Leveling Up

A listener to my podcast found useful a segment we did on leveling up in legal thinking. You can find that particular episode here. What follows is a slightly more careful introduction to that idea, at least as it exists now as a segment in the first draft of an introduction to a more general legal theory on which I'm working.

It may be helpful to reflect for a moment on how the legal student can be somewhat naturally led to the big questions after a time immersed in the study of practice. As with video games (and Dungeons and Dragons), continuously gained experience can win discrete jumps in understanding: levels. When I introduce the idea to students of leveling up, it never fails to earn a few chuckles and smirks. But it also helps them see what they already know but have usually not yet thought to acknowledge.

Assume for a moment that we know in rough detail what a legal system is and that it is in the business of, among other things, resolving definitively disputes among those who belong to it. Conceptually, we assume the following chart:

Dispute --> Legal System --> Judgment

The level one legal practitioner, just beginning his or her hero’s journey, would analyze the informational inputs concerning the dispute and the legal information available within the legal system and make a judgment. This judgment would, necessarily, connect the information concerning the dispute to the judgment according to some set of reasons. At level one, the practitioner is able to seize upon reasons that resolve the case.

For example, suppose one person demands payment from a business owner after being struck by a barrel that somehow fell out of the business’s second-story window. The level one practitioner, hearing these facts and various but contradictory sets of reasons for resolution urged by the two sides, believes the plaintiff should win. Perhaps he or she decides that (1) prior cases establish that negligent conduct that somehow directly (meaning, as far as the practitioner can tell, not too indirectly) injures someone creates a duty of compensation, (2) prior cases should be followed when they have a uniform implication for a present dispute, (3) that negligence should be found even when there is no direct information concerning the negligent actions themselves if the consequence of the unobserved actions can hardly be imagined to occur without negligence.

Armed with this set of reasons, the practitioner then concludes that barrels do not fall out of second-story windows without someone’s gross inattention and that there was no explanation from the business owner that would suggest otherwise. This being so, we should legally conclude the injury directly resulted from the negligence of the business owner. Because the prior cases uniformly find liability in cases like that (yes, we are traversing the void here) and because he or she is determined to follow the uniform command of precedent, the level one practitioner concludes that the legal system should order the business owner to compensate the victim.

Case after case is considered in more or less this way, at first. The rule ought to be “this,” because “that.” What about this other situation? Well there it ought to be “this other thing” for “these other reasons.” At some point, we should wake up a little and ask ourselves, “What reasons should be used to resolve cases?” It won’t do to form ephemeral attachments to reasons to resolve particular cases. We need to understand the set of reasons we will deploy a bit better. And perhaps we will argue about what constitutes a good reason and what sort of reason is not so good.

And here we are at level two: instead of plucking reasons from the ether and forming opinions about case outcomes, we are interested in the more general calculus of reasons that we will use to resolve cases. Is a concern with economic efficiency compatible with a belief that law should advance a particular conception of virtue ethics? Are there domains in which the two are compatible but other domains in which we must choose, somehow, which theory to bring to bear, and with it a cascade of reasons we will use to decide cases.

In the barrel case, should it matter what the social utility of the business’s product is and how liability might interfere with its mission? What if it’s extremely useful to some portion of the population but others think the business evil? (Maybe it’s building weapons that some believe critical for national defense and not immoral for that reason but that others believe is inherently immoral because of the particular way it maims.) Should the level of societal support for the business matter? Is there too steep a price in departing from the uniform view of the cases in situations that can be abstractly framed as “injuries proximately caused by negligence,” or would it be sound to carve out a social necessity defense?

Here, at level two, we might study the law not by cataloging its “rules” in situation after situation, but by more directly studying the reasons that seem to count and understanding why those that do not do not. Our investigation will cover different approaches that contain sets of reasons: economic efficiency, distributive justice, the problems of natural monopoly and collective action, the problem of informational asymmetries and more general imbalances in market power. At level two, our sophistication is such that we can bring a new kind of understanding to areas of the law we have not yet formally studied. We can begin to predict the kinds of arguments that will be made on each side. This, obviously, is a critical skill for an advocate.

Despite our new-found confidence, we find that we occasionally run into cases where the reasons for decision are of a type unlike the others. These are cases in which, whatever the reasons for reaching one conclusion or the other, there is yet another reason not to deploy them: that this decisionmaker is somehow the wrong one for the task of reason-choosing in this case. And so, perhaps, one argument in our barrel case is that our tribunal has never before found negligence and ordered compensation on that ground where the specific actions constituting negligence have not been described and that whether to create such reasons as would accomplish that task should be left not to us but to another institution, perhaps the legislature. Why? Well, maybe, we worry that allowing courts to find negligence without forming judgments about exactly what happened will lead to decisions to create categories of industrial output that are always compensable when they cause injury, without regard to the internal considerations of cost and benefit that a plaintiff would otherwise have some obligation to ferret out. Judges, acting case by case, might not appreciate the effects of those categorizations, making it too easy to bring lawsuits that have a chance of winning, and creating for too much social cost. Maybe broad-based hearings, across multiple industrial sectors, would be wise, and maybe the information thus adduced would counsel a more targeted solution to the problem of accidents that happen as a result of complex industrial processes. (Not that I find any of this compelling. We are talking about a kind of argument here.)

With this form of argumentation, we arrive at level three and with it a new model of the legal landscape. Our simplistic picture:

Dispute --> Legal System --> Resolution

was too simple to describe the sorts of considerations we think appropriate in many cases. A legal system is not just one decisionmaker, but many. And level three legal reasoning concerns not sifting through the reasons that will lead to case outcomes but to giving a reason to assign that level two task to a particular institution within the legal system. This is a question for the legislature. This one is for the courts. This is for an administrative agency. Those are conclusions about institutional assignment, and once we begin to speak in terms of those reasons, we command a much more sophisticated understanding of legal systems, because the decisionmaker considers whether it must apply its own reasons (in which case level two would suffice) or whether it must defer to the reasons chosen by others.

Once we have come this far, it is obvious there is yet at least one more level to attain. After all, once we say that we should ask what reason we have to assign a decision to a particular institution, we should recognize that we must have reasons for choosing among competing such reasons. And so level four is attained when the legal student recognizes that much of the work in law, and much dispute that seems bound up with substance, actually arises from disputes concerning the proper reasons to use when deciding on institutional assignment. I will become intensely interested in this sort of reasoning in much of what follows.

For now, just observe, for example, that people disagree about how courts should treat statutes (whether to confine their attention to portions of statutory text, whether to look at any of a number of dictionaries, whether to consult legislative metadata concerning the statute, whether to infer purposes and to aid those purposes, etc.). These disputes are, at bottom, disputes about what courts are and what legislatures are within the legal system, and those constitutive questions can be identified with the reasons an advocate has for believing particular sets of reasons should govern decision of the “who” question. Justice Scalia appears to believe, for example, that conservation of legitimacy is an overriding desiderata in developing theories of assignment and that unelected judges achieve legitimacy only by channeling the policies (the level two decisions) of elected bodies rather than making their own, because legitimacy arises primarily from relatively direct accountability to the people. Those who disagree with him have different level four theories of assignment. They may believe, for example, that while legitimacy is important, it is (a) achieved in part by pragmatic decisionmaking and not only by deferring or maybe (b) actually frustrated by clothing decisions in illusory certainty but is advanced by candor concerning the uncertainty of, say, constitutional or statutory meaning.

There are obviously many other potential elements of a level four theory. The point is that once we begin to discuss at this level, we can become clearer about what our actual disagreement concerns, where the irreducible and ultimately political judgment about control must lie. Level four is the most abstract of these and thus often naturally resisted by students. That is as it should be. We should only embrace abstraction when it makes our job easier and certainly, unless for sport, never when it makes our job harder. My point in this work is partly to reveal how abstraction is the process that makes legal systems possible in a practical sense.

A bit more deeply: abstraction is the way that humans naturally manage complex systems. A model, which you will recall is the basic unit of my argument in this work, is a conceptual linking of abstractions. All of the levels I have described here represent different ways of thinking about a practitioner’s job within a legal system, yes, but they also proceed from different models of what the legal system is: either including different institutions or blocks or different understandings for how those institutions process information. That claim is one way of setting up a major objective of the theory I propound here.