Adam J. Kolber ’96
Professor of Law, Brooklyn Law School
Philosophy is in my bones. It may be in yours, too, without knowing it. Few people study philosophy before college, even though philosophy addresses some of the deepest, most important questions about the nature of our lives. The philosophical banter and sound bites that slip through to mainstream consciousness are often quite removed from the careful methods of analysis used by most professional philosophers.
I knew that I wanted to study philosophy when I entered college but I didn’t expect to major in it. After taking a couple of classes, though, I knew it was my intellectual home. And it has remained so, both during times when I have done philosophical work and times when I have simply benefited from the analytical skills that were fostered during my training.
After college, I worked as a business ethics consultant at PricewaterhouseCoopers. Then I went to law school, worked as a lawyer, and served as a judicial clerk for a federal judge. In 2004 I became a law professor. I currently teach criminal law, health law, and bioethics at Brooklyn Law School. I also teach a course called “Law and the Brain” about advances in neuroscience and how they will affect the law. I have been writing about the same topic for six years at my Neuroethics & Law Blog.
Philosophical and policy issues
As a law professor, I examine fundamental philosophical questions with an eye toward real-world public policy. Consider, for example, some research I developed when I was invited back to Princeton University’s Center for Human Values in 2007–08. In a paper called “The Subjective Experience of Punishment,” I argue that we often fail to consider variations in the ways that offenders experience punishment. Two equally blameworthy offenders may be sentenced to identical terms of imprisonment under identical conditions, but if one offender experiences his punishment as far more distressing than the other, he is arguably punished more severely. If we seek a just system of punishment, I claim, we need to take such variation into account.
Whether my view is correct depends in important ways on philosophical questions about whether bad experiences have a negative value and how we justify state actions, such as incarceration, that cause bad experiences. The issue I address is not just a mere thought experiment, of course. The way we implement a system of criminal justice affects the day-to-day lives of millions of people in prison along with the rest of us who are either actual or potential crime victims.
I tell my law students that the purpose of law school is not to memorize laws. Most people can memorize. If you really want to be a valuable practitioner, you need to develop your ability to analyze difficult problems and convey solutions clearly. In the humanities, there are few better places to develop those skills than in the philosophy department.
You shouldn’t major in philosophy just to develop analytical skills. But you should seriously consider the academic study of philosophy if you suspect that you are, in some sense, already a philosopher. After all, being a philosopher isn’t about a degree. It’s about the questions that interest you and how you go about answering them. It’s about searching for the unexamined assumptions in your reasoning and putting them to the test. It’s about recognizing that what you don’t know can be at least as important as what you do know. I don’t know how my life would have been different had I not majored in philosophy, but I know that I have never regretted my decision.