Robin B. Kar

Professor of Law and Philosophy

 Professor Kar is an internationally recognized scholar of contract law, philosophy of law, moral and legal philosophy, and the evolution of legal systems and complex social structure (including modern markets). He draws on methods that include not only traditional legal studies but also philosophy, psychology, evolutionary theory, game theory, economics, neuroscience, anthropology, archaeology, linguistics, and comparative cultural and legal studies. These methods inform his research into what law is and how it functions in people’s lives.  

Professor Kar’s scholarship falls into three interrelated categories. The first line of work draws on contemporary advances in evolutionary game theory to suggest that humans have a naturally evolved sense of obligation, which functions to allow them to resolve a broad range of cooperative problems. The relevant psychological attitudes, which Professor Kar calls “obligata”, incline people to engage in a highly structured form of human social life and interaction. Obligata animate large segments of legal and social behavior but—Professor Kar argues—this form of life is not well understood as arising only from classical “rational actor” models of human behavior (even as supplemented by more recent developments in behavioral economics). Some representative works include The Deep Structure of Law and Morality, The Psychological Foundations of Human Rights, and The Two Faces of Morality.  

Professor Kar’s second main line of scholarship draws on these psychological insights to characterize the nature of law and the evolutionary stability conditions for emergent legal systems. This work falls partly within the tradition of analytic legal philosophy, but it takes a more evolutionary and naturalistic perspective on these developments than is common. Professor Kar’s interests here extend to the emergence of not only domestic but also international legal systems, along with the laws and norms needed to support advanced market economies. Some representative works include Hart’s Response to Exclusive Legal Positivism, Western Legal Prehistory: Reconstructing the Hidden Origins of Western Law and Western Civilization, and Outcasting, Globalization, and the Emergence of International Law.   

Professor Kar’s third main line of scholarship develops a general interpretive theory of contract, entitled Contract as Empowerment. On this view, contract law is neither a mere mechanism to promote efficiency nor a mere reflection of any familiar moral norm—such as norms of promise keeping, property, or corrective justice. Contract law is instead a mechanism of empowerment: it empowers people to use legally enforceable promises as tools to influence other people’s actions that thereby meet a broad range of human needs and interests. It also empowers them in a special way, which reflects a moral ideal of equal respect for persons. This fact explains why contract law can produce genuine legal obligations and is not just a system of coercion. Contract as empowerment absorbs many economic insights but gives them a fundamentally different interpretation. It suggests that contracting and modern market activities are not simply spheres where self-interest runs wild. They are instead spheres of moral interaction, which can engage people’s natural sense of obligation and generate genuine legal obligations—at least so long as contract law is simultaneously personally empowering and reflective of a moral ideal of equal respect for persons. This work thus builds upon but offers fundamental challenges to the prevailing law and economics paradigm. It seeks to promote a deeper reconciliation between personal morality and the marketplace—or between moral and economic agency. But Professor Kar believes current law needs to be changed so that markets are more equally empowering to market participants. Some representative works include Contract as Empowerment, The Challenge of Boilerplate, and The Emerging New Life of Contract Studies.  

Professor Kar’s work has been published in a number of top journals, including the Yale Law Journal (both in print and on-line), the Georgetown Law Journal, the Texas Law Review, the Oxford Handbook of International Human Rights, Law & Philosophy, and the NOMOS volume on Evolution and Morality. Professor Kar is currently the Director of the Illinois Program on Interdisciplinary and Comparative Jurisprudence, a Project Leader for the Illinois Program on Cultures of Law in Global Contexts, and a Faculty Affiliate of the Illinois Program in Law and Philosophy, the Illinois Program in Law, Behavior and the Social Sciences, the Illinois Network for Neurocultures, the Beckman Institute, and the Institute for Genomic Biology. He is the current President of the Society for the Evolutionary Analysis of Law, one of the co-editors of the Jotwell Section on Jurisprudence, and Editor-in-Chief of the Illinois Law Faculty Blog.  

Before entering teaching, Professor Kar earned his bachelors degree magna cum laude from Harvard College. He received his JD from Yale Law School, where he was an editor of the Yale Law Journal and a Thurman Arnold Prize finalist. He received his PhD (in legal, moral and political philosophy and philosophy of the social sciences) from the University of Michigan. During this period, he was a Rackham Merit Scholar, a Rackham Predoctoral Scholar, and a Charlotte Newcombe Fellow—awarded through the Woodrow Wilson Foundation. He has clerked twice in Manhattan, first for the Honorable Justice Sonia Sotomayor, then on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, and later for the Honorable John G. Koeltl, on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. He has worked for several major law firms in New York City, including Debevoise & Plimpton, Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, Davis Polk & Wardwell. He also had a prior professional life as a computer programmer, and has written award-winning software. Those experiences generate continuing interests in developments in law and technology.  

As a teacher, Professor Kar tries to impress upon his students the importance of a solid combination of practical expertise and more theoretical, creative problem solving. This combination is essential, in his view, for students to compete effectively in the current legal market because the narrowed market has begun to focus increasingly on human skills that are not automatable. At the same time, Professor Kar tries to impart a sense of the importance of law to his students and the critical role that lawyers can and ought to play in policing this vital social institution. This requires learning more than just practical skills; it requires being empowered to think critically about the law from a range of perspectives and learning to communicate its effects to people who typically bear them. On a more personal level, Professor Kar wants his students to develop individualized and partly non-instrumental senses of vocation about the law—i.e., senses that there are areas of the law, or classes of legal problems, that move his students in ways that can give them a deeper sense of purpose in practice. He has been voted “Professor of the Year” twice by the LLM class, and regularly appears in the annual lists of teachers “Ranked Excellent by their Students.”

Follow Professor Kar on Twitter @RobinKar1.