Weaving the legal labyrinth


Philosopher Robert Goodin posed a simple question at the Law School's annual Dewey Lecture Wednesday: "How can we know what the law requires of us"? With 364 volumes of U.S. legal code piled atop state and municipal laws, "ignorance of the law is inevitable," if not formally excusable.

Introduced by law professor Cass Sunstein as "the LeBron James of academic life and one of the world's most important social theorists," Goodin was welcomed in a forum that has previously hosted such luminaries as Amartya Sen, John Rawls, Ronald Dworkin, and Richard Rorty, AB'49, AM'52. Goodin argued that because law's primary function is to guide people in their actions, everyone must know their duties. The problem today, Goodin said, is that too few citizens know the law because it is no longer intuitive. A legal system based on commonly held and high-minded moral principles, Goodin concluded, would allow people to follow the law better.

The lecture received a mixed reception from the 40 attendees in the Weymouth Kirkland Courtroom. A row of professors that included Sunstein, Martha Nussbaum, and Richard Epstein challenged Goodin on, among other things, his assumption that "Sunday-school morality" is common. But, as Sunstein predicted, Goodin proved he could "score, defend, and rebound" like a champion, while conceding that if people do not have access to moral principles, his argument "is stuffed."

Ethan Frenchman, '08

Photo: Social theorist Robert Goodin addresses the Law School in the annual Dewey Lecture.

January 18, 2008