Law as Applied Philosophy

Christopher Walker, BYU alumnus and professor of law at The Ohio State University, addressed philosophy students and discussed how a philosophy degree could be applicable for a career in law.

Christopher Walker PROVO, Utah (Jan. 15, 2015)—When philosophy majors are posed with the profound question of what they plan to do with a philosophy degree, law professor Christopher Walker suggested that a career in law could be something to ponder. Walker discussed how a background in philosophy is helpful in studying and understanding law.

Walker began his freshman year at BYU planning to study microbiology, but his first exposure to a philosophy class soon changed that. “I took the class because it would have satisfied a GE requirement, and I just fell in love with philosophy at that point,” said Walker.

Walker would eventually expand his philosophy background to become a student at Stanford Law School, a clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, a litigator in Washington, D.C., a staff member on the Civil Appellate Staff in the U.S. Department of Justice and eventually a professor of law at The Ohio State University.

Walker’s lecture walked students through the first-year curriculum at law school and showed examples of the role philosophy plays in various approaches to law. He outlined six subjects that first-year law students study, including civil procedure, constitutional law, contracts, criminal law, legislation and regulation and torts.

“Each of these courses train you to be a different type of lawyer, and you’ll see a lot of common skills, ideas and themes of philosophy in each one of these classes,” explained Walker. “Everything you’re learning in philosophy now has applicability to being a lawyer and to doing well in law school.”

One example Walker used examined criminal law and how the theories of retributivism and utilitarianism relate to the criminal justice system.

Walker explained that criminal law is rich with philosophy, and that in first-year criminal law courses students spend a substantial amount of time on the different levels of murder and why it’s a matter of utilitarianism.

“Say you robbed a bank and one of the patrons of the bank gets so scared that they have a heart attack and die,” said Walker. “In most states there is a rule that you can actually be charged with first-degree murder.”

Walker then asked students to put their philosophy caps on, asking what would motivate the felony-murder rule in this particular case. Students used this case to think through examples using both utilitarianism and retributivism as lenses to suggest possible motives for the felony-murder rule, which helped them to see the role philosophy plays in criminal justice decisions.

“As a lawyer, philosophy helps you understand the law and the legal arguments you make,” said Walker. “But where it has helped me the most is thinking about how to persuade others, judges and juries to think about the world in a way that may be more meaningful.”

To conclude, Walker identified three tips for philosophy and humanities students that would help them prepare to be a law student and eventually have a career in law.

Take logic classes. It’s much better than most of the LSAT prep courses and more important when you get to law school,” he stressed as his first piece of advice. “As you’ve hopefully seen through a number of examples today, logic plays a huge role in the law and on legal reasoning.”

The second recommendation was that students read as much as possible. In conjunction with reading, however, Walker suggested that students take a step back and trace the structure of the arguments that philosophers and writers make.

“That’s one thing I loved about philosophy, and I wish I had done more as an undergrad,” said Walker. “I take a step back and I’m not just trying to figure out what the big picture is, but how they get from A to B to C to D.”

Finally, Walker suggested that students have a stronger focus on their writing. “That’s the biggest piece of advice I can give as you take philosophy classes,” said Walker. ”You’re going to be writing and making arguments. In law school it’s all about writing, and as a lawyer it’s all about writing.”

Walker hoped that students of philosophy would continue to see its applicability in real-life situations that lawyers and interpreters of the law face on a daily basis.

“A philosophy degree for me was life changing,” concluded Walker. “It really made me rethink what I wanted to do with my life. I’m glad you’re [a part of the philosophy program], and I hope you will think of the law as a way to apply philosophy to your every day life.”

Sylvia Cutler (B.A. English ’17)