In the Classroom

Corollaries, Legal and Otherwise Viewing the First Amendment in a philosophical context

After taking Professor Martha Nussbaum’s spring class Religion and the First Amendment, students are certainly familiar with the Supreme Court rulings on the public display of the Ten Commandments. But they can also quote Locke, Rousseau and Rawls.

Illustration
Keith Negley

Nussbaum is a philosopher and legal scholar who was visiting from the University of Chicago. While her class involved a full survey of relevant First Amendment cases, she challenged students (drawn from the college and graduate schools, including the law school) to see the law not just through existing cases, but also through the scrim of philosophical argument. In part, this meant asking where the world’s philosophers might come down on our religious and ethical traditions, and where the Court, in making law, has either upheld those traditions or set them aside.

“I want students to understand how general philosophical principles and legal decision-making are related,” said Nussbaum. “That is, to see that the legal tradition does incorporate some general principles that are also debated in the philosophical tradition, and to think about those relationships.”

Nussbaum, who is writing a book on the First Amendment and religion, believes those primarily interested in law get two benefits from studying the philosophical texts (“in addition to the benefit of their intrinsic value and beauty”). “First, the framers were steeped in philosophy, and these ideas influenced their formulations,” she said. “So if one is interested in the history of the religion clauses, one should understand where the framers were coming from. Second, the philosophical texts make clear and formulate rigorously some abstract goals and principles that are embedded in the legal tradition, so that studying them helps us think better about those goals and principles.”

Phil Tedesco ’09 agrees. He says reading Locke’s “A Letter Concerning Toleration,” and Rawls’ “Political Liberalism” gave him a framework for the Supreme Court decisions on issues like school prayer.

“You’re working through it and thinking, Hey, these philosophers had a vision for society,” Tedesco said. “You could just see the whole arc. It makes you think about what a just society can be.”

—Flynn Monks


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