James Edwards

How did you come to be an academic?

I was an argumentative teenager who thought he was cut out to be a lawyer. I soon found that the questions I wanted to argue about weren’t the questions about which legal practitioners were called upon to argue. What intrigued me, it turned out, were questions of jurisprudence. I studied them as much as was compatible with life as a law student at Cambridge, then went off to Oxford hoping to study them some more. 

At the time I conceived of all this as little more than a delaying tactic. Academics, I thought then, were people possessed of big ideas and I hadn’t come up with any of those. Eventually I went off to London to train to be a barrister and quickly felt hopelessly out of place. I put in a speculative application for a place on Oxford’s doctoral programme, and for the funding I’d need to take it up. Amazingly, I got both. 

How was your experience as a doctoral student at Oxford?

I was lucky in my supervisors—Andrew Ashworth and John Gardner. They helped me see that philosophical progress is often best made incrementally: by chipping away at the coalface of a problem, rather than fashioning grand structures that purport to solve everything at once. As my own chippings slowly developed into a thesis, I began to see an academic life as something that might be for me. I did a bit of teaching—finding, to my surprise, that I thoroughly enjoyed it—published a couple of papers and ended up back in Cambridge for my first job. 

What is your research about? What arguments or views are central to your research?

I’m interested in which laws we should and should not have. I’m not especially concerned with what the law says about this. I’m much more concerned with what morality has to say about it. Some of my work develops particular objections to law-making strategies that are nowadays popular. Some of it asks whether there are general principles by which law-makers should be guided when they make law. 

You’ve been working on criminalisation, i.e. on the question of under what conditions we ought to count a type of action as a crime.  Tell us some more about that.

I often find that I disagree with views that are widely endorsed and enjoy working out why this should be. Much of the time I realise I’m mistaken. But sometimes I remain convinced that the mistake lies elsewhere. That’s usually when I think I have something worth saying. When I started reading about criminalisation, I found plenty of conventional wisdom that seemed to me questionable: that all crimes should be public wrongs; that we can only defensibly criminalise what we can defensibly punish; that no-one should be a legal moralist; and that there are decisive objections to any version of the harm principle. I’ve argued against each of these claims. 

Any other new projects?

Lately I’ve started writing a bit about blame and blameworthiness. I’ve tried to explain what’s going on when we say that a wrongdoer can’t be blamed for a wrong because blaming them would be hypocritical, or because the wrong is none of the blamer’s business. I’ve written about whether the results of what we do make us more blameworthy for doing it. And I’ve been thinking about the difference it makes when we forgive people who are worthy of being blamed.

What are some big trends in Jurisprudence these days and how do you feel about them?

Are there any? I’m not sure. Legal philosophy does seem more closely connected, nowadays, with other areas of philosophy. This can result in a lot of elaborate machinery being used to little purpose. But it can, I think, also help us see further dimensions of a problem, and understand the foundations of our subject more deeply. 

Legal philosophers also seem, though this may be wishful thinking, to be spending less time on the recent history of ideas. Fewer papers are being written about how best to understand what some more famous philosopher already said about a problem. Exegetical work can of course be valuable. We all stand on the shoulders of giants. But it’s a good thing, I think, when people worry more about philosophical problems themselves, and less about interpreting what other people have said about them. 

What would you like to see change in academia?

Our profession is too hard to access for too many people.  Valuable opportunities within it are too unevenly distributed. And time to think—that most valuable of commodities—is too often consumed by administrative burdens that academics shouldn’t bear. Changing all that would be a start. 

What are some of your non-academic interests, pursuits, or hobbies?

I’ve long been a basketball junkie, which is to say that I’ve spent a great deal of time playing it, watching it and talking about it with anyone who has any interest in the subject (and some people who don’t). I also enjoy walking along the Thames, devouring a good novel, and chewing the fat with family and friends. 

If you had to pick a desert island book (academic or not), which one would it be?

Stoner by John Williams or Reaper Man by Terry Pratchett.

This interview was conducted in July 2019 by Carolina Flores (St. Hugh's, MMathPhil, 2016) who is a philosopher working in epistemology and social philosophy.


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