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A Student's Guide to the Study of Law

  • by Gerard V. Bradley


A Student’s Guide to the Study of Law might sound like a basic rulebook, a guide to the regulations governing a college campus, such as disciplinary procedures or which “help” number to call if you are picked up for underage drinking. This guide is altogether a different matter, however. It is not for students in trouble, but for those who wish to really understand the civil law of a political society such as the United States.

This slim volume focuses on matters that most law schools neglect, or teach badly, or both. Undergraduate law courses, or even graduate programs in legal philosophy, are little better. Outside the academy—in popular culture and in ambient political debate—it is also hard to get a reliable grip on the issues. This guide concentrates on what you need to know to really understand civil law but cannot easily find elsewhere.

“Really understand” sounds like one of those diaphanous phrases professors throw around like confetti. Not in this case. Part of what I mean by it is conveyed by the following anecdote: A mother asked her son after his first day of law school, “So, honey, how many laws did you learn today?” She expected that, on a good day, her son would bring home information such as how many directors it takes to make a corporation, or that the president’s term is four years, or that felonies are crimes punishable by more than a year in prison. That is not what learning law is really about, however, as it ignores the distinction between the information content of the legal system—so many laws—and law as a rich concept of how to order life in society. One can’t know law without knowing some laws, lest one be stuck trying to understand a ghost, or a null set. But law involves a lot more than the aggregate of all the laws one can memorize. Just think of the difference between facts about what happened a long time ago, and history as you learn it (or ought to learn it) in college or graduate school.

A Student’s Guide to the Study of Law is therefore not a compendium of laws. If you want to know what the rule against perpetuities is, or what one has to do to commit the crime of burglary in the third degree, look elsewhere: consult the standard reference works readily available to the practitioner, Google “burglary” and see what comes up, or enroll in law school. Law schools convey what the law is pretty effectively: they communicate the rules, statutes, decisions, and other verbal expressions of the positive law pretty well. But law schools do a poor job transmitting law’s moral foundations: they do not teach very well where law comes from, what it is for, and how to morally judge it. These are the “moral foundations of law” and are essential to a true understanding of the subject. And that is what this book is about.

This focus on “moral foundations” is not for high-flyers only—the overachievers destined for professional heights—but rather for anyone. Undergraduates studying law, curious students in other disciplines, and ordinary citizens trying to articulate their views on same-sex “marriage,” or capital punishment, or the exclusion of “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance: all can find their bearings in this book.

The foundational guidance every law student needs comprises two things. One is the conviction that law has foundations in objective morality. The other is a primer on the complex relationship between law and morality. Anyone possessed of both is equipped to tackle a lifetime of morally loaded challenges to the law, a menu of problems we see now only through a glass darkly, if we see them at all. Engendering that conviction and supplying that basic understanding are the objectives of this guide.

Understanding law and morality is not a mechanistic process. It involves some simple principles, but it is not akin to a simple equation or set of rules. Among other things, it is necessary to understand the moral truth that law is for persons—not the other way around—and the fact that no one has ever proposed that civil law simply reproduce morality. (More on these two propositions in chapter 1 and appendix E, respectively.) Understanding principles such as these is a necessary start—no more, no less—to getting law and morality right.

Morality and law do not follow a straight path, navigable once the autopilot is engaged, but instead follow a path more like that of a sailing vessel on a long and difficult journey. Basic principles are essential: sailors get lost without a compass heading, navigation skills, or knowledge of how a sailboat works. But sailors need more than that to get where they want to go. They have to respond to the sea and wind and weather conditions at hand, relying upon fundamental principles but creatively adapting them, tacking to and fro as they go. And it takes a captain’s mastery to get through the most challenging situations.

Morality and law are mutually engaged along a course that winds through a political society’s life. Sometimes the relationship is clean and simple, governed by straightforward principles. At other times it is a complex mix of contingencies, and it takes a master’s feel to get the matter right. No treatment of the relationship could be exhaustive; there are always new challenges calling forth creative responses to perennial principles. My intention here is to walk the reader through some of the difficult turnings on the path of law studies, and to show what some of the heavily traveled intersections of law and morality look like. This guide includes some thick descriptions of problem areas and contested terrain. Its method is often illustrative.

Chapter 1 looks at the extralegal moral realities—human persons and their communities—that law is intended to serve. It examines how U.S. law over the last generation or so has diverted law from the moral realities it is supposed to support. Our law now prizes consensus more than it does serving its true purposes.

Chapter 2 explores the pathways linking law to the surrounding culture and conventional morality. It also navigates the bramble patch of law’s “double” life. The prickly thing is that law is both prescriptive—a source of norms telling people what they ought to do—and descriptive, capable of being reported, with no normative import, as simply the say-so of some distant body of legislators or judges. Safety lies not in denying one or the other of law’s “lives,” but in integrating the two into a coherent understanding of law as both cultural artifact and moral norm.

Chapter 3 examines the role of religion and its relation to objective morality in our constitutional order. Finally, chapter 4 concerns the most practically important area of law: crime and punishment, the stuff of every other television program these days. In addition, there are six explanatory appendices to augment and further illustrate the arguments included in the text.

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