Helplessness: Why this philosopher needs a law degree

Do you think the world is basically just? Do people get what they deserve most of the time? Provoked by an article in The Guardian entitled “Believing that Life is Fair Makes You a Terrible Person,” I discussed this question with one of my best law school friends on a ride home from school. Neither of us could square the idea of fairness with the world in front of us, and I think that is why we are both in law school.

The article discusses a theory– the just-world hypothesis– based on a number of studies. The theory suggests that people just can’t handle being helpless in the face of great injustice. So they find ways of imagining that the injustice is deserved. They imagine that this poor family is lazy, that black man was a criminal, or this woman was asking for it.  On the other hand, the same studies suggest that when terrible things happen and there is a concrete way to help, people tend to sympathize with the sufferer rather than blaming her.

After working in political philosophy for several years, I have thought about injustice a lot. I have read about global poverty, the prison system, the 400,000 unprocessed rape kits in the United States, to name a few issues. As a philosopher, I argue a lot. Sometimes I change people’s minds, but mostly I feel helpless.

Am I just to supposed to write paper after paper detailing why this is unjust, and that is too?

I am not dismissing the discipline of philosophy. In fact, the philosophers whom I admire most have all found ways of having a real impact on the world. Here are two examples: Catharine MacKinnon who was extremely influential in making sexual harassment a legally cognizable harm (also a lawyer), and my partner, who studies immigration and philosophy while mentoring immigrant students at his university (not a lawyer).

The more I worked on theories of (in)justice, the more helpless I felt. The myriad ways that people intentionally and unintentionally hurt each other was making me feel like one of the interviewees in those Onion pieces with titles like “Jesus, This Week” and “American Dream Dies as Last Believer Gives Up“.

How can we do better at finding and prosecuting rapists? How can we reshape the criminal justice system so that it is not disproportionately affecting African and Latino Americans? What educational policies would actually help poor kids get ahead? Philosophy is not great at answering these kinds of questions, but these are the answers that might pull me out of that psychologically intolerable state of helplessness.

So far, I have not learned the answers to any of these questions in law school. Not one. But, as several of my professors have explained, when you have a law degree, you are actually in a better position than almost anyone else to make these changes. You might argue a case that alters legal interpretation; you might become a law-maker or policy advisor who can re-write unfair laws and introduce better legislation; or you might get a visa for one victim of domestic abuse so that she is not deported while trying to leave her husband. You might find a concrete way to help. I am hoping I can.

Amelia Wirts is pursuing a joint degree in philosophy and law at Boston College. She has already spent four years working toward her PhD, focusing on political philosophy, moral theory, and philosophy of law. She intends to bring abstract theories of justice, obligation, and autonomy to the ground by understanding the ways that laws and public policies enable or undermine our political and moral lives. She is especially concerned with the gender-based and racial injustices imbedded in the legal system. You can email her at ameliawirts[at]gmail[dot]com if you are interested in pursuing a joint degree in philosophy and law at BC, or if you too are moved by the rational imperative to make our shared world a more just place.

One thought on “Helplessness: Why this philosopher needs a law degree

  1. Pingback: Helplessness: Why this philosopher needs a law degree | BC Law: Impact | Public Philosophy Journal

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