Theorists in ethics and law posit a dialectical relationship between principles and cases; abstract principles both inform and are informed by the decisions of specific cases. Until recently, however, it has not been possible to investigate or confirm this relationship empirically. This work involves a systematic study of a set of ethics cases written by a professional association's board of ethical review. Like judges, the board explains its decisions in opinions. It applies normative standards, namely principles from a code of ethics, and cites past cases. We hypothesized that the board's explanations of its decisions elaborated upon the meaning and applicability of the abstract code principles and past cases. In effect, the board operationalizes the principles and cases. We hypothesized further that this operationalization could be captured computationally and used to improve automated information retrieval. A computer program was designed to retrieve from the on-line database those ethics code principles and past cases that are relevant to analyzing new problems. In an experiment, we used the computer program to test the hypotheses. The experiment demonstrated that the dialectical relationship between principles and cases exists and that the associated operationalization information improves the program's ability to assess which codes and cases are relevant to analyzing new problems. The results have significance both to the study of legal reasoning and improvement of legal information retrieval.
Kevin D. Ashley,
Capturing the Dialectic between Principles and Cases,
Available at: https://scholarship.law.pitt.edu/fac_articles/528
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