Colb notes that the ruling has caused a great deal of controversy, both domestically and internationally, because child circumcision is central to both the Jewish and Muslim faiths, and because of Germany’s history of bias and of genocide. The court claimed, however, that it was acting to preserve the child’s bodily integrity, and his ability to choose his own religion later in life. Colb covers the facts, the outraged reaction, and the arguments that might be made to the effect that the court was possibly acting out of sympathy for the child, rather than out of bias. She also compares and contrasts religious circumcision with procedures ranging from infant ear piercing, to female genital mutilation, to infant circumcision that is not performed for religious reasons. In addition, Colb raises a disturbing specter of bias based on the reported availability, in Germany, of circumcision based on medical, but not religious, reasons. Especially since child circumcision has medical benefits, she says, governments should continue to allow it regardless of whether it is motivated by religious or secular intent, or both.

Was It Wrong for Chief Justice Roberts to “Flip Flop” on Obamacare?

Justia columnist and Cornell law professor Sherry Colb raises an intriguing question regarding the Supreme Court’s recent decision upholding the Affordable Care Act, also known as the ACA or, more colloquially, as Obamacare. Colb notes that leaks from the Court have suggested that Chief Justice Roberts initially was inclined to vote with his four conservative colleagues to strike down the ACA, but later changed his mind to side with the Court’s liberals and uphold the legislation. Assuming for purposes of argument that (1) the leaked information is accurate, and (2) Chief Justice Roberts’s claimed flip-flop was based in part on public sentiment, did Roberts do anything wrong? Colb suggests, interestingly, that the correct answer to that question may be “No.” Using two hypothetical court scenarios, as well as the ACA case itself, Colb isolates the kinds of cases and issues in which a judge would be wrong—or right—to take public sentiment into account.

Facebook’s New “Organ Donor” Feature: Many Applaud It, but Some Raise Possible Concerns About Protecting Private Health Information

Guest columnist and Justia writer and editor David Kemp comments on a new development on Facebook: users’ ability to add the fact that they have become organ donors as a “Life Event” on their Timelines. Kemp notes that the reason for this development is to encourage organ donation after death—and that it’s been very successful in doing so. He also comments on three likely reasons why Facebook chose this particular cause, as opposed to all the other causes that it might have promoted. While applauding the feature’s benefits, Kemp also considers some risks connected to the use of Facebook in this way—including the risk that other medically-related applications may lead to the disclosure of private health information, which could potentially implicate federal privacy laws. (Already, the “Life Events” application, Kemp points out, can reveal a broken bone or weight loss.) Ultimately, Kemp raises the question whether Facebook may evolve in such a way as to provide not just social networking, but also social engineering.

The Story and Legacy of the Greatest Judge of His Era, Henry Friendly

Justia columnist and former counsel to the president John Dean comments on the imminent publication of a biography by David M. Dorsen of esteemed jurist Henry Friendly, Henry Friendly: Greatest Judge of His Era. As Dean explains, Judge Friendly served on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit from 1959-1986, and his decisionmaking drew the highest praise from fellow judges and Justices. Dean provides an overview of the biography’s coverage, and notes that its emphasis is not on what Friendly decided, but rather on his decisionmaking process. Dean contends that this work—the product of six years’ research and hundreds of interviews—is not to be missed by either the serious scholar or the general reader. (Dean notes, for full disclosure, that he is a friend of Dorsen’s, but also quotes high praise for the book from Judge Richard Posner and others.)

Why Interdisciplinary Legal Scholarship Is Good for the Law, the Academy, and Society at Large

Justia columnist, George Washington law professor, and economist Neil Buchanan responds to some of the common criticisms of interdisciplinary legal scholarship, defending such scholarship on the ground that it makes a valuable contribution. He begins by noting how legal scholarship has changed over the years, beginning around the 70’s, from a field that primarily summarized legal developments, to one that primarily describes how the law could and should change. As a result of this evolution, Buchanan argues, it made sense to bring in other academic disciplines to assist law professors who were interested in improving policies, and who wanted to draw from the relevant schools of thought in framing their policy recommendations and developing their ideas. There has been nostalgia on the part of some—and, especially, some judges—for legal scholarship the way it used to be: primarily focused on describing the law, not improving it. But Buchanan argues that this nostalgia, while understandable, is misplaced, for combining legal expertise with expertise in another field can importantly further the debate on important policy matters. Some questions, Buchanan notes, are truly interdisciplinary and for these, interdisciplinary scholarship is not just useful, but vital.

Human Rights Scholars and Human Rights Professionals: Time to Talk?

Justia columnist and Hunter College Human Rights Program Director Joanne Mariner describes a schism between human rights scholars, on one hand, and human rights professionals, on the other. On the good side, Mariner notes, both scholarship and practice in human rights have thrived over the last two decades—and yet, she contends, there is a troubling disconnect between the two. Mariner’s own survey found that human rights professionals see a wide—even, to some, “enormous”—gap between theory and practice, and rarely read academic articles on human rights. The professionals complained, among other points, that the academics were encouraged to come up with counterintuitive theories, when often the intuitive ones were far closer to the mark. In turn, Mariner notes, the academics might rightly charge that the professionals fear that too much analysis of a problem will impede or delay effective action, as in “Hamlet,” when in fact sustained thought about a human rights issue could bear significant fruit. She thus calls on the two groups to engage more deeply with each other’s work, to the benefit of both. Finally, Mariner offers some specific suggestions as to how such engagement could effectively occur.

Should Jurors Take a “No Internet” Pledge? The Merits of One Judge’s Simple Proposal

Justia columnist and U. Washington law professor Anita Ramasastry comments on the current problem of jurors’ doing Internet searches relating to the trials on which they serve—sometimes, even if the jurors have been directly admonished not to do so. Ramasastry describes an interesting approach to the problem, used by Judge Shira Scheindlin of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York: Judge Scheindlin asks jurors to sign a written pledge not to use the Internet to research the case on which they sit. Ramasastry also describes other judges’ attempted solutions to, and experiences with, the jury-Internet-use problem—which has caused a number of costly mistrials—and the model jury instructions on the topic. She notes, however, that researchers are finding that virtually nothing will stop jurors from doing their own Internet research regarding the cases on which they sit—leading some to suggest that it may be more effective to limit, but not ban, jurors’ Internet research, as a ban will inevitably be ignored.

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