The Concept Of Law


In many court cases, the judge’s or jury’s task lies in categorizing someone’s actions. A jury might need to decide, for example, whether a defendant’s actions fall into the category of “sexual harassment.” (If the defendant was offensive in some way, but his actions don’t fit into the category of “harassment,” then he isn’t guilty of harassment.) Or, as a different example, a jury might be certain that the defendant caused someone’s death, but they still need to decide whether the crime should be categorized as “first-degree murder” or “second-degree,” a categorization with large implications for the likely punishment.


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To help with this categorization, laws define each crime in precise terms, so that there is a careful definition of “robbery,” a clear definition of “trespassing” or “first-degree murder,” and so on. Even with these definitions, though, the courts regularly encounter ambiguous cases, raising questions about whether the person’s actions satisfy the definition of the crime the person is charged with. At the least, this reminds us how difficult it is to find satisfactory, broadly useful definitions for concepts, a point that is made by the different models of concept formation to explain people’s thinking. In addition, we need to ask: How do the courts proceed when they encounter one of these ambiguous cases?

We’ve seen that people have prototypes in mind for their various concepts, and so, in day to day life, they often assess a new case by asking how closely it resembles that prototype. It turns out that, in the courts, jurors do the same in making legal judgments, and so they’re more likely to convict someone if the trial facts fit with their prototype for the crime—if the facts fit the jurors’ notion of, say, a “typical bank robbery” or a “typical hit and run violation.” Put differently, a “typical” crime with weak evidence is more likely to lead to a conviction than an unusual crime with similarly weak evidence.

Of course, this is legally nonsensical: Jury decisions should depend on the quantity and quality of the evidence, and on the legal definition of the crime. The jurors’ ideas about what’s typical for that crime should play no role at all—especially when we acknowledge that these ideas are shaped more by TV crime shows than by actual crime statistics. Nonetheless, the prototypes do influence the jury, and so legal judgments (like concept use in general) are plainly shaped by typicality.

In addition, we’ve seen that concept users often seem to have a “theory” in mind about why a concept is as it is, and they use the theory in reasoning about the concept. If you saw someone jumping into a pool fully clothed, you’re likely to categorize this person as a “drunk,” not because the person fits your definition for being drunk or even fits your prototype, but because you have a set of beliefs about how drunks are likely to act. Based on those beliefs (i.e., based on your “theory”), you decide that drunkenness is the most plausible explanation for the behavior you just observed, and you categorize accordingly.

Similar categorization strategies are evident in the courtroom. For example, consider the crime of stalking. This crime is difficult to define in a crisp way; in fact, it is defined in different ways in different states. Often, though, the definition includes the notion that the stalker intended to force some sort of relationship with the victim—perhaps a relationship involving intimacy or a relationship in which the victim feels fear. It’s often the case, however, that there’s no direct evidence of this intention, so the jury needs to infer the intention from the defendant’s behaviors, or from the context.

In making these inferences, juries rely on their “theory” of stalking—their beliefs about how and why one individual might stalk another. This helps us understand why juries are more likely to convict someone of stalking if (for example) the defendant was a former intimate of the person being “stalked.” Apparently, jurors are guided by their ideas about how former (but now rejected) lovers behave—even if these ideas have nothing to do with the legal definition of stalking.

How should we think about these points? On one hand, we want jurors to be guided by the law, and not by their (perhaps idiosyncratic, perhaps uninformed) intuitions about the crime at issue in a trial. On the other hand, the U.S. criminal justice system relies on the good sense and good judgment of juries—so plainly we want jurors to use their judgment. How best to balance these points isn’t clear, but the tension between these points is perhaps inevitable, given what we know about how concepts are represented and how humans categorize knowledge about concepts.


Question Promts
Instructions: Complete and then submit the answers to the questions below in approximately 250 -300 words (total for all questions).

How would you define ‘justice’? Why is it difficult to define. Why are definitions in general an inadequate way to describe how we reason using concepts and categories?
Based on the article on DNA analysis and the ideas presented here, discuss three reasons why legal judgments are difficult to make and susceptible to thinking heuristics.
How might stereotypes factor into all this?

Critical Thinking Exercise rubric
Critical Thinking Exercise rubric
Criteria Ratings Pts

This criterion is linked to a Learning Outcome

7.0 pts
Clear, cogent and thoughtful response and study proposal.

6.0 pts
Thoughtful response, could be improved in clarity/depth, or study proposal missing keyword descriptions

5.0 pts
Somewhat superficial response; missing one-odd aspect of reflection or study description is missing keywords descriptions

4.0 pts
Superficial response; or study description missing keyword descriptions

3.0 pts
Superficial response, no study described

7.0 pts


This criterion is linked to a Learning Outcome

3.0 pts
On time

2.0 pts
One day late

1.0 pts
Two days late

0.0 pts
No Marks

3.0 pts


Total Points: 10.0

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