Emily Kidd White (LL.M. ’09, J.S.D. ’15) is one of 14 recipients of a 2013 Trudeau Foundation Scholarship. The most prestigious doctoral award of its kind in Canada, the award includes a $60,000 grant for each of the three years of the scholarship, and goes to the best and brightest social sciences and humanities doctoral students undertaking innovative research on issues critical to Canadians. Scholars also earn the chance to interact with leaders in Canadian academia and society in face-to-face meetings, through public policy networks, and at public forums hosted by the Trudeau Foundation.
White is examining how to use emotions in the service of human rights and dignity within the context of judicial decisions, which have traditionally been seen as inappropriate instances in which to heed emotions. “The concept of human dignity holds a central place in international and domestic human rights law,” said White, adding, “The legal commitment to human dignity is meant to have force. Yet, the concept seems resistant to concrete definition. Existing theoretical accounts of human dignity fail to consider the important role that emotions play in judicial understandings of its infringement. The dissertation addresses this gap by investigating how the concept helps rights claimants expose the injustice of a legislative scheme or government act through the admission of evidence detailing suffering and degradation.”
The lack of a complete understanding of the legal concept of human dignity troubles White, who says that without such an understanding courts cannot make good on their promise to protect human dignity. A further risk is that judges, scholars, and practitioners who lack an understanding of the concept's depth, nature, and purchase might too readily dismiss the concept as contentless or rhetorical. Her central claim is that “to adjudicate properly the evaluative legal concept of human dignity, legal reasoning must both draw on certain social emotions and keep negative emotions at bay. A more critical approach to the study of emotion is needed.” White’s dissertation begins by offering a methodology to approach the study of emotions and an argument for how particular emotions, such as contempt, disgust, pity, or empathy, play an important role in evaluative judgment. She argues that a better understanding of the role of emotion helps to illuminate not only how human dignity is invoked in the adjudication of rights claims but also how the concept of human dignity relates to the procedural and evidentiary laws which govern the adjudication of rights claims.
White earned an LL.M. in international legal studies from NYU Law, receiving the Jerome Lipper Prize for distinction in the program and later a Doctoral Scholarship. Before entering the J.S.D. Program, White was the associate editor of the European Journal of International Law, a research fellow at the Jean Monnet Center for Regional and International Economic Law and Justice, and a teaching assistant at the Institute for International Law and Justice. White worked as a litigation associate at McMillan LLP in Toronto after receiving her LL.B. at Queen’s University in Ontario; she previously earned a bachelor’s degree in politics and philosophy from the same institution. As an undergraduate, she interned with Ontario’s Ministry of Public Safety and Security and with the Ministry of Correctional Services and the Solicitor General.
White is grateful for the access that the Trudeau Scholarship affords her to influential and innovative Canadian scholars and policymakers, as well as the opportunity to present her work and build professional relationships with her colleagues. “Theoretically,” she says, “my project breaks new ground in its reaction against a dominant strain in legal theory that maintains that emotions always have a negative effect on legal reasoning. Practically and politically, my project is important for understanding how courts come to recognize the pernicious effects of a legislative scheme or government act on a vulnerable group or individual.”
University Professor Jeremy Waldron, White’s doctoral supervisor, called her Trudeau Scholarship “a well-deserved recognition.” He added, “She is doing difficult and challenging work on the role of the emotions in law, particularly in the area of human rights and the invocation of ‘human dignity’ in legal argument. These are all neglected areas, although one or two brave scholars have been trying to develop theories of the affirmative importance of the emotions in legal reasoning and legal knowledge. The distinctive thing about Emily's work is that she brings to bear important insights from the philosophy of the emotions to understand the emotional significance of appeals to dignity in human rights cases. What she is addressing is something that is often dismissed as merely ‘emotive’ or merely ‘sentimental.’ But Emily has been able to show how important the emotional dimension is for a full-blooded understanding of what matters in certain kinds of legal argument. Without it we have no real understanding of the relevant values. We should all be proud of this work being done in our doctoral program, and proud of the recognition that Emily has received in this award.”
Posted on June 18, 2013