The case of the Speluncean Explorers is one that has captivated readers for decades. In it, a group of cave explorers are trapped following a cave-in and face the risk of death from starvation. The case examines how the rescued survivors, who kill and eat one person in order to survive, should be treated by the law. Five different judicial opinions follow, and the roots of a great philosophical debate take hold.
The question I pose here becomes two-fold. Which justice do you agree with? And what does it mean to agree? You could, for instance, agree with a justice’s ultimate decision to affirm/acquit. You could also agree to their approach (or how they came to make that decision). Or you could agree with both. One thing I brought up in class was that we might be agreeing with a particular justice’s verdict but not with the approach. For example, it is totally possible to choose to affirm but for reasons other than taking a literal approach to the law.
Conversely, I feel that you could agree with an approach but come to a disparate resolution. How about some quick examples? Perhaps you agree with Handy’s common sense approach but it actually leads you to affirm the verdict. After considering human realities and practical wisdom, you decide that the best way to maintain confidence in our legal system is to affirm the decision – basically signing the defendants’ death certificates. You could also agree with Keen’s choice to apply the law directly without any “personal predilections” but end up choosing the acquit the explorers. The examples go on and on.
Ultimately, I think it’s important to keep in mind what Fuller was trying to achieve with this piece. He was trying to get a point across. Just how much wiggle room should we give ourselves when it comes to interpreting and applying laws? Is there a such thing as a “plain meaning” when it comes to our laws and statutes? Should the “plain” or “intended” meaning matter? Are those two things different? These questions are all crucial. They effect how our society is structured and they allow us to restructure it if and when we need to.
Personally, I know this is a topic I’m going to need to digest a bit longer. It’s never been clear what we, as a collective or a country, think is best when it comes to our judicial system. Look at jury nullification for instance. The simple fact that such a thing exists points out a flaw in the system (or maybe not, you could actually make a convincing argument for the flip-side). It’s interesting to me to wonder how different this case would’ve turned out had there not been a lawyer on that first jury. Alas, maybe it’s best it didn’t turn out that way.
So, which justice do you agree with? Have you given it any more thought as to why you might agree with them? Do you think knowing which justice a person is inclined to agree with tells you a lot about their political theory? I’m sure it would explain a lot. With that information, you could better see where someone was coming from. You could craft an argument that appeals to them so much more. You could come to better collective, collaborative decisions. What a gift Fuller has given us!