March 20, 1997
Vol. 16, No. 13

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    Profile: Dan Kahan

    Dan Kahan, Professor in the Law School, hears a lot of jokes about shame these days. After writing a University of Chicago Law Review article last spring advocating shame penalties as a viable alternative to prison sentences, Kahan garnered national attention for his research. He has been cited on NBC News' Today Show and in such publications as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal for his views on alternative sanctions.

    Although he's had his share of media attention, most of the attention he gets is from a coveted source -- his students. An expert in criminal law who also teaches constitutional law, Kahan is a lively and popular teacher at the Law School. In class, he dashes up one side of the class and then the other, enthusiastically challenging students about issues surrounding the death penalty. His voice booms off the walls as he asks questions and, unlike the Paper Chase horror stories of law faculty questions, most of his come with a laugh and a smile. He talks about the politics surrounding the law as well as the "expressiveness" of the law -- how the public's views on various issues convey feelings about murderers and about mercy.

    Kahan has taught at Chicago since 1993. He was an attorney with Mayer, Brown & Platt in Washington, D.C., from 1991 until joining the University faculty. Previously, he was a law clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and to Judge Harry T. Edwards of the U.S. Court of Appeals. He received his J.D. in 1989 from Harvard, where he was president of the Harvard Law Review. Seeing you in the classroom, it's obvious you enjoy teaching. You also have received a lot of attention for your research. Which do you prefer, teaching or scholarship? To me, there's no real separation between the two. I enjoy researching issues that interest me, and I also really enjoy teaching students about those same issues. I like to help people look at issues differently and see that these issues -- especially controversial ones -- are more complicated than they think.

    Much of your research and your discussion in class is about the expressive function of the law. What interests you about this issue? Scholars debate the significance of individual blame on the one side and social utility on the other, but the intuitions people have about law are more complicated than that. I think the expressive function of the law supplies a more natural way to make sense of these intuitions.

    Consider the issue of alternatives to imprisonment. People don't like fines, not because fines don't impose the suffering offenders deserve, or create the deterrance citizens expect, but because fines don't express condemnation. Fines seem to say that offenders can buy the privilege of breaking the law. Community service sends a confusing message, too: It insults people who perform the same services voluntarily. In other words, we care very much about the meaning of the penalty -- that it clearly communicates our condemnation of the crime and the criminal. Sending someone to prison clearly sends that message of condemnation. Shaming penalties do too, and at a lesser expense to society.

    Some students may worry that at a renowned research university such as Chicago, research can be in competition with teaching. How do you think the two fit together? I know I would not be as interested in teaching and I wouldn't be as engaged if I weren't also focused on research and writing. If you don't think about issues, you stagnate.

    You went to law school at Harvard, but say that Chicago was your first choice for an academic job. Why is that? Chicago is the best place to be a legal academic. My colleagues have an unmatched sense of the craft of legal scholarship and are second to none in their dedication to making young scholars productive. The University as a whole is also a tremendous resource. Students and faculty remark on how carefully you prepare for class. What do you do to prepare? I prepare for almost two and a half hours before class, thinking about nothing else but what I am going to talk about in class. I imagine the class and what points I want to get across and the kinds of interesting and surprising ways I can communicate those points.

    -- Catherine Behan