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July 31, 2017

Amoral Machines, Or: How Roboticists Can Learn to Stop Worrying and Love the Law

The media and academic dialogue surrounding high-stakes decisionmaking by robotics applications has been dominated by a focus on morality. But the tendency to do so while overlooking the role that legal incentives play in shaping the behavior of profit-maximizing firms risks marginalizing the field of robotics and rendering many of the deepest challenges facing today’s engineers utterly intractable. This Essay attempts to both halt this trend and offer a course correction. Invoking Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes's canonical analogy of the “bad man . . . who cares nothing for . . . ethical rules,” it demonstrates why philosophical abstractions like the trolley problem—in their classic framing—provide a poor means of understanding the real-world constraints robotics engineers face. Using insights gleaned from the economic analysis of law, it argues that profit-maximizing firms designing autonomous decisionmaking systems will be less concerned with esoteric questions of right and wrong than with concrete questions of predictive legal liability. Until such time as the conversation surrounding so-called “moral machines” is revised to reflect this fundamental distinction between morality and law, the thinking on this topic by philosophers, engineers, and policymakers alike will remain hopelessly mired. Step aside, roboticists—lawyers have this one.

July 6, 2017

Engines of Anxiety Interview with Wendy Espeland and Michael Sauder

How have law school rankings affected legal education and the lives of admissions officers, deans, and students? Learn more in this interview with Professors Wendy Espeland and Michael Sauder on their book Engines of Anxiety.

June 13, 2017

Clarence Thomas the Questioner

One of Justice Clarence Thomas’s most remarked upon characteristics is his reluctance to ask questions during oral argument. Observers have criticized him for his silence, with some suggesting that it reflects disrespect for his colleagues and the advocates appearing before the Supreme Court. Others defend his silence, noting, for instance, that historically oral argument played a much less significant role and that Thomas’s written opinions speak for themselves. What has been overlooked in this debate, however, is the fact that Justice Thomas is very talented at asking questions. Indeed, in many ways, he is a model questioner. Drawing on the most comprehensive collection of Thomas’s oral argument questions ever compiled, we urge the Justice to ask more questions for a new reason: he is good at it.

May 29, 2017

Local Democracy on the Ballot

In this Essay, Joshua A. Douglas highlights how local voter-backed initiatives can play a significant role in dictating voting rights and election rules. The Essay provides courts with a test to employ when facing an inevitable judicial challenge to one of these local election law initiatives. Professor Douglas argues that courts should generally defer to local rules that expand the electorate or open up the political process to more people, but should not defer to local voting restrictions or rules that tend to aggrandize the majority’s control or lead to entrenchment. He concludes that local laws that enhance democratic participation by expanding the electorate or reducing campaign finance barriers to running for office epitomize the benefits of local democracy and deserve judicial deference.