Laurence Tribe: What's Your Question?

Lawrence Tribe is an American constitutional scholar and the Carl M. Loeb University Professor at the Harvard Law School. A longstanding proponent of liberal jurisprudence, in 2001 Tribe helped found the American Constitution Society a supposed liberal counterweight to the conservative Federalist Society and was long considered a possible Supreme Court nominee by a Democratic administration. Tribe received his A.B. in math from Harvard in 1962, and graduated from Harvard Law School in 1966. He clerked for Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart from 1967-1968 and became an Assistant Professor of Law at Harvard in 1968, where has taught ever since. A fierce critic of many recent Supreme Court decisions, Tribe has argued over thirty cases before the Court, including the infamous Bush v. Gore in 2000, and is the author of Abortion: The Clash of Absolutes, American Constitutional Law, and co-author of On Reading the Constitution (with Michael Dorf).  He is also a former Professor of President Obama and current supporter.

  • Transcript


Question: What questions do you ask yourself?

Laurence Tribe: Well the question, “What’s it all about?”  What’s it all for?  Is there some larger purpose?  Is this some accident that I exist just an accident?  Or is there something that it can contribute to?  And I mean I ask that, but I have no hope of getting an answer. “How can I be a better person?”  I ask that question a lot.  How can I get less frustrated, less angry with people?  How can I get more out of the time that’s left?  Because it’s kind of a waste to spend it being frustrated, angry, you know.  The notion that we only do this once, that it’s not a dress rehearsal – how can I translate that into leading a better life and doing more for people that I care about?  I mean I do ask that a lot, but it’s very hard to think that . . . that one will ever get answers to questions like that.

Because that’s what the human spirit is about – asking questions.  I guess if one stopped asking questions . . . I mean I want to know what will the world be like in 10 million years.  You know I want to know what will the first people who encounter intelligent life elsewhere think.  Will we be consumed by that intelligent life, or will we be enhanced by it?  Questions like that make life worth living.  Will anyone ever prove this or that conjecture?  Is there something as wonderful as Fermat’s last theorem that has yet to be proved that will be proved in my lifetime?  Will it be proof that I’ll be able to understand?  Questions like that are sort of at the core of existence.  The complacency of the graveyard.  No questions.  It’s all over.  It’s all finished.  Nothing to know, nothing to wonder about is almost the definition of death for me.

Question: What should we be asking ourselves?

Laurence Tribe: Well I suppose it’s fairly straightforward.  It’s “How can I do and be better?”  How can I make the world better than I’m making it now?  What can I do that contributes more?  How can I give back more of this extraordinary good fortune that I’ve received?