Moving Forward: A recharged law and philosophy program looks toward the future

“While people come and people go, philosophical questions are forever, and their fascination and importance never diminishes,” said University Professor Samuel Scheffler in opening remarks for NYU Law’s 2014-15 Colloquium in Legal, Political, and Social Philosophy. He had in mind two towering figures in legal philosophy at the Law School, Ronald Dworkin and Thomas Nagel. They co-founded the colloquium in 1987, and it quickly gained international renown and became a model for colloquia on a range of topics at NYU Law and elsewhere.

In 2013, Dworkin died and Nagel took emeritus status, but after a period of transition, legal philosophy at the Law School is energetically moving forward. Distinguished scholar Anthony Appiah has joined the faculty as a professor of philosophy and law; Liam Murphy, Herbert Peterfreund Professor of Law and Professor of Philosophy, has just published a foundational legal philosophy text; and leadership of the colloquium has passed to a new generation, with Murphy, Scheffler, and University Professor Jeremy Waldron now serving as co-convenors.

“Although the colloquium can never be the same without Tom and Ronnie leading it, the case for continuing to introduce students to its subjects, and for sustaining the intellectual community it created, seems to many of us compelling,” Scheffler said in his remarks.

Samuel Scheffler, Jeremy Waldron, and Liam Murphy.

By design, the colloquium features interaction between some of the most eminent names in legal philosophy and students just getting acquainted with the field, and the atmosphere in the Lester Pollack Colloquium Room, where it meets on Thursday afternoons, is at once rarified and accessible. In the colloquium format, a paper by a featured speaker is circulated in advance, and the speaker then answers questions from the convenors and others in attendance. “We get students talking to the authors of new work at the same level as faculty would be talking to them,” says Murphy. “That’s why we think of colloquia at NYU Law as the sort of apex of our curriculum.”

The law and philosophy colloquium, Waldron notes, brings in distinguished speakers from around the world and attendees from Columbia, Yale and other schools in the Northeast. “It is a showcase for NYU and it makes the colloquium into a sort of salon every Thursday afternoon for all the jurisprudential and philosophical talent in and around the city,” he says.

Waldron led off this year’s colloquium with a paper on the concept of accountability in democracy, and other NYU Law professors presenting so far this year include Gruss Professor of Law Moshe Halbertal, examining the “moral, political and epistemic” function of the “as a” locution (for example: “As a judge I issued a death penalty verdict for the defendant, but as a human being I oppose capital punishment.”), and Appiah on how events or policies that bring honor or shame might matter for “the public life of nations.”

While the discussions may be esoteric, Murphy says, “We’ve always tried to have speakers whose work is accessible to and relevant to legal scholars generally speaking. It’s not a cul-de-sac where a bunch of us who are good at philosophy get to talk about issues that only we are interested in.”

In his just published book, What Makes Law: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Law, Murphy says he similarly sought to avoid the tendency of legal philosophy to “become somewhat arid and inward looking.” On the question of the nature of law, legal philosophers broadly divide into two camps (positivists, who say law depends not on its merits, but on social facts, such as statutes and court rulings, and nonpositivists, who say law must incorporate moral considerations). “But rather than assuming these questions matter and getting into the finer details of arguments” for each camp, Murphy says his goal was “to stand back and give a big-picture look at why this matters.” He adds, “Along the way, in order to explain why the dispute matters, I have to explain why law matters.”

While the book is styled as an advanced introduction to legal philosophy, and could be used as a text in a jurisprudence class, Murphy says it is also “sufficiently opinionated” to be of use to a graduate-level student who is trying to figure out what to think about the issues. “I’m hoping it can operate at both levels,” he says.

The questions addressed in the legal philosophy colloquium and in What Makes Law are unlikely to appear on a bar exam. But, “In terms of training people who are thoughtful about legal institutions, and thoughtful about why we have them and how they can be reformed, then this kind of work is directly relevant,” Murphy says. “For law schools that train future policy makers and leaders, I think it’s entirely appropriate.”

Posted October 6, 2014