Moral Imagination in Judging
24 Pages Posted: 24 Oct 2011 Last revised: 19 Mar 2017
Date Written: October 23, 2011
The debate over the role of empathy in judging has revealed a tenaciously hardy folk conception of judicial deliberation and the judicial role. This concept is most crudely captured in Chief Justice Roberts’ well-known “umpire” metaphor, in which judges leave all their preconceptions and values behind and simply discover and apply the law “as written.” This conception is the legal variant of the hardy philosophical notion that moral reasoning is the process of discovering and applying a system of universal moral laws, and that these laws exist in a realm that transcends individual subjectivity. If laws are universal, timeless and discoverable, then a decision-maker’s attributes, beliefs and values; his or her situatedness in a tradition, a culture, a historical time and place, can only be impediments to rational decision-making.
This notion of rationality has long been a subject of criticism, but few of its critics have had kind words for the role of empathy or moral imagination in the judicial process. Yet empathy and moral imagination implicate questions that go to the heart of longstanding jurisprudential debates. What role should a judge’s prior assumptions and values play in decision-making? What factors are relevant to principled adjudication? How do judges give meaning to spacious, indeterminate terms like due process and equal protection of law? What institutional reforms might serve to improve the quality of the deliberative process? I will argue that the denial of indeterminacy and the myth of the omniscient judge pose significant barriers to the rule of law. The widespread reaction against the role of empathy is based on unrealistic and largely undefended notions of the judicial role and the process of judicial deliberation. More broadly, it reflects assumptions about deliberation that are increasingly out of synch with developing understandings of moral cognition. Empathy and moral imagination, properly understood, are part of the solution to the problem of unaccountable judges interpreting indeterminate law, rather than part of the problem.
Keywords: judging, cognitive psychology, empathy, moral imagination, rationality, emotion
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