Jared Mayer, ’21, has been awarded the Ernst Freund Fellowship in Law & Philosophy to study legal identity in the age of Big Data.
The $5,000 award, given each year to either a law student or a graduate student in philosophy, is designed to encourage advanced law and philosophy scholarship among graduate students and was created in 2016 when Professor Martha C. Nussbaum donated a portion of the proceeds from her Kyoto Prize to the Law School and the Department of Philosophy.
Mayer’s research will explore shifts that could occur if legal systems begin to collect and use personal data to create customized traffic rules, personalized consumer contracts, and algorithm-informed court decisions, advances that some scholars say could make the system fairer and more efficient. Such a move could change how legal systems create identities for us—how they recognize us as us over time, Mayer said.
“This is an important topic and one that represents another exciting chapter for the fellowship, as well as a continuation of our dedication to interdisciplinary scholarship, especially in law and philosophy,” said Dean Thomas J. Miles, the Clifton R. Musser Professor of Law and Economics, who joined Nussbaum in announcing the award at a virtual Wine Mess held via Zoom on Thursday. “I look forward to the amazing work that Jared will do.”
Mayer’s work will include Department of Philosophy classes on metaphysics and personal identity, as well as in Bayesian probability, which will inform his technical understanding of Big Data.
“Philosophers have spent millennia debating the question of personal identity—what set of facts makes us the same people over time—and the history of philosophy is replete with different answers to this question,” Mayer said. “But as it turns out, legal systems are not particularly keen on dealing with it.”
Mayer’s research will be supervised by Law Professor Anthony J. Casey, whose work on data-driven micro-directives inspired the topic. Casey’s paper, coauthored with a scholar from the University of Toronto Faculty of Law, imagined a world in which predictive technology tells people how to comply with the law, for instance, through speed limits tailored to specific people based on weather, traffic, and the individual’s own experience, driving history, and other personal factors. Under such a system, judges and legislators would still have the ultimate power over legal systems' use of Big Data, but the process for recognizing individuals would change. Right now, the tools are limited; law enforcement sometimes collects fingerprints or DNA, but individuals generally know more about themselves than the legal system does.
"If [these predictions] are correct, there would be a way in which legal systems will be able to hold us to account for our actions on the basis of features about ourselves that we may not even know," Mayer said. “Absent Big Data, individuals have a significant leg up on the government in terms of the kind and amount of information they have about themselves. But this whole dynamic is flipped when the government uses Big Data and is thus able to access facts about individuals that those individuals are not aware of. The worry isn't that the law's use of Big Data will lead to poor outcomes, but that the law—this very human institution, built to address human problems, crafted in our own image—will create identities for us that are simply unrecognizable to us.”
With technology rapidly advancing, Mayer said it “behooves us to understand and discover how legal systems, through the use of Big Data, will see us as us—and how we will see ourselves in these legal identities.”
The selection committee included Nussbaum, as well as Brian Leiter, the Karl N. Llewellyn Professor of Jurisprudence, and Daniel Brudney, the Florin Harrison Pugh Professor in the Department of Philosophy.
Mayer, who has worked as a research assistant for Nussbaum since last summer, came to the Law School with “a very rich background in philosophy” that includes both a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in philosophy from Johns Hopkins, said Nussbaum, who is appointed in both the Law School and the Department of Philosophy and is the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics.
“He is independent and very aggressive in searching and tracking things down, and his memos are so beautifully written,” she said of Mayer’s work as her research assistant. “He's just terrific, and I know that he'll work hard on this paper.”
Past recipients of the prize have included Laurenz Ramsauer, a PhD candidate in the Department of Philosophy, who won in 2019; Faith Laken, ’20, who won in 2018; and the inaugural recipients, Taylor Coles, JD ’18, a PhD candidate at the University of Pittsburgh, and Molly Brown, a PhD candidate in the University of Chicago’s Department of Philosophy.
The Ernst Freund Fellowship is named for Ernst Freund, an intellectual architect of the University of Chicago Law School, who believed that interdisciplinary cooperation between lawyers and philosophers was essential to address pressing social problems. His own contributions included work on immigration, the police power, and free speech.
“Freund wanted people to learn to think critically and deeply about the foundational philosophical concepts—and of course this is what we're all about in both our philosophy department and our law school,” Nussbaum said.
Still, she added, “there's always a need to bring the two more closely together.”
When the Freund Prize was being configured several years ago, it was Professor Gabriel Richardson Lear, then the chair of the philosophy department, who suggested that the best way to incentivize deeper learning in both disciplines was to offer the prize for proposed research rather than a finished paper.
“The idea was to give it to a law student who would then study more philosophy or to a philosophy graduate student who would then take courses in the Law School,” Nussbaum said. “And so far, this has worked really, really well.”