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Law and Emotion: Possible Impacts of a New Understanding of the Role of Emotion in Law


I had the great pleasure to lecture at the 2nd Colloquium on Law of the Schweizerische Studienstiftung (Swiss Study Foundation), a foundation aimed at creating an interdisciplinary network among young high-potentials in Switzerland. Daniel Haeusermann had been on the planning committee of yesterday’s event, and so it might be less of a surprise that the Colloquium’s topic was “Law and Emotion”.

It was a lot of fun to present some of my theses on this multi-faceted topic. First of all, the Colloquium’s participants were very well prepared and made the discussion really interesting. Second, my Univ. of St. Gallen colleague Prof. Thomas Geiser did a great job in moderating the long day (room with no windows, wonderful sunshine outside…). Third, the Foundation invited a wonderful group of speakers, including Prof. Sandoz and retired Swiss Supreme Court Judge Franz Nyffeler. Last, but not least, it was the first time that I had the opportunity to speak at the same conference as my dad, Dr. Peter Gasser. He gave us a wonderful overview of the current state of the art of psychological and neuro-research on emotions.

I started my presentation with the thesis all speakers seemed to agree upon: Research (as well as life experience) suggests that emotions are constitutive and important elements of almost any phenomena with legal relevance. The emotional component is not limited to facts of the case before the court, but also includes decision-making processes by prosecutors, judges, legislators, etc. In some instances, the legal system is conscious about the emotional element – and in some instances it even explicitly addresses emotional phenomena, both with regard to norms applicable to the facts of a case (take, e.g., mitigating circumstances in criminal law; emotional injury in torts law) and the norms aimed at governing the legal decision-making process (e.g. the duty to recuse oneself in procedure law). In most cases, however, the legal system and its lawyers ignore the role of emotions and/or pretends to be “rational” (this perception of law might be particularly widespread among continental European lawyers).

Against this backdrop, I’m arguing that emotions – and research on emotions – play an important role at two levels, each level consisting of two elements: the analytical level with the elements “phenomenon” (stipulated facts, Sachverhalt) and “legal actors” (judges, attorneys, juries, etc.), and the design level with the components “norms applicable to the facts of the case,” and “norms governing the production of law” (e.g. procedure law). Here’s a rough sketch of the proposed framework:

  • Analytical level:
    • Phenomenon: Using the example of P2P filesharing, I tried to illustrate how a better understanding of the role of emotions (and that means: acknowledging emotions in the first place), makes us better observers and may lead to a deeper understanding of phenomena with legal relevance.
    • Legal actors: Inclusion of insights from research on emotions may make us better legal professionals and thus improve the legal system. I used research on prosecutors’ strong feelings of loyalty as an example.
  • Design level:
    • Norms applicable to facts: New findings about emotions might force us to re-consider existing distinctions and think about new ones. I used the example of adjudicative competence (Dusky standard) as an illustration of this point (see this paper).
    • Norms governing the production of law: New insights might lead to new mechanisms and fora that enable the system‘s actors to express, display, channel, balance, … emotional and rational elements of reasoning in a structured and discursive way. Consider, for example, procedural „speed bumps“ that would slow down legislation that is driven by fear – using the rapidly-enacted Patriot Act as a case in point.

In sum, law and emotion research and scholarship has an important agenda-setting function. The trickiest question, in my view, is as to what extent we (as a society) want to include insights from the sciences of mind. The heated debate about the existence of a free will – triggered by new neuro-biological and neuro-psychological findings – nicely illustrates this normative challenge before us.

My personal view is that we should include as much insights from science as we can as far as the analytical level is concerned. In contrast, I would be much more careful about applying insights from emotion research at the level of norm design. Although it is important to gain a better understanding of emotions at the design level, we would probably be ill-advised to incorporate latest insights from research on emotions without thoroughly discussing the normative implications of it on a case-by-case basis.

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