Hanson wonders if we’re all just volleyballs


The ordinary Harvard Law School chair lecture does not necessarily feature a cast as diverse as a Fellini film, Alan Greenspan, or Wilson, the anthropomorphic volleyball from the 2000 movie Castaway. That is perhaps a testament that Jon Hanson, who was appointed the Alfred Smart Professor last Wednesday evening, is no ordinary HLS professor. Hanson has defined himself as a pioneer in the interdisciplinary study of law and mind sciences. He is also, as Dean Kagan joked, probably the tallest member of the faculty “and the only Smart Professor of Law”.

Hanson’s chair lecture, addressed to a packed Casperson Room, took on the notion, enshrined in law by free market ideology, that individuals are truly free to make choices, and that the market is calibrated to respond to those choices in turn. Instead, Hanson suggested, law ought to take into account situational forces that affect human decision-making. It was hard for many, Hanson noted, to understand how the financial crisis could have happened without understanding that individuals did not operate rationally within the market – and that the market did not respond rationally to them.

Alan Greenspan’s admission that his ideology did not permit him to see potential flaws in the financial system added recent fuel to Hanson’s academic fire. Less timely – but no less poignant – was Hanson’s extended discussion of Castaway’s Wilson. The magic of Wilson, Hanson asserted, was that he was not only personified by Hanks in the film, but came to be seen as a human figure by the audience as well – the reason a scene in which Wilson floats away from Hanks is one of the most moving in the film.

If people were capable of falsely attributing characteristics like independent judgment and reason to a volleyball, Hanson speculated, they were more than capable of falsely attributing such characteristics to themselves. Although he acknowledged it was difficult to do so, Hanson implored the audience to not just unmask Wilson’s true nature, but our own. We ought to ask, he suggested, whether we are all volleyballs.