The Role of Emotion in Constitutional Theory

62 Pages Posted: 23 Aug 2021 Last revised: 12 May 2022

See all articles by J. Joel Alicea

J. Joel Alicea

Catholic University of America — Columbus School of Law

Date Written: August 13, 2021


Although the role of emotion in law has become a major field of scholarship, there has been very little attention paid to the role of emotion in constitutional theory. This Article seeks to fill that gap by providing an integrated account of the role of emotion within the individual, how emotion affects constitutional culture, and how constitutional culture, properly understood, should affect our evaluation of major constitutional theories.

The Article begins by reconstructing one of the most important and influential accounts of emotion in the philosophical literature: that of Thomas Aquinas. Because Aquinas’s description of the nature of emotion accords with modern science and the insights of many law-and-emotion theorists, it provides a firm foundation for an analysis of emotion in constitutional theory. Having laid that foundation, the Article examines the role of emotion in constitutional culture, the subset of national culture concerned with a constitution. Constitutional culture combines a society’s ideas about, and emotional attachments to, its constitution. Here, the Article develops a novel synthesis between Aquinas’s model of emotion and Edmund Burke’s sophisticated exploration of the importance of emotion in constitutional culture. Burke argues that theories of constitutional legitimacy shape constitutional culture and must accord with it. If a theory of legitimacy is at odds with a society’s constitutional culture, the society risks the instability of the regime. This insight—which is consistent with Aquinas’s model of emotion—is the primary basis for understanding the role of emotion in constitutional theory.

Finally, the Article turns its attention to constitutional theory. Observing that popular sovereignty is the theory of legitimacy endorsed by our constitutional culture, the Article argues—based on the synthesis of the Thomistic and Burkean accounts—that emotion should play an important role in evaluating the contours and viability of theories of legitimacy. Theories of legitimacy that accord with popular sovereignty have a stronger argument in their favor because they reinforce the emotional attachments that lend stability to our constitution. Theories of legitimacy that reject popular sovereignty, by contrast, must be modified or abandoned or, alternatively, must explain why attempts to change our constitutional culture will avoid the instability that the Thomistic and Burkean accounts would predict. The Article therefore has particular relevance to assessing radical constitutional theories—whether from the political right or the political left—that are critical of American constitutional culture. The Article concludes by exploring the implications of emotion for constitutional doctrine, focusing on stare decisis and the examples of Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973), and Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966).

Keywords: constitutional theory, law and emotion, Thomas Aquinas, Edmund Burke, theories of constitutional legitimacy

Suggested Citation

Alicea, J. Joel, The Role of Emotion in Constitutional Theory (August 13, 2021). Notre Dame Law Review, Vol. 97, No. 3, 2022, Available at SSRN:

J. Joel Alicea (Contact Author)

Catholic University of America — Columbus School of Law ( email )

3600 John McCormack Rd., NE
Washington, DC 20064
United States

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