I am the moral equivalent of someone who would let a child die to spare my luxury car. I am the moral equivalent of someone who would let a child drown to avoid getting my jeans muddy and possibly missing my 11:00 secured transactions class. I am the moral equivalent of someone who would taunt a beggar with delicious food and then give it to a wealthy passer-by.
How did I learn that I'm such an awful person?
I read the Harvard Law Review.
Well, not all the way through. I'm not trying to bleed out the ears, for God's sake. But when I saw this post at Above the Law, I was successfully tempted into reading this unsigned student note in the latest HLR. I emerged hating children in harm's way approximately 200% more than before I read it. If one of my kids gets trapped in the dryer or something when there's something halfway-decent on TV, they're fucked.
The thrust of the unsigned HLR note is not legal, at least the way I understand legal. The Harvard Law Review is an stubbornly prestigious publication which typically features two types of articles: (1) densely footnoted discussions of complex questions of law, and (2) densely footnoted screeds about leftist legal theories that bear the same relation to the operation of our legal system as, say, furry fandom webpages bear to the operation of the stock market (that is to say, abject fanaticism and total lack of appropriate socialization aside, none whatsoever).
But this student note (typically a brief and uncredited discussion by a law review member on a legal issue of the day) is different. The note, titled "Never Again Should a People Starve In a World of Plenty," is not densely footnoted. It has a couple of dozen footnotes, many of which are to web pages (no, not furry ones). This note is a philosophical meditation of a sort. Specifically, it is of the sort or philosophical meditation you would expect a freshman at his safety school turn in to his remedial-level logic class, precipitating a deeply uncomfortable discussion in which the teaching assistant asks the student whether he has ever considered a developing a trade.
The note, aimed at law students everywhere, asserts that they ought to be working in the public interest, and giving some unidentified amount of their salaries to UNICEF, because if they do not, they are akin to a character in an improbable hypothetical involving an imperiled child. You see, if you can destroy your Ferrari to save a child's life, you should. Therefore, you don't need a Ferrari in the first place, and if you have one you should send it to UNICEF, who will send it to someplace where children will eat it or something.
The author's moral lessons are simplistic, sanctimonious, shallow, and riddled with strawmen. The note compares consumers who spend money on goods and services, as opposed to sending money to starving children, to someone who could throw a switch to save a child but saves his car instead. Faced with the obvious question: shouldn't we all just be squatting in the rocks and eating gruel, having weighed each and every purchase against the lives of children? — the author falls back and calls in Mr. Smug, the punter:
This Note is not arguing that nobody is ever justified in buying coffee. The point is simply that, given the global context of suffering and poverty, each one of our spending decisions must be scrutinized. We have to live our lives in a manner consistent with our moral beliefs. Each time we spend money on an item of luxury, we are like Phil, standing next to that switch. The decision, in the end, is up to each person to make for herself. But we have to make the decision each time, and we have to justify why we are making the decision, because it is simply unacceptable for Phil to walk away without so much as an explanation about why he is letting that child die.
The note's author shrewdly avoids discussing whether his or her parents weighed Harvard tuition against the interests of starving children.
The author uses the same sort of logic to suggest that law students ought to abandon "corporate law" (a stereotyped and undifferentiated term the author uses to describe any non-public-interest law career — perhaps best defined as "any job in which your desk is made of wood rather than painted metal") in favor of public interest law. This permits the author to demonstrate his or her fondness for circular reasoning (or, as Dilbert put it, "having no loose ends"):
Lawyers, like other institutional actors, are in a special position in society because they are bound both by the rules of morality and by the principles of justice. While morality binds all individuals, justice applies to institutions. As a result, individuals who also serve an institutional role are bound by both morality and justice. Because lawyers clearly have an institutional role — their actions affect how people are treated relative to one another in the legal system — they are obligated to pursue justice. But because lawyers are also human beings, they are obligated to follow morality.
The student author also has an opportunity to demonstrate his or her complete lack of understanding of debt in general and the realities of student debt in particular in sneeringly dismissing debt repayment as an excuse to go work for a law firm rather than Habitat for Humanity:
Law students may be quick to argue that, unlike Phil, they face the prospect of enormous debt. But the point about debt is merely another version of the argument for making lots of money. Debt is nothing more than a monthly payment — it can thus be thought of as a portion out of your salary. Suppose you choose a public interest job that pays $4,800 per month. If your debt payments are $500 per month, then your monthly earnings become $4,300. On an annual scale, that debt turns a $57,000 yearly salary into a $51,000 yearly salary. The desire to make a higher wage is no different than before — the fact of debt does not change the moral calculation because it is simply another example of the urge to earn more money.
Well! That's settled then!
I have to admit that I'm fascinated by this student note. Who wrote it? What HLR committee approved it? Did a faculty member review it? What possessed them to print this vapid tract in a law review anyway? How, exactly, does this student think that an economy works? Do legal aid jobs create wealth? Does wealth spring into being when you file amicus briefs, like a loot drop? Does the student imagine that corporate clients pay law firms — and that law firms pay associates — out of rich-kid chumminess or charity? What does the law student think happens to the money used to purchase "luxuries"? Is it used to light the cigars of robber barons? Does it vanish into the ether?
Most of all, I'm fond of it because it helps us see the man behind the curtain. Face it — Harvard Law students, including ones who wind up on the law review, are just as likely to be malcontent nitwits with delusions of profundity as the guy who graduated last in his class from the Billy Bob School of Law and Animal Husbandry. The fact that an article wound up in the HLR does not make it any more notable, credible, or right than if you found it on a mimeographed flier stuck under your windshield wiper.
I didn't learn that in public interest law.
Last 5 posts by Ken White
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