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Philosophy, Lawyering, and Partisanship

Professor Christopher Green explains how philosophical training can be a double edged sword for a lawyer. Philosophy teaches a person to draw distinctions but someone could use that skill exclusively to argue in favor of a partisan position. On the other hand, a well trained lawyer can use the skill to find common ground with an opponent by drawing distinctions between opinions and facts that people can agree on. https://youtube.com/watch?v=OunRVAkbrwY


Well, one thing I could tell a student who is wondering how thinking about philosophy, thinking about jurisprudence, is going to affect them as a lawyer, uh I might begin, actually, by causing them to be more worried about that case. So if you look at philosophical reasoning in ethics, unfortunately, it seems to be the case that an awful lot of people who learn how to draw very careful ethical distinctions tend to be much better about weaseling out of their obligations as a matter of morality. If you think about children who get really, really good at drawing distinctions, they tend to be able to evade your instructions and do things they really know they shouldn't be doing but they say, "Well, mama and daddy did not tell me exactly not to do that thing." So philosophical skill and artistry can be a dangerous thing with respect to morality. So I would start out with a student like that saying, "Well, you should be a little bit more worried maybe than even you were before." On the other hand, if you are able to draw distinctions, if you are able to have good philosophical sense drawing the distinctions that are real, good, proper distinctions, you're going to be a better lawyer and you're going to be a better judge. That's what lawyers do, that's what judges do, draw distinctions properly. So philosophical technical training is different from being a good philosopher. Being good at drawing distinctions is different from drawing the right distinctions. One thing that philosophical distinctions can bring to our political dynamic is that they give the opportunity for intermediate positions so we don't have to have all-or-nothing answers to questions. So if you read through Aristotle, you'll very, very frequently find him answering some question, "Well, that's true in one sense and not true in another." So if you look at the meaning-application distinction, it gives you the opportunity for a nuanced response. One thing that a meaning-application distinction gives you is it gives people the opportunity to say, "Well, we agree about the general principle here, what we disagree about is the facts." So you can clarify exactly what it is you disagree about. So if you're careful about distinguishing between merely verbal disputes and real disputes about the nature of reality, it can help lower the temperature, allow people to be more careful and slow down and not tear each other to pieces, thinking they disagree about absolutely everything. If you make careful distinctions, it's easier to find common ground. You might think about if you're looking for common ground on a particular area of ground, the more subdivisions you make in the ground and small bit distinctions between one kind of position and another, the more distinctions like that you make, the more likely it is that you're going to find that two people have the same views about at least some small part of it. And if people can agree about at least one small part of it, well that's something you can build on. But if you are viewing everything as an undifferentiated mass, if you see your political opponents as entirely wrong about every single thing they say, it's going to be much more difficult to have a common political life.

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