Research Handbook on Critical Legal Theory
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Research Handbook on Critical Legal Theory

Edited by Emilios Christodoulidis, Ruth Dukes and Marco Goldoni

Critical theory, characteristically linked with the politics of theoretical engagement, covers the manifold of the connections between theory and praxis. This thought-provoking Research Handbook captures the broad range of those connections as far as legal thought is concerned and retains an emphasis both on the politics of theory, and on the notion of theoretical engagement. The first part examines the question of definition and tracks the origins and development of critical legal theory along its European and North American trajectories. The second part looks at the thematic connections between the development of legal theory and other currents of critical thought such as; Feminism, Marxism, Critical Race Theory, varieties of post-modernism, as well as the various ‘turns’ (ethical, aesthetic, political) of critical legal theory. The third and final part explores particular fields of law, addressing the question how the field has been shaped by critical legal theory, or what critical approaches reveal about the field, with the clear focus on opportunities for social transformation.
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Chapter 11: The ethical turn in critical legal thought

Louis E. Wolcher


The Western tradition categorizes ethics as the attempt to constrain self-interest and passion, including compassion, by means of norms that claim universal validity. However, beginning in the 1990s many critical legal scholars, following the continental philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, have refused to treat ethics in this legalistic manner. Like Schopenhauer, their thought about ethics has traced its origin and power to prerational sources, especially the compassionate impulse to act benevolently in the face of the suffering Other before and beyond any duty imposed by moral rules triggered by a finding of personal fault. Their work turns away from reactionary ethical responsibility (the traditional view) towards a kind of infinite ethical presponsibility, grounded in compassion and a sense of guilt without fault. This chapter explains how this branch of CLS has radically transformed ethical discourse; it also explores the paradoxical and aporetic consequences of this ‘ethical turn’ for law and legal theory.

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