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At the Intersection of Law and Philosophy

At the Intersection of Law and Philosophy

New Center examines legal and moral issues

By Katherine Yungmee Kim
November 2004

What sorts of legal restrictions should we have in biomedical research? What legislation needs to be promulgated for environmental preservation? What is an appropriate use of intervention in the affairs of other nations, and what are their moral bases? What constitutes a fair punishment?

Scholars will discuss such legal and moral issues at the new Center for Law and Philosophy, an interdisciplinary collaboration between the USC College of Letters, Arts & Sciences and the USC Gould School of Law. This center will enhance the interdisciplinary exchange among philosophers, political theorists, legal theorists and practitioners who are interested in the intersection of law and philosophy.

“We have created an atmosphere for interdisciplinary dialogue on legal and moral issues of societal significance that need to be addressed in a principled and effective manner,” says USC College Dean Joseph Aoun. “Spanning disciplines to focus on real-world topics is a priority for the College and the opening of the Center for Law and Philosophy expands our expertise in this important program. This is the third exciting joint endeavor between the College and the Law School.”

The other two partnerships are the USC Center for Law, History and Culture, which fosters the study of law as a historical and cultural institution, and the Center for Law, Economics and Organization, a research center that improves our understanding of how economics, law and organizations interact.

The Faculty
Andrei Marmor, who was recruited last year as a philosophy and law professor, initiated the Center. He will co-direct the Center with Sharon A. Lloyd, a philosophy professor in the College.

“The Center really plays to our strengths here at USC,” says Marmor, who specializes in legal, moral and political philosophy. His writings include discussions about the nature of law and legal reasoning, the relations between law and morality, and the objectivity of values.

Lloyd is a political philosopher who is interested in questions of social justice, in “how to organize a pluralistic society in a way that is both functional and fair to all of its members.” She has written extensively on the work of Thomas Hobbes, who wrote in the 17th century during the English Civil War, a time she refers to as “another period of crisis where there were a host of conflicting religious views that needed to be accommodated.”

Presently, there are over a dozen professors from both schools who are affiliated with the Center, and their areas of expertise intersect with legal philosophy in a variety of places. Scott Altman, Associate Dean of the Law School and Virginia S. and Fred H. Bice Professor of Law, is an expert in family law, and his articles have included such topics as coercion, blackmail and equality norms in child custody cases. Associate professor of philosophy and law Gideon Yaffe focuses on the concepts of free will and responsibility.

“It is no longer feasible to have a strict division of labor between philosophers thinking about foundational questions of ethics and values, and legal theorists thinking within the confines of law,” explains Lloyd. “It is just as unfeasible given the moral importance and the complexities of the issues that law addresses.

“So we have to become better educated — philosophers about law and legal theorists in the foundations of philosophy — and to learn from one another. This Center is the way to do that.”
The Agenda
One of the Center’s primary goals is to create a joint J.D./Ph.D. in Philosophy program. Although a joint master’s program in philosophy and law is already in place, the increasingly specialized world of philosophy calls for a joint doctoral program that is not only time-effective, but also coherent and coordinated.

Also planned are “coffeehouse discussions,” where students, faculty and staff in the USC community will talk about issues of contemporary interest, such as just war theory and international law; distributive justice and the tax code; and environmental ethics and environmental law. These “coffeehouses” will be held twice a semester on campus, and will be open to the university community.

Good Luck or Bad Luck?
In March 2006, the Center will hold its first conference, “The Morality of Fortune and Misfortune.” The four panels will look at how luck or fate can play a role in moral responsibility — what is distributive justice if you’re born into wealth and power? Is it bad luck or the government’s responsibility if your house is destroyed in a flood? — by examining cases in private law as well as in the attitudes to fate in early modern or ancient philosophy.

“The Law School is a national leader in interdisciplinary legal education, and the Center for Law and Philosophy further extends USC’s ability to examine how the law intersects with and affects other disciplines,” says Matthew L. Spitzer, dean and Carl M. Franklin Professor of Law at the USC Gould School of Law. “Philosophical and moral questions are at the heart of nearly every legal issue. By critically examining how the law is informed by philosophical traditions — and vice versa — I’m certain this Center will make vital contributions to both fields.”