Cara Smith" />
side bar
Tuesday, October 3, 2023

Faculty & Staff

Professor breaks down responsibility, wrongs

joseph sanders


Joseph Sanders, an A.A. White professor of law, has established himself as one of the nation’s most respected law scholars.

Though Sanders’ area of study suggests his early career took place in the courtroom, almost all of his work has been scholarly in nature — for reference, his 17-page list of publications is available on the UH Law Center faculty site. Having received his J.D. and his PhD in Sociology from Northwestern University, Sanders has been a part of the UH Law Center for 31 years. Sanders teaches courses in law and society, products and liability, scientific evidence and torts, which have been the subject of much of his professional academic studies.

The Daily Cougar sat down with Sanders to explore the motivation behind his highly decorated sociological career and to reflect on his most interesting and noteworthy findings.

 The Daily Cougar: You’ve done quite a bit of research in tort law, haven’t you?

Sanders: Well, let me tell you a little about myself. Increasingly, as I become an old man, I’ve become more and more “just” a law professor. I’m less of a social scientist than I used to be … I’m more of a law professor. I teach first-year tort courses, and I also teach a course in scientific evidence … things like the admissibility of science in a court of law.

So, that’s who I am today. But, I still dabble in my older business. I’ve got an article running in the Wakeforest Law Review on torts soon.

TDC: Starting out, what is a basic, elementary description of torts?

JS: Civil wrongs. They’re best defined as things everybody knows about — like, if you sue somebody for running their car into you, or if you sue a company because they built a product that was defective and it hurt you. If you sue your doctor because he doesn’t take care of you … All of those are torts. You’re asking somebody for money because they hurt you in some way, but it wasn’t criminal. It was a wrong, but it’s not a crime.

TDC: So you’ve been a lawyer and a social scientist, but what got you into the field in the beginning?

JS: Well, I’ve always been so fascinated with tort law … people always ask me why I’m so fascinated with tort law, and I don’t know why I’m so fascinated with it. I guess I have to be, since I’ve made a career out of it. I don’t know why I find it so interesting, though.

Let me try to explain it this way: Every society you can imagine, from people gathering berries in the African savanna to the most complex society you can imagine, there are three things they’ve gotta do, it seems to me. They have to have property law; there’s gotta be contract law, because people want to make sure other people keep their promises; and there’s gotta be tort law, because people bump into each other.

TDC: These little bumps, do they wind up using most of the resources of the field of law?

JS: Well, in a complex society like ours, the little bumps don’t make it to court anymore, because we’ve got much bigger bumps.

TDC: Has most of your career been in the courtroom, or have you focused primarily on the study of the ethics behind law?

JS: Well, that’s a very good question, because it gives me a chance to say something. I’ve never been very much interested in the normative part of what the rules should be. I’m much more interested in empirical questions: “How do people feel about the rules? How do the rules work?” I’m interested in figuring out how the world works, and not necessarily figuring out how it should work … I’m a sociologist, or a social scientist.

TDC: Have your studies been conducted solely within the U.S.?

JS: Let me tell you a little about my research. The most interesting thing I’ve (done) … Me and a colleague of mine, Lee Hamilton, a social scientist, we were trying to decide what the determinants of making somebody responsible. (We asked ourselves) how we make somebody responsible. So we did some research on how people make decisions in responsibility and what factors go into that. The heart of the research went into the degree in what people think about the determining factors that go into assigning responsibility.

(When it comes to causing harm,) tripping and falling is being in a very different mental state than punching somebody in the nose. We started out the study in Detroit, and later on we did three more in Yokohama, Japan; Washington, D.C.; and Moscow.

We had a survey … and different test subjects heard different stories, so we could compare the answers of the people that heard Story A with the answers of the people that heard Story B.

TDC: What did the study determine?

 JS: Well, this study was all about wrongdoing, everyday life kind of situations. We picked Japan because everybody thinks that Japanese society is much less about self and much more about community, whereas America is thought of as a much more individualistic society. We thought that the wrongdoing in America was much more (determined) by the deed, and wrongdoing in Japan was much more determined by the relationships you had with those that you wronged.

Turns out, we were right.

TDC: And what happened in Moscow?

 JS: Well, here was a country that had been a communist country for 60 or 70 years. So, we asked ourselves, “What is communism? Is it really communism?”

Turns out, the Russians look like us. Or, they look … (less than) midway between us and the Japanese. That society might’ve been communist in the sense of evening out economics, but in the sense of “self” … Russians look much more like us than they do the Japanese. It showed us that communism is much different than a truly communal culture — maybe that’s why it never took hold that well.

That’s the issue that’s probably interested me most as an academic — the attribution of responsibility.

TDC: Was that study something that affected how you approached social science for the rest of your career?

JS: Oh, absolutely. In fact, the article I mentioned earlier … it’s entirely different, but once you scrape all the crud off, you can see it’s also just about responsibility.

One of the interesting things about tort justice is … Causation alone should not be enough to imply responsibility. (In a study), we used SurveyMonkey and we asked people to assess whether a person has done something wrong, and we got interested in it. In our (situations we gave the subject), people were assigning responsibility in cases when, as far as we could see, the person had done nothing wrong other than having caused a harm.

I think the final story we used was that a guy riding on a bicycle ran into another guy riding a bicycle because the first guy, the “runner-into,” had a blowout because of an unforeseen thing in the road that blew out his tire. Doesn’t that sound innocent to you? Yet, there were some people who still held him responsible. We went under this huge effort to create this scenario where the person having caused the harm was not responsible.

Even our best efforts to create a situation where everybody agreed that there was no negligence, there was still a residual group of people who wanted to hold the person responsible just because they did it, and I think there’s a little bit of that in all of us.

[email protected]


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to Top ↑
  • Sign up for our Email Edition

  • Polls

    What about UH will you miss the least this summer?

    View Results

    Loading ... Loading ...