“Law constantly reassesses its underlying assumptions in light of scientific advances,” said Dean Joan G. Wexler in introducing the symposium held on September 26, 2008 at Brooklyn Law School, “Is Morality Universal and Should the Law Care?” Co-sponsored by the Center for the Study of Law, Language and Cognition and the Brooklyn Law Review, the symposium was organized by Brooklyn Law School Professor Bailey Kuklin and Don Forchelli Professor of Law and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs Lawrence Solan.
As science explores new territories, many new questions have arisen: To what extent should the law respond to new learning in the cognitive sciences? Should advances in this field impact society’s notion of morality — particularly because so much of the underlying science remains a matter of debate? Or, on the contrary, is morality universal? If morality is universal, where does the consensus lie about “right” and “wrong” behavior? Three panels composed of scientists, philosophers, linguists, historians and psychologists provided a cross-disciplinary perspective into these questions, focusing on what constitutes morality, and how morality should — or should not — impact established legal principles.
The first panel explored the topic “Moral Universals vs. Adaptive Flexibility” and featured a discussion of the difference between predictive and justificatory modes, the former of which promotes compliance with laws and the latter, justification for them. The second panel discussed moral attribution topics, including the insanity defense and Associate Dean Solan’s empirical research on outcomes and intent. Discussant Joshua Knobe, University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill Assistant Professor of Philosophy, responded to Solan’s argument, focusing on potential implications of his “conversational pragmatics” approach.
The final panel, which was moderated by Professor Kevin Carlsmith of the Department of Psychology at Colgate University, addressed the question, “How Universal are Moral Universals?” Three case studies in developmental psychology as well as cognitive theories were addressed, and the moderator, BLS Professor Michael Cahill, asked the panel to what level morality is universal, and whether the law should include, or ignore, morality in general. He focused on whether people have impulses to favor and disfavor certain behavior, and whether the law should take on the role of shaping and changing social norms.
The symposium finished with panelists entertaining questions from audience members. Professor Carlsmith concluded that laws cannot exist without moral statements, since, even if not speaking in particulars, laws speak with a “moral voice.”
Read papers from the Symposium.