Dissertation: "Essays in Experimental Jurisprudence"

Many significant debates in legal philosophy turn on empirical questions about ordinary concepts and meaning. My Ph.D. dissertation (awarded with distinction, May 2019) addresses these questions with the tools of experimental philosophy and philosophical analysis. The first three chapter-essays address specific issues in philosophy of law. The fourth chapter reflects on the broader relationship between ordinary concepts and meaning, and legal ones.


Chapter I, "How People Judge What Is Reasonable," evaluates ordinary judgments of reasonableness. A classic legal philosophy debate concerns the nature of “reasonableness”: Should reasonableness be understood descriptively (like averageness) or prescriptively (like cost-benefit welfare maximization)? This chapter elaborates and defends a third possibility. Reasonableness is a partly descriptive and partly prescriptive “hybrid concept” (like normality). The chapter investigates how ordinary people actually make reasonableness judgments, finding that mean judgments of reasonableness are systematically intermediate between mean judgments of the relevant average and ideal, across numerous legal domains. The chapter uses this empirical discovery to support a normative theory of reasonableness—how reasonableness standards should be applied.

Chapter II, "Legal Concepts and Legal Expertise," examines relationship between ordinary concepts and legal concepts, through a case study of the concept of intentional action. Experimental studies often assume that findings about ordinary concepts generalize to legal decision making contexts involving ordinary language (e.g. “intentionally,” “cause,” “consent,” “reasonable,” “knowingly”). This assumption raises a broader legal question: Are legal concepts identical to ordinary concepts? I evaluate this question by testing attributions of intentional action across four populations: ordinary people, “elite” law students, “elite” non-law students, and United States judges. Judgment of what actions are “intentional” differed dramatically among these populations. The results suggest that legal training teaches distinctive concepts that trained experts deploy in legal contexts. This study has implications for legal debates about education, interpretation, and judge/jury decision-making, as well as the cognitive science of concepts, learning, and expertise.

Chapter III, "Testing Ordinary Meaning," investigates how philosophies of interpretation establish the “ordinary meaning” of legal texts. Various philosophical theories of legal meaning—for example, public meaning originalism—increasingly draw on empirical tools to discern a legal text’s original public meaning. For example, theorists look to dictionaries and corpus linguistics to provide evidence about ordinary meaning. I argue that before relying upon these sources of interpretive evidence, these tools should be tested and evaluated. The chapter develops and defends a method of evaluating some of these tools, providing evidence about their accuracy and reliability in interpretation. I begin by conducting an experimental study of ordinary meaning in the present moment: Are modern dictionaries and corpora accurate measures of modern meaning? These studies provide evidence about the accuracy of these methods today, and the chapter’s latter part defends a historical inference: The findings about these methods’ modern accuracy provide evidence about their historical accuracy.

Chapter IV, "Experimental Jurisprudence," investigates some broader philosophical questions that are relevant to the first three chapter-essays and the dissertation’s broader themes. In all three chapters, the experimental study of ordinary meaning, judgment, or concepts enriches debates in legal philosophy. The chapter further analyzes how experimental-philosophical methodologies advance the study of legal-philosophical topics.

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