in search of global justice
Thom Brooks interviewed by Richard Marshall.
Thom Brooks kicks philosophy onto the Global streets looking for justice. He’s at home with law, philosophy and public policy. He’s got hard things to say about the UK Citizenship test, finds the issue of global justice a core issue for us all, and Hegel’s Philosophy of Right a key text. He broods deeply on theories of punishment and thinks he’s continuing the tradition of the British Idealists. He thinks hard about natural law internalism and theories of just war. He judges John Rawls a deep groove, Martha Nussbaum his fave living philosopher both for her capabilities approach and large vision and considers Indian philosophy part of the increasingly global philosophical scene. Like, Holy Funkadelic!
3:AM: What made you become a philosopher? Were you always wondering about the kinds of issues you now wonder about?
Thom Brooks: I never imagined that I’d become a philosopher and the decision did not happen overnight. My youth was spent in New Haven, Connecticut dreaming about playing lead guitar in the rock band Kiss. I saw them play on television when I was about six years old and started to learn the guitar almost immediately afterwards. My passion for music continued and I later entered university to study music at William Paterson under Hugh Aitken. I sat Aitken’s class on Indian music and developed a deep interest in the subject. He advised me to meet with Maya Chadda, a professor of political science. Chadda was a classic Indian dancer and long-time friend of Ravi Shankar. She recommend that I consider studying Indian politics to better grasp elements of Indian music and culture at a deeper level. I soon took an unusual double major for my BA in music and political science. While my ambition for a music career began to wane, my plan at this time was to work in government, probably the US State Department, and South Asian affairs a strong interest. Before graduating, I sat classes with Stephen Shalom who deserves credit for first arousing my interest in political philosophy. I also took an ‘Introduction to Philosophy’ with a terrific teacher, Daniel Kolak.
I quickly ruled out a move to Law School, but opted to pursue a MA in political science at Arizona State University where I studied under Joyotpal Chaudhuri and my plan was to pursue a job in government upon graduation. Things did not go as planned. Chaudhuri convinced me that I had to engage with Indian philosophy and religion to better understand the politics of the region. Thus started a still present love for Indian philosophy. I found the rich use of vivid analogies, the robust ‘communitarian’ view of the individual and novel understandings about pluralism and difference all highly appealing. So my interest in Indian thought is mostly ethical and political rather than religious. I have since published several papers with much more planned.
One problem for me was that this interest in philosophy was from an non-traditional point of entry. This made conversations difficult at first. My canonical figures, such as Nagarjuna or Shantideva, remain all but unknown in Western philosophical circles. It was always more cumbersome to raise objections or defend positions through the lens of such fascinating figures. All this changed when I sat a class by Avital Simhony on Hegel and the British Idealists. Much of my career has been spent trying to gain a better understanding of the texts by Hegel, Green and others we read in that class. Something clicked when I read Hegelians. It wasn’t because of clear prose or deep agreement, but rather I discovered that many of the ideas and views that attracted me to Indian philosophy could be engaged with using Hegel and the British Idealists instead. This made it easier to engage with others because the figures and texts were better known, however complex and often obscure.
I had not travelled much until this time and only now coming to the view that perhaps my future is in academia as a political theorist and not working in politics. But I still lacked confidence in my philosophical abilities. So I took a gamble on what turned out to be a transformational experience that has shaped everything that has happened for me since: I decided to pursue a second MA, but this time in Philosophy. And I was going to live abroad and chose to study at University College Dublin. I sat a terrific class on Hegel’s Logic taught by Brian O’Connor who also served as my dissertation supervisor: unfortunately for Brian, my MA dissertation ran to about 220 pages – and much longer than my PhD thesis. I wrote about capital punishment and the philosophy of punishment has occupied a central place in my work ever since.
My plan was never to stay in Europe, but return to the US for any PhD studies. But again things didn’t work out that way. I grew to love my time in Dublin, Ireland where I enjoyed the philosophical scene and also actively gigged in a jazz trio in Temple Bar most weekends. I took a year out after completing my MA in philosophy at UCD and worked as an Executive Assistant in the department. One of my tasks was to serve as a managing editor for the International Journal of Philosophical Studies still based at UCD. This role further improved my confidence in my abilities as I became introduced to academic publishing from the other side, one of the most rewarding experiences I have enjoyed. I learned a tremendous amount about how the publishing world works and attending publisher’s meetings, engaged with annual reports and so on. This was all put to good use in two ways. First, I used the insights gained in this role to develop my first paper – published on Kant, Hegel and retributivist punishment in Philosophy – at this time. Secondly, I launched a new journal, the Journal of Moral Philosophy, a couple years later employing the lessons learned with the IJPS.
I left Dublin in 2001 for the University of Sheffield where I studied for a PhD in philosophy under Robert Stern and Leif Wenar on the topic of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. I could not have asked for a more friendly or supportive place to study. I am particularly indebted to Stern for his advice on Hegel and so much else. I was now clear that I wanted to become a philosopher and work in a philosophy department. Once again things did not go according to plan. Jobs were scarce, especially when limiting my search to the UK. Eventually, I took a job as Lecturer in Political Thought in the Politics Department at Newcastle University with only a few months left on my student visa. Last December, I joined the Law School at Durham University and I’m also an Associate Member of the Philosophy Department. So I’ve made it to Philosophy at last although my main appointment is in Law.
I wouldn’t have had it any other way. My career path has been uncommon moving across several subjects. One consequence is that my training and interests are deeply interdisciplinary. I’m now equally “at home” in Law, Philosophy, Politics or Public Policy although I would consider myself first and foremost a Philosopher. The ideas that drove me in graduate school continue to be present in my thinking today, such as punishment, although I have developed new interests, such as in the capabilities approach, global justice and also criminal law.
3:AM: You’re involved in making current legislation about the UK Citizenship test, which you have called ‘unfit for purpose.’ Before looking at the issue, could you say something about your involvement in this as a philosopher – you took the test yourself didn’t you? It seems philosophers are eminently suitable for engaging in public issues – and policy issues – where big philosophical ideas are involved. Is this something you enjoy and feel philosophy might be more engaged with?
TB: I sat the “Life in the UK” citizenship test in 2009. You must pass the test in order to qualify for permanent residency. I became a British citizen in 2010. Philosophers should become more politically engaged and I’m surprised more are not so. The UK has several great examples of philosophers impacting on practice at its best, including several academic philosophers now appointed as Life Peers in the House of Lords, such as Onora O’Neill, Raymond Plant and Bhikhu Parekh – Parekh is an especially close friend of mine. The UK recently incorporated a requirement that departments provide some evidence for the “impact” of their research in the regular research performance monitoring now called the Research Excellence Framework (or REF). This has attracted much criticism for fear that it would privilege some subjects over others with special concerns expressed by many working in the arts and humanities. I believe such worries are misplaced and say so in a forthcoming piece on political philosophy and research impact for the Political Studies Association’s special issue of Political Studies Review on impact. Philosophers are well placed to provide the necessary critical scrutiny through rigorous examination that often eludes others. I was once asked by a student why I demanded his class read Plato’s Republic rather than something more practical, such as a business plan. My response was that if he could critically examine the Republic in its rich complexity, then he could scrutinize any business plan. Philosophy is perhaps far more practical than many realize.
Furthermore, I have found that it is much easier to engage directly with policy makers through political parties. I’ve been an active supporter of the UK’s Labour Party for several years and have benefited from a sustained interest in my work. Indeed, next month my book Punishment will be formally launched in Westminster by a panel chaired by Lord Parekh. Such engagement between academics, politics and policy makers is – I suspect – much less unusual here in the UK than in my native USA. There is an interest in academic research and its potential use for policy making that is strongly encouraging. Yet, I’ve been surprised nonetheless at how few other academics more directly engage with politicians. Most of those I know are keen to listen if only more cared to speak.
3:AM: So what’s wrong with the test and what general philosophical issues arise here? What are you proposing should be done?
TB: Where to begin? The test was brought in as part of a broad spectrum of policies meant to better control immigration to the UK. I have no problem with the use of citizenship tests, but I have several criticisms for how these tests have been designed in the UK. One issue is that the test had been outdated. When I sat the test, the “correct” answers to several questions were factually untrue. This is because until a fortnight ago the test was published in March 2007. The problem is that many programmes have since changed or closed, departments merged or rebranded and the demographics have changed. A second issue is that the test didn’t include much, if anything, about British history and culture. Instead, its focus was on practical knowledge and daily living. These problems have been addressed by the newly published 2013 test in the wrong ways. So the problem that programmes and departments may change overtime is overcome by not asking about them at all. The previous test required applicants to know how many MPs there are in Westminster (correct answer for the test was 646, but 650 in fact), but the new test does not require this knowledge (but it does require knowledge of how many members there are in devolved assemblies in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales which is curious). The problem of having too few questions about British history and culture has been addressed by asking too many, often highly trivial. You might say the test has gone from asking useful trivia to the purely trivial.
One key example is Sake Dean Mahomet. Applicants must now know his dates of birth and death (1759-1851), where he grew up (Bengal), which army he served in (Bengal army), when came to Britain (1782), when moved to Ireland (1786), how he married (he eloped), who he eloped with (the handbook states “an Irish girl called Jane Daly”), when he returned to England (1786), when he opened Britain’s first curry house (1810), what the curry house was called (the Hindoostane Coffee House), what street it was located on (George Street in London) and that he introduced the Indian art of head massage to Britain. An eminently important figure that I agree deserves inclusion, but in every detail? Applicants need not know the spouse names for virtually every other person that might be tested about. Why this exception?
I propose some practical changes. The new test no longer requires applicants know how to report a crime, how to contact an ambulance or register with a doctor. There is no information about the different types of schools in the UK or the background checks that may be required to work in them. Permanent residents ought to know information like this and it’s shocking to see it has all been removed. It is all the more surprising when you see the test’s handbook claims to be “a guide for new residents” while failing to include such fundamental details.
There are also deep, philosophical issues at stake: should a test be relevant for citizenship? What should such a test achieve? These were highlighted in a paper published in The Political Quarterly, but these issues remain prescient with the new test. There appears to have been little, if any, engagement with the many tens of thousands who have sat the test to gain some indication about whether the test has served a useful purpose or rather seen and endured by immigrants as little more than another unnecessary, costly hurdle to jump through. While the test is embedded in current immigration policy, there has been no substantive analysis of its principled purpose since its original launch a decade ago. I have argued that citizenship tests can serve a useful purpose when designed correctly. I have further recommended that the test be understood not as a barrier to keep others out, but instead as a bridge linking people in. Immigration policy has also centred on form filling and test taking, but perhaps there might also be much more done about community involvement that has not been explored that I believe should happen. I have had a unique perspective as a political and legal philosopher who has worked on citizenship and as someone who has immigrated after taking the UK’s test. I know several fellow philosophers (many of them American like me) who also sat the UK test. The problem is there are not enough of us – informed about issues of citizenship and sharing the experience of being an immigrant – with a voice on these debates. I’m hoping to change this and I’ve been active within Labour politics and beyond trying to make a difference. This June I’ll be publishing a comprehensive and highly critical report of the UK citizenship test at my college, known locally as Durham Castle.
3:AM: This issue connects directly with issues of global justice. What are the key philosophical questions that concern you in this area?
TB: Several questions have attracted my interest in global justice: can there be a just war? Is there a “solution” to climate change? How to best address the problem of severe poverty? Each area has seen an explosion of interest and the field is robust with great talents. These questions are addressed in some recent work of mine both published and to be published, including a forthcoming companion book, Global Justice: An Introduction, to a new and revised edition of my The Global Justice Reader next year. Other key issues include what I call “global philosophy.” It is striking to me how much work in “global” justice addresses international problems from a culturally-specific approach or single tradition. Those who argue that different traditions share little in common know little about them. One of the many things I find so inspiring in the work of Martha Nussbaum – probably my favourite philosopher working today – is how her work illuminates bridges between East and West. For example, the capabilities approach is no less true for the citizens of Chicago as it is for those in Calcutta. Additionally, the resources employed to make her claims (and a tactic also found in different ways in Amartya Sen’s work) are not exclusive to one tradition. We are offered a coherent and compelling philosophical vision that is Nussbaum’s, but which builds off of a wide array of others from Aristotle and Kant to Gandhi and Tagore. This approach to philosophy is not comparative, but “global” bringing together different traditions within a unified account. Or at least how I see it. And if I predicted the future for philosophy, then it is that we will see much more to come as I argue for in a recent Metaphilosophy piece. As our classrooms and faculties become more internationalized, this may be inevitable – and a welcome move forward. Long may it continue.
3:AM: A figure you have thought hard about is Hegel and in particular his ‘Philosophy of Right’. It’s noticeable that in your writing about him you focus on issues such as punishment , ethics, the state, war which have been central aspects of your work. And you link him with Rawls and Marx who are also of interest to you. Some will be surprised that someone with an interest in Global justice and so on are interested in a philosopher endorsing dangerous conservativism bordering on fascism and totalitarianism. But you think this Popperian view is a bad reading don’t you?
TB: I most certainly do! Popper calls his attacks on Hegelian philosophy a part of his war effort. It certainly wasn’t an effort at improving our philosophical knowledge. Hegel’s philosophy has been subjected to countless misinterpretations and it is hardly surprising because Hegel did himself few favours. Most of his work takes the form of lecture outlines. Hegel would have his students consider some passages and then lecture about them in class. They were all meant to be elaborated in class and long before podcasts became a reality. Moreover, these lectures were to be more than elaborated in class, but also understood within a particular encyclopaedic structure. Hegel’s work is not meant to be read in isolation, but in combination with his other work forming – in his view – a coherent, philosophical system. Thankfully, philosophers have largely given up on such grandiose exercises. But it can be stimulating to think more about such ambitious enterprises. I’ve enjoyed studying Hegel because he helps me think more clearly about philosophical problems, but not because I agree with his solutions. Or rather: Hegel’s philosophy for me is like a mine that is mineral rich where I’ve discovered countless gems, but each gemstone requires much polishing and care when extracted from the rock and brought back to the surface.
Hegel scholars today are fairly united in the view that Hegel’s politics were moderate and neither conservative nor liberal. There is greater controversy over his contributions to discussions about global justice. I don’t believe Hegel has much of a theory about global justice because, in my view, his concerns lay elsewhere. Indeed, the section of the Philosophy of Right concerning international affairs is merely schematic. We might still offer a Hegelian-inspired vision and I’ve attempted this, but I’m less convinced Hegel has a clear and distinctive contribution in this area. So my Hegelian interests have largely been domestic rather than international.
3:AM: Someone like Fred Beiser is suspicious of Hegelians who eschew the metaphysics of the Spirit and other semi-theological concepts. What do you say?
TB: Our views have much in common, but for different reasons. Hegelian scholars have often divided themselves between “metaphysical” and “non-metaphysical” readings of his work. This distinction is misleading. It leads to the mistaken view that non-metaphysical readings of Hegel’s work deny there is metaphysics to be found. A further problem is that “metaphysical” readings will often overemphasise Hegel’s views about Geist and religion – as if their opponents deny their relevance – which defend a reading of Hegel’s text at the expense of making them more penetrable or defensible. “Non-metaphysical” readings typically overstate other elements presenting a reading perhaps more philosophical defensible, but at a lack of deep connection with the text. Too often a claim about “Hegel’s theory of x” is perhaps more a reflection of “my new theory of x” concealed behind the illusion that Hegel argues for the same.
In my Hegel’s Political Philosophy: A Systematic Reading of the Philosophy of Right (2d 2013), I argue that the distinction between metaphysical and non-metaphysical readings is best characterized as a difference about the systematic nature of Hegel’s philosophy. At its heart, non-metaphysical readings typically play down the systematic relation between texts in order to inoculate certain ideas. For example, the Philosophy of Right is interpreted largely independently of the larger system in order to bracket the concerns many have with other parts of his system, such as Hegel’s logic, with his political philosophy. If such texts can be understood independently of the system, such non-systematic readings may offer more direct interpretations of Hegel’s arguments without bringing into consideration the more controversial claims made elsewhere.
I’ve argued that this is unsuccessful. One reason is that it counters Hegel’s self-understanding: to read his work systematically is to interpret his ideas in the context he has clearly intended. A second reason is that the interpretation of the Philosophy of Right as a part of Hegel’s larger philosophical system helps clarify controversies about his political philosophy. Finally, this can be done without writing a book mostly about the logic and system, but rather focused on the Philosophy of Right. My book considers various topics including property, punishment, morality, family, monarchy, law, war and (in the new second edition) democracy and history to show what a systematic reading entails and how it can reveal new insights into Hegel’s ideas. So I agree with Beiser that many interpreters defend an incomplete or misleading view about Hegel’s philosophy. But the answer is not to overplay the metaphysics. Rather we must consider the systematic nature of Hegel’s philosophy and argumentation.
3:AM: Hegel’s theory of punishment – the unified theory of punishment – is the subject of one of your books. You challenge previous interpretations of Hegel’s theory don’t you. Before presenting your reading, could you say what people previously thought Hegel was arguing?
TB: Hegel’s theory of punishment is often defended as retributivist. Broadly speaking, this is the view that criminals should be punished when it is deserved and in proportion to what is deserved. This interpretation is almost entirely the result of focusing on one set of comments in the section “Abstract Right” to the exclusion of much else that Hegel has to say elsewhere. In fact, I’d say the view that Hegel’s theory of punishment is substantively contained in this one section has become fairly dominant.
3:AM: And how do you disagree with this? So what are you saying Hegel thought about punishment? Was this position close to that of the British Idealists?
TB: It’s an odd view to believe Hegel could or should have held. The Philosophy of Right moves in three stages: Abstract Right, Morality and Ethical Life. This three-stage progression charts the development of our consciousness of self with others from an abstract conception one-to-one building up toward our relation to others in ‘Ethical Life’ which brings together the institutions of family, civil society and the state. If we believe that ‘Abstract Right’ contains Hegel’s substantive views about punishment and that he defends a retributivist theory, this is implausible when you consider that Abstract Right is a sphere where there are no laws, there are no courts and there is no state, and there is no considered view of morality. Each of these dimensions – central to any theory of punishment – all come afterwards. Hegel does discuss ‘punishment’ in ‘Abstract Right’, but in relation to the violation of contractual stipulations agreed between two persons in a hypothetical situation and not for violating laws enacted by a state.
A common reply is that Hegel may offer comments later in the Philosophy of Right in his discussion of law, but they offer no substantive change to what Hegel claims previously. But this cannot be correct. Hegel is explicit in his later discussion that he is recasting his earlier comments within his now more complete view of civil society. We move from a hypothetical relation to our concrete, ‘real’ relation to each other. A retributivist might be expected to claim that we punish a criminal to a degree deserved by that person and not according to the desires of others. However, Hegel is clear that the degree criminals should be punished will change depending upon the context and that greater punishment may be deserved where ‘we’ in civil society believe we are more threatened by a crime. So the relationship between crimes and their punishment may change over time in relation to public perceptions. Context matters. This can only be best appreciated by interpreting Hegel’s Philosophy of Right in its systematic structure. Hegel’s texts do not proceed chapter after chapter like most other authors, but where chapters are interrelated in a particular, dialectical way.
Finally, Hegel’s Science of Logic reveals a fascinating insight into the philosophy of punishment. He writes that punishment should not be considered as either retribution, deterrence or rehabilitation. Instead, punishment is grounded in retribution – those punished must deserve it and cannot be innocent – but retribution is only one part of a larger view. Punishment is not retributivist, preventative or rehabilitative, but rather all three in one. Three in one. Why would we expect to find anything different in Hegel than this anyway?
This view is extraordinarily close to the British Idealists writing in the late 19th Century. Figures such as Green, Bosanquet, Bradley, Seth and others all defend a similar view of punishment. I have called this view ‘the unified theory of punishment’ to draw attention to an existing tradition of scholarship that has attempted to provide us with a genuine alterative to the standard fare of having to choose one or other theory of punishment. Why not bring them together if we can?
I have tried to develop this further by eschewing Hegelian metaphysics and building a new rights-based framework. This helps avoid the obvious problem that a pluralistic theory of punishment will be incoherent if a new framework is not provided to guide and shape the exercise of penal pluralism. For example, the retributivist aim of punishing the deserving to the degree deserved may justify a very different amount from a preventative aim of deterring others. We require a new framework that different principles can work together within to avoid clashes. I argue that the criminal law should be understood in terms of rights protection and where crimes occur these are rights violations that may require a response. I call this response ‘punishment’. Note that not every violation of right may require a response for its protection. But where a response is required, then punishment aims at restoring and maintaining the protection of rights. This may take many forms and I argue in Punishment that this can provide a model for a unified theory that brings together principles of desert, crime reduction and rehabilitation as well as other principles, such as expressivism and restorative justice. So the inspiration comes first from Hegel, but more clearly arises in my view through the brilliant work of long neglected British Idealists. (In essence, I would understand much of my work as part of the British Idealist tradition – why must it end with Michael Oakeshott or be Oakeshottian?) I must add that a unified theory of punishment attempts to provide a coherent, normative justification for current sentencing practices. Many countries including the United States and the United Kingdom employ sentencing guidelines that claim they bring together multiple penal principles. The problem is this has lacked a workable framework that the unified theory of punishment provides. Punishment does more than survey existing theories about punishment, but it defends a novel view – the unified theory – and it offers several public policy proposals for how criminal justice may be improved.
3:AM: You have developed your own approach to punishment haven’t you? Can you say why we should punish criminals, whether the death penalty is ever justified and whether age has a bearing on what should be done?
TB: Punishment offers an analysis of both capital punishment and youth offending that defends the unified theory of punishment approach. Ideally, the death penalty ought not be practiced. I am strongly opposed to its use, but I’m unsure if any absolutist position can be maintained. If the aim of punishment is the protection of rights, then punishment must not undermine rights protection – so prison conditions that may contribute to offenders be more likely to reoffend are deeply problematic. Similarly, executing murderers is even more problematic and difficult to justify. This does not mean it is impossible, such as cases of extreme emergency. In short, much of my problem with arguments about capital punishment is not that I believe it must always be unjustified, but none have convinced me that it can be justified in more than the most exceptional circumstances. I’ve argued in a few places that any retributivist that takes desert seriously cannot justify the practice of capital punishment given the problems with certainty of guilt, for example.
Youth offending is a great challenge to much thinking about punishment. Age has traditional had a bearing on the proper response of the criminal justice system. One argument is essentially retributivist: if we punish the deserving to the degree deserved, then what to do with those whose moral powers are in development. There are also interesting issues concerning deterrence: if the criminal law should communicate a clear message to all potential offenders, what to do where there are different messages expressed to persons over time? Again, I argue that a rights-based framework is useful in navigating issues of paternalism and the more specific particular needs of youth.
I argue that a rights-based approach only has purchase in a social world where we would want such rights. I defend the view of a stakeholder society and the importance of our each believing we have a stake in society. I also argue that a model of stakeholding is useful for thinking about criminal offending. Often different lists of risk factors are offered, such as unemployment, drug and alcohol abuse or housing insecurity. These factor may be best captured by a theory about stakeholding and its exercise, a view that I adopt from both Will Hutton’s work on the stakeholder economy (briefly promulgated by Prime Minister Tony Blair) and Hegel’s theory about the rabble. For Hegel, the rabble pose a major problem for modern society. This is often characterized as a problem of poverty, but I believe Hegel is clear that it is a problem about consciousness, about the self and others. The rabble look to society as an other, as something alien. The rabble may often be composed of persons in poverty, but Hegel is careful to include the very wealthy, too. Stakeholding captures the essence of this position: that the rabble fail to perceive themselves as having a stake in society. Society should not only protect and promote our rights. It should also be world worth having a stake in. Risk factors go some way to helping highlight important issues, but there is also a fundamental problem about our identity that stakeholding helps us clarify. Or so I argue in Punishment and recent papers.
3:AM: You also discuss his theory of law in terms of ‘Natural Law internalism.’ What is this, and what’s at stake?
TB: The closer that I examined Hegel’s legal philosophy, the more clearly I came across a curious problem. Seemingly every text I came across identified Hegel’s legal thought in a different way. Some said he was a natural lawyer, but others a positivist. And so on. Even more curiously, the same might be said for Ronald Dworkin’s legal theory. I came to realize that the problems so many had in coming to a firm view about how Hegel’s and Dworkin’s legal theories might be classified is because each defends a novel view of natural law.
Virtually all natural lawyers defend what I call Natural Law Externalism. This is the idea that we first agree some external standard for the assessment of law and then apply it. This is true even for Lon Fuller’s view about internal morality where we first consider what this morality should be and then apply it. Natural Law Internalism does not look for a moral standard external to the law, but instead for a standard internal to it. So for Hegel law’s internal morality is developed from within and discernible over time. Likewise, for Dworkin, moral principles shape the law from the inside. The problem for both is confirming that what we find is really there and not a projecting of what we want to discover. In a few papers, I’ve raised various criticisms of this theory of law and I find natural law unconvincing. But I also find it fascinating and think there may be something to be said for this novel contribution to the natural law tradition that has been overlooked. For what little it may be worth, I would consider myself a Legal Realist.
3:AM: You’ve also thought about just war theory. This is another live issue what with Libya, Afghanistan , Iraq fresh in our minds. So is war justified in some circumstances or should we stop giving philosophical justifications for bloodletting?
TB: There has been an enormous amount of literature produced about the so-called just war tradition. Much of the more exciting work, such as by Jeff McMahan who is a clear philosophical hero of mine, overturns orthodoxy in compelling and wide-ranging ways that has been highly welcome. At least one orthodoxy remains that I believe we should do away with and that is the idea that there can be any ‘just’ war. Wars are almost always conflicts where innocent civilians pay the highest price with their lives and livelihoods. I’m thoroughly unconvinced any such horror can be ‘just’ and prefer to think it better to conceive it as excused or a defence. It is not ‘just’ nor morally right to strike back at those who harm or threaten to harm us, but such a reprisal might be excused where specific conditions apply. So I can accept that war may be excused – and here I agree with much of what McMahan has argued on this subject – but I’d also like to see an end to any talk of ‘just’ war. This doesn’t mean they should never be fought, but rather that we should not be blind to the inevitable moral wrongs any so-called ‘just’ war will commit.
3:AM: As someone working on moral and political theory John Rawls is kind of unavoidable. In respect to Rawls and his legacy do you see your work on Hegel, ethics , law and global justice as part of his legacy?
TB: Rawls has had an enormous influence on my thinking, especially his Political Liberalism and the challenge of forging an overlapping consensus. This is the subject of my piece in a new book, Rawls’s Political Liberalism, co-edited with Martha Nussbaum that should be published later this year. What I get most from Rawls is the wonderful toolbox he provides of the consensus, of basic liberties, of public reasons and much more. I am less convinced by his larger theory and more committed to trying to construct an alternative theory of capabilities. Nussbaum is probably my favourite philosopher today and the greatest influence over me. I envy her countless contributions to how we understand justice in its rich complexity as well as the elegant prose she employs. I also share a similar interest in Indian philosophy and culture which has importance for my thinking about so many problems as well.
Plus, I admire the breadth of her work. Too many philosophers focus too narrowly in not only work, but across several works. Perhaps the age of philosophical systems like Hegel’s is long gone and so all the better for contemporary philosophy. But philosophers often seem to lack to my mind a philosophy, a larger vision. Nussbaum, for me, is one of the few that has this broad philosophical vision. I find it enormously inspiring. While I’m not a major fan of his, this is also something I admire about Dworkin’s work as well. I wish such a broad philosophical vision were more, rather than less, common.
3:AM: Zizek’s book on Hegel is one of the few recent philosophy books to reach a massive audience. Is his approach interesting to you? I suppose he’s often linked more with ‘continental’ philosophy, so I guess this raises the rather tricky issue of the relationship between so-called analytics and continentals. You seem to straddle both camps. Is the distinction real?
TB: I’ve never been a major fan of Zizek. Perhaps I should be more embarrassed than I am that I’ve not read nor seen this book. I don’t accept the so-called ‘analytic’ versus ‘Continental’ divide although it has been remarked before that I straddle this well. Brian Leiter has clarified elsewhere that one can be both and perhaps neither. It is true that what is taken to be analytic philosophy can often be presented in manner that is dry and perhaps technocratic. So-called Continental work can appear more alive and engaging. I certainly get this from Indian philosophy and once upon a time you’d rarely see me without something by Camus or Sartre in my hands. There is something to be said for making clear philosophy more alive which too few achieve.
Perhaps the best way of understanding the differences between the two camps is between scepticism and hero worship. So-called analytical philosophy strikes me as far more sceptical about the merits of different views and subjugating every claim to close scrutiny when done well. You see similar developments in some work on Continental philosophy, too – and recall I reject the standard distinction between analytic and Continental philosophy. Nonetheless, much that is characterized as ‘Continental’ strikes me as too concerned about highlighting why some favoured philosopher has some remarks found compelling by its author in something approaching intellectual shrines celebrating the lives of often now dead patron saints whose authority is more assumed than defended. Everyone has their heroes, but our project as philosophers is not to repeat Hegel in Hegelese. Instead, philosophy should focus more on the ideas than their creators, thoughts instead of subjects, in a rigorous pursuit of clarity and insight, if not truth.
3:AM: Do you see recent events like the Occupy movement and the Arab Spring as signaling a change in global politics and perhaps ethics, or do you think they are temporary and not important?
TB: I am no authority on this subject, but both events struck me as important events – and we may not have seen the last of either as events continue to play out.
3:AM: And finally for the readers here at 3:AM are there five books you could recommend to help us delve further into these philosophical issues?
TB: Thomas Hill Green, Lectures on the Principles of Political Obligation. The first major work of British Idealism that brings together Kantian and Hegelian elements together in a novel and groundbreaking theory about ethics, law and politics.
GWF Hegel, Philosophy of Right. One of the important philosophical texts of all time that revolutionizes how we might understand our relations to each other.
Martha Nussbaum, Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach. Still my favourite work by Nussbaum. It offers an insightful normative theory of capabilities and so much more, touching on feminism, global justice, political liberalism, religion and even non-Western philosophy.
Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Charles Moore (eds), A Sourcebook in Indian Philosophy. Still the most authoritative anthology of readings covering the full range of this fascinating tradition.
John Rawls, Political Liberalism. Perhaps his most underrated contribution. Today’s world faces challenges from reasonable pluralism and difference that this work helps clarify.
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Richard Marshall is still biding his time.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, May 3rd, 2013.