Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIV, No. 48
Wednesday, December 1, 2010
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Bendheim Center Is a Nexus for Research in Finance, Humanities, and Social Sciences

Ellen Gilbert

The library in Princeton University’s Bendheim Center for Finance was the scene of some brain-twisting questions earlier this week when Politics Department graduate student Daniel Mark presented “A Critique of Joseph Raz’s Theory of Authority.”

Sponsored by Law-Engaged Graduate Students (LEGS), talks like Mr. Mark’s give dissertation writers an opportunity to share some of their evolving ideas with an interdisciplinary audience. In Mr. Mark’s case, participants included faculty members from different departments at Princeton University, fellow graduate students, visitors from the University of Pennsylvania, a retired attorney, and a psychotherapist from Vietnam.

Law and Public Affairs (LAPA) Program Director Kim Lane Scheppele introduced Mr. Mark with a joke about “the proverbial 15 minutes” alloted to presenters at a dissertation defense. Like the many distinguished faculty members from virtually all the humanities and social sciences who are associated with LAPA, Ms. Scheppele wears several hats; in her case she is also the Laurance S. Rockefeller Professor of Public Affairs in the University Center for Human Values.

After Mr. Mark’s presentation clocked in at a respectable 20 minutes, Ms. Scheppele praised him for its simplicity and clarity. The title of his chapter referred to the 71-year old, Israeli-born legal, political, and moral philosopher Joseph Raz, who is associated with both Balliol College, Oxford and the Columbia University School of Law. Issues touched upon during the presentation and question-and-answer session that followed included the use of coercion to enforce laws; the “problem of autonomy”; the significance of moral obligations; and, essentially, what is meant by “authority.”

The “mythical traffic light,” a red light at a deserted intersection in the middle of the night, was invoked more than once. Does a person have a legal or a moral obligation to stop? Questions from “left field,” Mr. Mark observed, occurred when religious models, based on an assumption of God’s superiority, are invoked in determinations of authority.

As audience members asked questions about the role of the Existentialists in Mr. Mark’s arguments or how “being an authority” differed from “being in authority,” a listener might imagine bringing local concerns to bear. What about paying tax hikes resulting from a problematic revaluation? Should residents who don’t have youngsters in the local schools pay their taxes? In light of the regular “Consent Agenda” items that are considered at each Princeton Township Committee meeting, it was good to learn that the word “consent” is a “procedural indicator” reflecting the fact that those in authority have “the common good” at heart.

Lest anyone think that the center’s activities have only to do with complex financial questions or profound philosophical and legal issues, it should be noted that in the first annual soccer match last spring between teams from the Bendheim Center for Finance (BCF) and the Woodrow Wilson School, BCF prevailed with a 2-1 win. This was followed by a match between BCF Master’s students and a team consisting of BCF Ph.D. students, faculty, and staff. “The Master’s students maintained their momentum to defeat their nemesis for the first time in ten years,” reported an online posting called — what else? — ”Bend it Like Bendheim.”

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