Worth: Sovereignty and the Irony of Caring for Legal Needs

The film Worth (2020) tells the story of the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund with a focus on the emotionally stunted lawyer in charge of calculating the pay out, Ken Feinberg (Michael Keaton).

Warning: spoilers ahead

Though the film suffers from too many drawn out shots of people in suits listening to opera, the subject matter is compelling and its apparent thesis presents an unusually clear (and perhaps overly simplistic) case for what it means to meet legal needs in a caring way. In so doing, it highlights one the main dark ironies such care may be predicated on.

Both the title and opening scene (in which Feinberg asks a class of law students this question) suggest this movie is about asking the question “What is a life worth?”. From the beginning, Feinberg eschews the possibility of finding an answer or even achieving a fair result in court. Rather, he views the function of the legal system is to satisfy people just enough so they are willing to move on. Nothing in the film really proves Feinberg wrong, though he clearly learns that money is not the only thing it takes for people to move on.

After 9/11 takes place, a meeting is held in which the airline companies pressure Congress to create a fund to compensate the victims in exchange for agreeing not to sue the airlines. They defend this seemingly crass self-interested request by saying that there would be so many lawsuits it would bankrupt the airlines, bringing the economy to a halt and the terrorists would win. Feinberg supports the proposal because it will be faster and cheaper for the victims who can’t afford the decades of lawsuits. Congress agrees and Feinberg, thinking his cool-headed hard nosed approach of rational economic calculation will serve a hysterical country well, volunteers for the highly unpopular task of managing this fund.

Needless to say his heartless approach sat well with no one, and the main drama of this film is not so much the search for its alternative as it is the transformation in Feinberg needed to become willing to do seek an alternative. At first, Feinberg shields himself from direct contact with the victims, leaving this to his female partner, Camille Biros (Amy Ryan), and female associate, Priya Khundi (Shinuri Ramanathan), who suffer increasingly as a result. Meanwhile, Charles Wolf (Stanley Tucci), who lost his wife, advocates in a civil but effective manner to “Fix the Fund” by honouring the victims, preserving their dignity, and respecting each individual case. Eventually, through a mix of direct contact with victims and Wolf’s advice and arguments, Feinberg decides to take a personal approach, listening to each victim and calculating the amount and way the compensation is paid to meet the needs of each individual victim. This wins the trust of Wolf who holds the trust of the majority of victims and results in an overwhelming take-up in the fund (97%).

The plot maps very neatly onto the five elements of Tronto’s understanding of care ethics as presented in Caring Democracy. Firstly, Feinberg’s team, and then he, must listen and be attentive to what the victims are actually asking for. Secondly, Feinberg must take responsibility for those needs he spends most of the film hiding from. Thirdly, he must actually do the work to earn the trust of the victims. Fourthly, they must actually respond by signing onto the compensation fund, which, fifthly, they do through the medium of democratic organizing in the person of Charles Wolf.

Underlying this simple narrative, however, is a dark irony, which is brought out when we reflect on the character of the legal need this statutory compensation fund purports to address and how it is ultimately met. The fund was created through a law, the purpose of which is to encourage people to willingly forfeit a legal right. It purports to meet the needs of the victim to faster and simpler compensation while meeting the alleged collective need to avoid economic collapse. It is only through an act of law that the alleged conflict between the right of the individual and the alleged interest of society (or the interests of ordinary citizens and those of oligarchs) can be resolved.

In a sense, therefore, it is an anti-law law, which aims to correct the rigid nature of rights. Wolf points out this exceptional “rewriting the rules for the airlines” while reminding Feinberg of his own discretion, pleading with him to use that discretion to honour victims and not hide behind a formula. All of this is set against a backdrop of the developing Iraq War, in which the US is taking many exceptional steps. As the famous Schmittian adage goes “The Sovereign defines the exception.”

The irony this film calls our attention to is that it is the same broad arbitrary discretionary decision-making that both gave rise for the Iraq War and the political context in which Feinberg actually had the space to meet the needs of victims in a truly individualized way.

I do not think the movie goes further than to point out this irony. It certainly doesn’t offer any solutions. Ultimately, it’s not worth the two hours it takes to watch, but it presents an interesting case study for any care ethicists concerned about how public decision-makers can meet collective needs in a caring way while remaining accountable to the people they serve.

As we have learned lately, emergencies create a unique context for the possibility of care as legal and bureaucratic systems react to their own limitations. In the case of the compensation fund, it was likely Feinberg’s dependence on the victims, and their ability to organize with clear demands, which likely forced his hand. No discretion is ever truly unconstrained and to the extent that we can organize every example of discretion (and there are many throughout the law regardless of what decision-makers may insist) is an opportunity for care.

About the author: Benjamin Miller

Benjamin Miller

Benjamin Miller is lawyer serving nonprofits in Ontario, Canada and completed an MA in political theory at the University of Ottawa where his research focused on the ethics of care and the concept of legal need.

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