Fabra-Zamora standing in front of a brick wall.

A world of questions in legal philosophy

Jorge Luis Fabra-Zamora, Associate Professor of Law

Covid-related border restrictions kept Jorge Luis Fabra-Zamora from coming to Buffalo from Toronto to interview for a place on the UB School of Law faculty. He was teaching at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School. So, his interviews took place virtually.

It was an uncharacteristic circumstance for Fabra-Zamora, whose experience and scholarship are decidedly global. A native of Colombia, he earned a bachelor of laws degree from the Universidad de Cartagena before moving to Canada for master’s and doctoral degrees in philosophy from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont.

As an associate professor at UB Law, he will teach Torts and Conflict of Laws this year, and in the future he’ll offer courses in jurisprudence (legal theory) in keeping with his scholarly interest in legal philosophy.

In exploring those interests, he’s part philosopher, part lawyer. “I wear both hats,” Fabra-Zamora says. “Philosophical training improves the way I think about law and how I frame legal issues. I explore philosophical questions in legal settings.”

He has thought deeply about what he calls the foundational questions of law. “One of the main questions we have to ask about law,” he says, “is, how can the law have authority on us and why should we obey? Authority and obedience cannot be arbitrary or random; they have to be based on moral principles. And this is where philosophy is helpful because it tackles these open questions. You need to necessarily resort to more abstract philosophical disputes about justice, liberty, or democracy.”

That’s true, he says, even in doctrinal areas. Torts, for example, “reflects ongoing disputes about competing politico-moral principles that go beyond black-letter law. Some think tort law embodies a form of corrective justice while for others torts is mainly about efficiency.” These disputes affect how tort norms are created, applied, and modified. “Not all legal practice questions are philosophical, but the foundational questions are,” he says.

cover of book "Objectivity in Jurisprudence".

Purchase a copy of the book Objectivity in Jurisprudence, Legal Interpretation and Practical Reasoning from Edward Elgar Publishing.

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An example of this approach in Fabra-Zamora’s work is a co-edited book available soon from Edward Elgar Publishing, Objectivity in Jurisprudence, Legal Interpretation and Practical Reasoning. “We’re trying to highlight the many applications of the idea of objectivity in the legal domain,” he says. “Objectivity is a foundational legal value. The key idea is that law isn’t supposed to be arbitrary. For example, judges cannot issue decisions based on their whims or biases. The real question is, what does it mean to be objective? Is it even possible given the limitations of the human mind? Is legal objectivity like the objectivity of science?”

He is currently working on two scholarly projects. One concerns the study of kinds of law different from the norms of the nation-state, such as indigenous law, the norms of transnational commercial law, or human rights. “The problem is to explain how these norms can be ‘legal’ even if some of them lack the features most commonly associated with law, like judges, prisons, coercion, that only present in the domestic context.”

The other project concerns compensation for human rights infringements, “how should the state compensate victims for atrocities?” he asks, “and what is the state’s responsibility for its actions and omissions in a conflict? I explore questions at the intersection of torts, international law, human rights and the law of government, and how government should work.”

A particular interest for Fabra-Zamora is transitional justice, the study of governments in transition from dictatorship to democracy or from conflict to peace. It stems from his native country, which has long suffered political instability including armed conflict among government forces, leftist guerrilla groups, and right-wing paramilitaries. “Colombia has been in conflict for 50 years,” he says. “To resolve this conflict, a novel system was put in place. For the very first time in history, the system attempts to resolve the four fundamental questions of transitions: What do we do with the wrongdoers? How do we compensate the victims? How do we know the truth about what happened, which is often obscure? And most importantly, what do we do in order for this not to happen again?”