The University of Chicago News Office
April 11, 1997 Press Contact: Sabrina Miller
(773) 702-4195

Prostitution, Smoking and Flag Burning:

What’s Law Got to Do With It?

Why are people terrified of the very slim risk of death or injury from airline travel, but continue to smoke—which they know will likely kill them?

Should the government severely restrict smoking to lower the number of nicotine addicts and deaths by smoking?

Why does flag burning, as rare as it is, generate such intense anger?

These and other questions will be debated by scholars from the University of Chicago and other top universities Friday, April 18 through Sunday, April 20 at the University of Chicago Law School. The conference, “Social Meaning, Social Norms and Law,” will look at how the growing field of social meanings and norms in legal research is affecting society.

“One of the questions we are exploring is whether laws reflect society’s ideas of what’s right or whether laws should shape those social norms,” says Dan Kahan, Professor at the University of Chicago Law School and coordinator of the conference. “Paying attention to the values and attitudes expressed by laws can help make regulations more effective.”

For example, Kahan says, society is reluctant to use alternative sanctions such as fines for some minor criminals because these sanctions don’t express the real condemnation people feel toward the criminal’s act. Shaming penalties, on the other hand, can be better alternatives to prison because they do express that condemnation, he says.

Martha Nussbaum, the Ernst Freund Professor in the Law School, argues that prostitution should be legal because it is no different than any other person who is paid for their work: all of us use our bodies to perform our work.

The conference will feature law professors, economists and anthropologists from universities around the nation. Papers that will be presented are available before the conference by contacting Catherine Behan at (773) 702-8359.
Last modified at 03:50 PM CST on Wednesday, June 14, 2000.

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