Dr. Marty Seligman
Dr. Marty Seligman is the founder of Positive Psychology and a Professor at the University of Pennsylvania. One afternoon, while he was weeding, his five-year-old daughter, Nikki, took the weeds and threw them in the air playfully. He became angry and sent her away with an irritated impatience that he claims he often exhibited. She later returned to confront him. She told him that all her life, she had been a whiner, but that on her fifth birthday, she had decided she was going to stop whining. And she did. And if she could stop whining, he could stop being such a grouch.
Dr. Seligman uses that story as his positive introduction, how he describes himself as his best. In that moment, his five-year-old daughter made him realize that he as a parent, and that psychology as a disciple, had focused on correcting weakness instead of nourishing strength. Seligman’s most famous work had involved inducing a form of depression in dogs that he termed learned helplessness. He moved his research from learned hopelessness to learned optimism.
In 1996, as president of the American Psychological Association, he declared the Positive Psychology Movement: psychology’s movement away from the empirical study of depression and pessimism towards the empirical study of happiness and optimism.
Seligman later created the Values In Action Character Strengths and Virtues, a list of twenty-four strengths he believed contributed to human greatness. He developed a method to assess an individual’s top strengths, what he deemed “signature strengths.” This inventory and other positive interventions can be found on his website. Continue reading
Be careful, he's judging you.
A recent, somewhat lighthearted article by Dahlia Lithwick in Slate explored the concept of ‘kid justice’. Lithwick, in proposing the compilation of a First Restatement of Kid Law, explored several instances in which children display an ability to formulate legal doctrines and standards that mimic adult formulations dealing with similar situations. For instance, “Kid Torts: He left his Transformer on the counter and it fell on my leg and now I can’t walk! Can I have his Transformer!?”. All veterans of the playground courtrooms of elementary school should be able to locate a vein of truth in Lithwick’s proposal. More seriously, Yale psychologist Paul Bloom has conducted a series of studies that demonstrate that a ‘moral sensibility’ begins at a remarkably young age. The experiments demonstrate that babies as young as nine months display a marked preference for characters who display helpfulness to others, and disfavor towards unhelpful characters. A further discussion of Bloom’s study, as well as some of it’s possible implications for criminal law, especially our normative justifications of punishment, follows below. Continue reading
Knowles and Ditto’s article on Preference, Principle, and Causistry – detailed elsewhere on this blog – bears a striking resemblance to Karl Llewellyn’s famous critique of the use of canons of construction in judicial opinions. Given the title of this blog, how can we not explore such a clear intersection of the mind sciences and the law?
Canons of construction are interpretive tools invoked by judges to discern the meaning of statutes. To couch this in Knowles and Ditto’s terms, the universe of canons exists as a menu of principles upon which judges can draw in seeking guidance in matters of statutory interpretation. For example, imagine a statute that allows tenants to withhold rent upon the discovery of “rats, mice, termites, or other pests.” The ejusdem generis (“of the same kind”) canon teaches that “other pests” refers to pests of the same kind as those listed before it; thus, a tenant could not withhold rent due to an annoying next-door neighbor who could also be described as a “pest” in the dictionary sense of the word.
This formulation seems to imply a rational, objective process of decision-making: judges confronted with an ambiguous statute resolve that ambiguity by selecting the applicable principle (i.e. canon), applying it to the statute, and, voila, a resolution emerges (ambiguity -> principle -> answer). Llewellyn, however, like Knowles and Ditto, is not quite so optimistic about the decision-making process. Llewellyn argues that there are two opposing canons on almost every point, and as such, the canons serve as (in the words of Knowles and Ditto) post hoc intellectual justifications of one’s initial intuitions. Choosing which canon to apply is not the objective, detached process that the above description would suggest. Instead, judges determine the answer first, guided by their internal preferences, and then select the canon capable of justifying the conclusion they find most emotionally satisfying (ambiguity -> answer -> principle).
More analysis and implications of this theory, right after the jump.