Berliner Seminar »Recht im Kontext« 2021/22

Legal Personhood: Animals, Robots, Corporations

Legal Personhood: Animals, Robots, Corporations

For centuries, personhood and legal capacity were instruments of discrimination and oppression against certain groups of the population, especially slaves, subjects and women. Today, it is recognized that every person is a bearer of equal fundamental rights and duties. Nevertheless, the concept of personhood does not come to rest. On the one hand, the legal status of private corporations is in question: Can a corporation invoke its religious freedom if it does not want to employ homosexuals or finance abortions through health insurance contributions? Animals are a second focus of concern: Has the largely overcome racism been replaced by a speciesism that recognizes all humans as having legal capacity, but denies this status to non-human creatures and punishes them with contempt? Finally, the digital revolution challenges the category of legal capacity: Humans have so far assumed to be the only beings on the planet capable of rational self-determination. In all likelihood, autonomous systems equipped with artificial intelligence will take their place alongside humans. So are robots to be welcomed into the circle of legal subjects? The lectures in the seminar series approach these questions from a multidisciplinary perspective and in international dialogue.

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(Re-)Contextualizing law(s)

Law is constantly growing more diverse, international and complex. Long ago, the coexistence and collaboration of rival yet complementary systems of law and normative orders established itself as a factual norm. Legal pluralism has become “an everyday matter of risk and opportunity”, writes David Kennedy, Professor of International Law at Harvard. That applies to people besides corporate lawyers, investment bankers and members of NGOs or armed forces seeking orientation in an increasingly disaggregated and fragmented global legal order. Wherever the law (re-)constructs social phenomena and, in turn, is influenced by them, we should recall the words of Australian legal scholar Fleur Johns, who wrote that “each time we produce law to match the world, we produce world to match the law, and vice versa.” The frontiers of law and its study evade definition along traditional patterns of order, and even intra-disciplinary differentiations such as the dichotomy between public and private law require critical reconsideration.

Seen from within the research and teaching of legal scholarship, inquiring into the innate sense of law within a pluralistic legal reality is one of the “future tasks of scholarship that can free itself only through contextualization and thereby reference its underlying disciplines” (Dieter Grimm). Besides placing greater emphasis on legal realities, doing so also requires a discourse with the humanities, social sciences and cultural studies.

Since 2010, the Research Network Recht im Kontext has worked to advance this process of “relocating” law and legal studies. It builds upon the work and expertise of a group of scholars sharing an interest in contextual and contextualized legal knowledge. Recht im Kontext opens discursive and academic space for new approaches to legal scholarship. These range from gender studies, comparative scholarship, legal history, law and literature and critical approaches to international law to the administrative sciences, transitional justice, development cooperation law and classical issues of legal philosophy. We assign central importance to the development of new discursive and research approaches.

As a vibrant infrastructure for cross-disciplinary legal research, Recht im Kontext also strives to provide impulses to the humanities and social sciences, which themselves imbue the training and practice of law over the intermediate term, thereby enriching law as a subject and discipline.

Recht im Kontext was evaluated in 2017 by an international committee. A summary of the evaluation report can be found here