New York Times columnnist David Brooks had a nice op-ed, “The Empathy Issue,” picking up some of the themes in the recent op-ed by Situationist Contributors Adam Benforado and Jon Hanson. Here are some excerpts.
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The American legal system is based on a useful falsehood. It’s based on the falsehood that this is a nation of laws, not men; that in rendering decisions, disembodied, objective judges are able to put aside emotion and unruly passion and issue opinions on the basis of pure reason.
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Supreme Court justices, like all of us, are emotional intuitionists. They begin their decision-making processes with certain models in their heads. These are models of how the world works and should work, which have been idiosyncratically ingrained by genes, culture, education, parents and events. These models shape the way judges perceive the world.
As [Situationist Contributor] Dan Kahan of Yale Law School has pointed out, many disputes come about because two judges look at the same situation and they have different perceptions about what the most consequential facts are. One judge, with one set of internal models, may look at a case and perceive that the humiliation suffered by a 13-year-old girl during a strip search in a school or airport is the most consequential fact of the case. Another judge, with another set of internal models, may perceive that the security of the school or airport is the most consequential fact. People elevate and savor facts that conform to their pre-existing sensitivities.
The decision-making process gets even murkier once the judge has absorbed the disparate facts of a case. When noodling over some issue — whether it’s a legal case, an essay, a math problem or a marketing strategy — people go foraging about for a unifying solution. This is not a hyper-rational, orderly process of the sort a computer might undertake. It’s a meandering, largely unconscious process of trial and error.
The mind tries on different solutions to see if they fit. Ideas and insights bubble up from some hidden layer of intuitions and heuristics. Sometimes you feel yourself getting closer to a conclusion, and sometimes you feel yourself getting farther away. The emotions serve as guidance signals, like from a GPS, as you feel your way toward a solution.
Then — often while you’re in the shower or after a night’s sleep — the answer comes to you. You experience a fantastic rush of pleasure that feels like a million tiny magnets suddenly clicking into alignment.
Now your conclusion is articulate in your consciousness. You can edit it or reject it. You can go out and find precedents and principles to buttress it. But the way you get there was not a cool, rational process. It was complex, unconscious and emotional.
The crucial question in evaluating a potential Supreme Court justice, therefore, is not whether she relies on empathy or emotion, but how she does so. . . .
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To read the entire op-ed, click here. For some related Situationist posts, see “The News Situation of Judge Sotomayor’s Nomination” and “The Situation of Judicial Activism,” which contains links to still more related posts.