Philosophical problems rest at the heart of each area of law. Criminal law punishes people for wronging others, but what conduct is wrong exactly, and do current criminal laws prohibit only such conduct? Civil rights law prohibits discrimination, but what kinds of differential treatment are morally troubling and why? Family law governs relationships among adults and between adults and children, but what right does the state have to intervene in our personal affairs and what rights and responsibilities do parents with respect to children? Constitutional law offers special protection for freedom of speech and religion, but are speech and religion really special?
Legal philosophy also asks foundational questions about the nature of law and about which methods of legal interpretation are most justified. To discern the rule created by a statute, should judges look only at its text or may they also look to the purpose of its drafters? Should courts be bound by the rulings of past judges, and to what extent? Do our answers to these interpretive questions differ when it comes to the Constitution? Finally, jurisprudence interrogates ideas about law that underlie all these debates. When does a rule qualify as a rule of “law,” as distinct from a rule of morality or etiquette? Law purports to bind citizens and officials. Is law simply a system of rules issued by an authority and enforced with coercion, or must a law be minimally just to count as binding? In any case, what is an “authority,” and what makes an authority legitimate?
These questions of legal philosophy are not merely academic. They bear on pressing questions of social justice. The moral and philosophical assumptions that structure our current law may be justified or may be ripe for critique and revision. The Virginia faculty associated with the Center for Law & Philosophy investigate each of these questions, as well as many others. The center also facilitates exceptional scholarship through its Legal Theory Workshop and occasional symposia. We look forward to examining these questions with our students.