Law and the Liberal Arts: An Introduction

The Judgment of Solomon. 1649. Oil on canvas. Louvre, Paris, FranceBy Rio Hoe, Yale-NUS ’17 – See bio

This article is the first in a series that will explore the relationship between the liberal arts and law.

The changing face of law in the 21st century has raised expectations of lawyers, judges and academics alike, demanding a greater appreciation of subjects unfamiliar to traditional jurisprudence.

To begin, the law has never existed in a vacuum; the role of science, economics and politics in law dates back to ancient times. The 3rd Century BC Roman law of Lex Aquila[1], the predecessor of the modern law of torts, contained notions of property rights, and its economic implications.[2] Forensic science is nothing new; it was born in Medieval China[3]. The use of medicine and entomology to solve criminal cases first appears in Xi Yuan Lu (1248), written by Song Ci (宋慈, 1186 – 1249)[4] during the Song Dynasty.

However, in almost all of these cases, these subjects were either applied unknowingly, or the knowledge surrounding them was severely limited. Today, the transformation of economics, political theory, science, mathematics, and philosophy into established fields, each with their own voluminous range of literature and sub-fields, has expanded the number of ways through which we can view legal questions. While this transformation has been taking place over the last five centuries or so, it has sped up in the last fifty years.

Traditional notions of law are being increasingly challenged. The wave of new forensic methods which have been accepted in criminal investigation throughout the past half century has raised questions about the increasing role of circumstantial evidence in law as compared to direct evidence, and how far can we rely on technology to address questions of fact. Developments in neuroscience and psychology which suggest the ability to identify tendencies towards criminal behavior are beginning to challenge notions of culpability and punishment.[5] The relationship between culture and law is evolving as international law and universal norms are beginning to find a place in our legal system.

In addition, existing notions of law are increasingly expanding. Contemporary economic concepts such as game theory, Coase theorem and agency problems are broadening the way judges handle public policy considerations. Criminology is has influenced the way courts hand out punishments and how legislatures make law, with an increased focus on developing its rehabilitative function. Modern political philosophy, with evolving notions of justice, liberty and the role of religion has found a growing impact on the legitimacy, source and function of law.

Finally, debates on subjects outside the law are finding a greater presence in the courtroom. As the academic interest towards these subjects grew, so did the number of viewpoints. As a result, it is becoming increasingly easy to find two equally qualified expert witnesses with equally strong opposing views, and more often than not, desirably or undesirably, the debate plays a part in the court’s decision. At the same time, political debates are beginning to be decided in the courtroom. In the past, issues pertaining to moral standards and cultural norms were left to the legislature, and the courts focused on more traditional issues (e.g. tort, criminal, land). However, these standards are evolving today at an unprecedented rate, and whether the courts should play a role in these debates, and if so, how much, are questions that we will be forced to look into.

How is all of this related to the liberal arts? Two elements: content and skill.

A liberal arts education can expand one’s knowledge and understanding of subjects that influence the law, whether in economics, philosophy, science, psychology or political theory. Knowledge of issues beyond the law places law students in a better position to appreciate subjects traditionally unfamiliar to jurisprudence, and apply them in the various roles they will come to play. As these subjects grow increasingly relevant to law, a student who can think about the issue using multiple perspectives will have a distinct advantage over the ordinary law student.

Even if these students encounter unfamiliar issues, the skills they learn during their course of study will put them ahead of their peers. The critical thinking skills developed in the course of a liberal arts education can be applied even in unfamiliar situations. Therefore, while a judge may not be as experienced in environmental studies as the two expert witnesses, he will be able to critically assess the validity of their accounts both from a traditional legal perspective, as well as offer a unique, multi-disciplinary analysis of the matter in question. Judges have often been criticized for sometimes being too focused on legal matters to appreciate the impact of their legal decisions on issues outside the law. A liberal arts education may change this.

In this series, I will approach each field of study one at a time, and raise several key issues in an attempt to demonstrate their relevance to law. I hope that these ideas will invoke a sense of curiosity amongst both law and liberal arts students, and invite them to ponder these problems before the commencement of their course.


[1] Lex Aquila, enacted around 286BC, provided compensation to owners of property injured by someone’s fault.

[2] Property rights provide incentives for the protection, maintenance, and development of property that help minimize waste (deadweight loss) and maximize the potential of economic resources.

[3] A popular earlier claim would be the “Eureka” legend of Archimedes who determined the authenticity of a crown by discovering its density by measuring weight and displacement in water. However, there are questions as to whether it actually happened. Furthermore, it is mere folklore, and unlike the Xi Yuan Lu, is not an official, written account.

[4] In one account, the case of a person murdered with a sickle was solved by instructing everyone in the village to bring his sickle to one location. (The murder weapon was identified by testing various blades on an animal carcass and comparing the wound.) Flies, attracted by the smell of blood, eventually gathered on a single sickle. In light of this, the murderer confessed. The book also offered advice on how to distinguish between a drowning (water in the lungs) and strangulation (broken neck cartilage), along with other evidence from examining corpses on determining if a death was caused by murder, suicide or an accident. The full text in Wade-Giles translation: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2201406/pdf/procrsmed01245-0062.pdf

[5] There exists literature suggesting that there exist both physiological and psychological differences between psychopaths and ordinary people. This has led to controversy over whether brain scans can be admissible as evidence, as well as the ethical problems behind early detection and treatment. For a brief outline, see http://www.livescience.com/13083-criminals-brain-neuroscience-ethics.html

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