News & Events

Print/PDF this page:

Print Friendly and PDF

Share this page:

Prof. George Fletcher to Deliver Storrs Lectures, "Liberals and Romantics at War," Nov. 12-15


George P. Fletcher, the Cardozo Professor of Jurisprudence at Columbia Law School, will deliver the Storrs Lectures at Yale Law School on Monday, November 12, Tuesday, November 13, and Thursday, November 15. His three-part lecture is titled "Liberals and Romantics at War: The Problem of Collective Guilt." It will start each day at 4:30 p.m. in Room 127 of the Law School and is free and open to the public.

The central question that George Fletcher plans to address in his series of Storrs Lectures is whether it is possible to assign collective guilt. "When are nations guilty for their crimes?" he asks.

And he cites examples that make it plain that this question is not only a theoretical one, but one that is being actively disputed in judicial and political forums. Should the people of Serbia be held somehow responsible for the crimes orchestrated by Slobodan Milosevic? Who is responsible for the terrorist attacks of September 11?

"The liberal view is that collective guilt is impossible," says Fletcher. "Only individuals can be responsible." However, he plans to challenge this assumption in his three lectures. In the first ("Romantic Virtues"), he will propose the idea that the nation has an identity and is an actor in history, and so can be guilty. His second lecture ("Romantic Excesses") will "destroy this conclusion" and demonstrate that it leads to unacceptable moral consequences. In the final lecture ("Guilt by Analogy"), Fletcher will propose a new possibility for collective guilt.

Fletcher reports that this series of ideas arose from two strains within his scholarship. The first is his investigation into the foundations of guilt and punishment in criminal law, as well as how these concepts are applied to international criminal law. The second is his independent thinking about romanticism in law.

Fletcher has tried to use some of the currents of the 19th-century romantic movement to better understand the legal system. He believes that the romantic emphasis on feeling, irrationality, and exoticism can provide a "new jurisprudential start," in opposition to the dominant tendency in legal scholarship to depend on views of rationality, individuality, and incentive-based behavior.

"There is a role for the non-rational in legal thought," he insists. And this is the basis for the "war" between liberals and romantics that he mentions in his title. Each side has different fundamental views of the world. The liberals tend toward a rationalist view that finds discreet actors to explain effects, while the romantics believe there are more forces present than the liberals want to believe. "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in our philosophy," Fletcher quotes Hamlet's famous line to represent the romantic worldview.

The idea of a collective nation appealed to romantic thinkers because it allowed them to "see a large self on the stage of history," according to Fletcher. By associating with the nation, patriotism, and a belief in war, the romantic could find personal heroism. Fletcher mentions the excitement of the poet William Wordsworth as English troops marched off to battle Napoleon.

This brings up a second, graver meaning of the word "war" in Fletcher's title. An actual, physical war is the forum in which nations do battle, and ideas of collective identity are inevitably stressed. And Fletcher notes that a new type of war is occurring right now, and so the concept of collective guilt is finding practical applications.

Perhaps the terrorist attacks and the American response force greater urgency on Fletcher's subject matter and the word "war," but the questions and disputes existed long before this particular conflict. "The amazing thing is, I thought of this title nine months ago," says Fletcher.

George P. Fletcher writes and lectures in the fields of constitutional law, criminal law, and jurisprudence. He has published seven books, including, most recently, "Our Secret Constitution: How Lincoln Redefined American Democracy." He speaks nine languages, and his work is well-known in Europe, Latin America, Japan, and Korea. He has been at Columbia Law School since 1989.