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Legal Decision-Making and Role of Emotions in It

Emotions turn out to be a vital part of human life, and people cannot ignore this impact on their decisions, actions, and relationships. In law, emotions may complete different functions and provoke various outcomes reconciled with liberal concepts. The field of modern criminal justice has been considerably improved and analyzed in terms of legal protection, emotional expression, and punishment principles. There are many theories to support and oppose the idea of punishment and justice, and Emile Durkheim’s concept of the conscience collective contributes to a better understanding of people’s behaviors and their integration as a society. According to Nussbaum, “appeals to emotion are prominent in the law,” and people must know how to promote reasonable emotional responses and fair legal decisions (21). Victims and defendants use emotions to achieve their goals or, at least, clarify their intentions. In this paper, attention will be paid to such emotions as outrage, fear, and sympathy and their role in legal decision processes, involving punishment, as potential corruptors of rationality and the encouragement of subjective opinions.

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People are responsible for making criminal decisions and defining the future of court participants. Despite the promotion of proper preparation, it is necessary to understand that all individuals are human beings, and they can hardly neglect their emotions. Aristotle once said that “law is based on reason and not passion” (qtd. in Nussbaum 5). Unfortunately, this great thinker did not provide people with a guide on prioritizing rationality and reason over emotions. Therefore, modern philosophers and scholars develop their projects to explain how to punish or justify, choosing correct emotional expressions and following the rule of law. There are many examples of how people act out of anger, jealousy, or other negative emotions and then feel sorry for their behaviors. In some cases, positive emotions like compassion or sympathy also provoke wrong or subjective judgments. R. v. Latimer case shows how the prevalence of evidence determines human rights and sentiments, focusing on the presence on imminent peril, reasonable legal alternative, and inflicted-avoided harm proportion (Supreme Court of Canada 10). Anyway, when a crime is committed on the basis of such feelings, the rule of law should be considered.

To comprehend the nature of a crime and punishment appropriateness, it is not enough to recognize offenders’ emotions but to learn the characteristics of persons who may be affected by the committed crime. Nussbaum defines three areas of criminal law, namely “retributive, deterrent, or expressive” (62). Retribution theory represents a classical approach to a moral relationship between crime and punishment (the severity of a crime defines the severity of a sentence). On the contrary, deterrence theory aims to find some justification for a crime and calculate the difference between losses and benefits. However, Nussbaum elucidates the challenge of deterrence on fairness grounds and the inability to distinguish between “inadvertent and deliberate acts, or between negligent and fully premeditated acts” (9). Regarding the existing differences in psychological, social, and criminal concepts and the debates about the boundaries labeled by retributivists or deterrence supporters, it is normal to rely on emotions. Even if emotions are characterized by inconsistency with a commitment to rationality and impartiality, the criminal justice system cannot disregard all of them.

People are able to develop different emotions about the same case, behavior, or event. Each emotion has its purpose and impact, and understanding its role in legal decision-making depends on the type of emotion. Nussbaum highlights fear, grief, outrage, and compassion, envy, hope, and guilt as “human experiences” that may explain behavior but contradict the “standard material of law” (23-23). For example, fear is usually negatively valued as a “belief about bad possibilities imminent in the future” (Nussbaum 27). Anger is associated with damage, even if it is unreasonable or poorly evidenced. In both cases, legal decision-making remains inconsistent because people evaluate crime circumstances while being emotionally challenged. Almost the same happens with the application of positive emotions like hope, joy, compassion, or gratitude. It is hard to decide either to feel sorry for a woman who killed her rapist as an example of compassion and understanding or to judge her as the one who took someone’s life. A legal decision should be fair and correct, and emotions prevent achieving the necessary goal.

There are many situations when it is hard to define one particular emotion, and people have to deal with multiple attitudes and opinions. In R. v. Latimer case, a father killed his daughter, who had severe cerebral palsy and needed another surgery, by seating her in the cab and inserting the tube that produced the carbon monoxide (Supreme Court of Canada 2). It was not an easy decision for the man who loved his daughter and hoped that his decision could relieve her from unnecessary suffering. Still, according to the law, the man committed second-degree murder, and his life imprisonment with no parole for the next ten years was a final decision. Compassion from the citizens, the idea of mercy killing, and euthanasia debates contribute to the impact of this case and demonstrate how emotions may be incompatible with the law.

It is correct to believe that all emotions are usually subjective and consist of complex thoughts and attitudes, which causes illiberal characteristics of law. Therefore, certain concepts, theories, and approaches are developed to promote tolerance and clear explanations. At the beginning of the 20th century, Durkheim introduced the concept of the conscience collective that includes human beliefs, behavioral norms, and values inherent to a particular social group. In other words, there is some power that holds people together and supports solidarity. People are free to apply this concept in their judgments and solutions in order to find additional evidence. Nussbaum suggests following the ideas of political liberalism as the necessity “to value certain basic rights and liberties for all citizens” (62). Equal respect, neutrality value, and the rule of law should be taken into consideration in case of every legal decision and punishment. Some people believe that it is easy to judge others, relying on evidence and testimonies and neglecting their emotions and beliefs. These two concepts facilitate the process of decision-making in the court, but they never offer the answer that a person has to give, following obligations.

The purpose of human emotions remains ambiguous, either to facilitate interpersonal relations or to challenge the quality of decision-making. However, when people participate in a court process, it is usually expected to forget about emotions and focus on reasonable arguments and evidence. For a long period, it was believed that the law has to be free from passion and other emotions like anger, fear, compassion, or hope. Today, the criminal justice system undergoes considerable changes because people cannot realize how to apply their emotions and knowledge correctly. The concepts and discussions developed by Durkheim and Nussbaum have their unique benefits and shortages, but anyway, they proved that the role of emotions in legal decisions involving punishment is great. Although emotions are associated with the lack of rationality and impartiality, they help analyze each case (like R. v. Latimer) and find justice and a sense of human decisions.

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Works Cited

Nussbaum, Martha C. Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law. Princeton University Press, 2004.

Supreme Court of Canada. “R. v. Latimer.” York, 2001, Web.

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