Professor Dustin Hannum
25th September, 2016
Does empathy promote justice in A Time to Kill
On the way to moral society that thrives on the basis of social justice, we are seeking to find the proper relation between empathy, justice and the laws, and figuring out how and to what extent we should apply empathy into the process of legal decision making. As illustration of this search, A Time to Kill, the movie that depicts a judgement with empathy involved, gives rise to people’s thinking for the right approach to combine empathy and justice. However, as shown in Martin Hoffman’s article Empathy, Justice and the law, to integrate empathy and fairness is not an easy job. Although it indicates from historical events that, empathy did play an indispensable role in equality development, its potential limitations still deserve people’s attention, especially when it is performed in courtroom. Set under the background of racial inequality, it is really important to seek justice both for an individual, and for an entire group. And the key to achieve this is that, while lawyers strive to apply empathy so as to win justice for an individual, jurors should be aware of the necessity to stand on the side of an entire community. In other words, once jurors fail to perform their roles, the balance of fairness would be inclined, leading to justice absence. This seems to be most notable in the movie A Time to Kill, when Jake Brigance’s closing statement, though did gain justice for Carl Lee as an individual, fails to guard fairness for the entire society.
Since people are arguing about whether justice is promoted, I’m going to give definition of justice and illustrate where the controversial comes from. To begin with, let me classify justice into two kinds, one for an individual, and another for an entire group. Individual justice is, I believe, the poetic justice. According to Wikipedia, “Poetic justice is a literary device in which ultimately virtue is rewarded and vice punished”. This definition indicates that individual justice prevails when good people are rewarded and bad ones are punished, regardless of how they are done. However, justice for an entire group is different. Group justice focuses on guaranteeing morally proper and logically convincing consequences people deserve, instead of simply a punish-or-reward issue. It is acknowledged that laws are made to guard justice. And the justice served by laws is on the stand of an entire society. In this way, justice related to laws refers to that serving an entire group rather than an individual. That’s where the difference lies. It is viewer’s stance on different justice that makes it debatable to answer the question whether justice is promoted.
With reference to Carl Lee’s case, empathy did play an important part in guarding individual justice for Carl Lee, with its positive effects and negative limitations both performed. Carl Lee’s individual justice was achieved when jurors decided to acquit him from what he has done. Meanwhile, what makes this happen is the involvement of empathy. It is noticeable that empathy’s advantage acts when Jake asks jurors imagine the raping and empathize for the girl. Especially, when he says, “Now imagine she is white,” people are lost in tears, dropping racial discrimination in decision making. However, it is not hard to realize that empathy also perform two kinds of limitations unconsciously, which, as Hoffman has emphasized, is especially damaging in the courtroom. The first is mentioned in Hoffman’s account of empathy’s negative side, “People emphasize more with victims who are physically present than with absent victim or potential victims.” Specifically, while Carl Lee is present, jurors hear what he says, feel what he went through after his daughter experienced the nightmare and share similar feelings in the role of parents. At the same time, those killed boys are forgotten. This side effect of empathy tend not to be realized when people are driven by emotions and making immediately correct decisions. Furthermore, I believe the result would be totally different if the boys survived and spoke in the courtroom. What if Mr. Buckley arouse people’s imagination of detailed experience of being shot, bearing the hurt and pretending to be dead on the ground only trying to survive in Carl Lee’s gun? What if people are reminded that lives of two boys who should have been punished in jail were almost taken by the father of the victim. Then who is to blame? Obviously, Carl Lee will do. He would be punished, even to death maybe. In addition, the second empathy drawback lies in the moment when Jake asked, “Now imagine she’s white.” The majority of people were lost in tears. Then what triggers them? It is ethnic preference. As Hoffman declared in Empathy, Justice and the Laws, “They emphasize more with kin, friends, and their own ethic group”. The picture based on white-skinned girl imagination invokes juror’s empathy for Tonya’s tragedy and understanding with Carl Lee’s choice. Though Jake is noticeably wise to make juror neglect their rooted racial bias, we still need to be aware that familiarity bias did affect the trend of the development. To conclude, Jake’s closing statement did encourage empathy, but it also relies on the limitations of empathy.
As judicious spectators, it is still easy to find that justice for an entire group is lost. Logically speaking, Carl Lee failed to prove his innocence with existing evidence. The key point that decided the nature of Carl Lee’s motive is to confirm mental situation when he committed the crime but people supporting Carl did not really testify his insaneness. Mr. Buckley’s trap that tricks Carl to speak out his motives, and Doctor’s dishonorable crime record that raises doubt for his reliability to be trusted has led to the unfavorable situation while people’s judgement has inclined in the advantage of the killed criminals. In such a case, solely from the reasonable perspective, it is not appropriate to decide that Carl Lee is innocent.
However, what strikes me is that viewers are not encouraged to be judicious spectators in this film. As Nussbaum declares in his article “Rational Emotions.” “The emotion must be the emotion of a spectator, not a participant”. Actually, what Jake aims to do is to trick jurors in the position of Carl Lee and view the raping step by step as a father, which means they share the emotion of the dad who imagines the tragedy his daughter experienced. This is of course not what a judicious spectator should do. In addition, Nussbaum argues, “Emotions are good guides only if they are based on a true view of the facts of the case and a true view of the importance of various types of suffering and joy for human actors of many types”. Since the Doctor is unable to convince the insaneness of Carl Lee and various kinds of sufferings for the dead are neglected, emotions failed to guide people in a right way. This means that jurors are not judicious, the same for the judgement of innocence.
To conclude, justice is not coextensive with the law in the film though empathy did obtain justice for individual. As I have emphasized, the law serving an entire society is aimed to guard justice. And Justice is coextensive with the law only when it guards fairness of an entire group but it fails to do so in this movie. So I will regard it as not coextensive with the law. However, it is worthwhile to notice that empathy did promote justice, but justice for individual, not an entire community. This will perfectly address people’s controversial on this movie and further answer the question in this article’s title. In a nutshell, while we are on the way to achieve justice, we should not only be aware of the necessity to evaluate empathy’s role in court case, but also be clear about justice categories to promote fairness in legal decisions.
A Time to Kill. Directed by Joel Schumacher. Warner Brothers, 1996.
Nussbaum, Martha. “Rational Emotions.” Poetic Justice: The Literary Imagination and Public Life. Boston: Beacon, 1995. 53-78.
Martin L. Hoffman. “Empathy, Justice and Law”. Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives. Oxford University Press. 2014. 213-254