How did you come to be an academic?
One thing sort of led to another. I studied law as an undergraduate at Glasgow University in Scotland. At that time, luckily for me, law students there could specialize in the final 2 years of their degree (undergrad degrees in Scotland are 4 years long). I specialised in jurisprudence/legal philosophy and 5 out of my 7 finals papers were in legal philosophy!
Any teachers who particularly inspired you as a young academic?
I had a wonderful tutor in jurisprudence at Glasgow university called Elspeth Attwooll who instilled a sense of intellectual curiosity and wonder about the subject and gave us all the space to read and think freely in it. She was and still is an inspiration to me. Following that I came to do a DPhil at Balliol College, Oxford, and came across another wonderful teacher and mentor in Joseph Raz, who was my DPhil supervisor. As well as being a tremendous help as regards my doctoral research, he helped me find opportunities to start teaching in Oxford while I was a graduate student: I loved it and knew from then on I wanted to teach and to try to inspire students myself.
In layman’s terms, what is your research about? What arguments or views are central to your research?
I work in general jurisprudence or general philosophy of law, with a particular focus on methodological issues. That is to say, I am interested in questions such as: What are the aims of legal philosophy? How should legal philosophers approach and engage with their subject-matter, and what constraints are incumbent on them as they do so? What are the relations between jurisprudence and neighbouring disciplines, such as political, moral, and social philosophy, and are there important -divisions of inquiry within the domain of legal philosophy itself? What is the ‘evidence base’ of legal philosophy? What are the criteria of success of legal philosophy, and how do we know if they have been met? To what extent are different jurisprudential explanations of the same phenomena compatible? Can there be progress in legal philosophy? Does the discipline have a finite or a never-ending task?
What is your main research project these days?
I am currently working on a book for Oxford University Press, with working title Elucidating Law: the Philosophy of Legal Philosophy, in which I try to move towards some answers to the above questions. In my view, one important task of legal philosophy is to try to identify and explain the nature of law, i.e., those properties which law exhibits wherever and whenever it is found, and which make it into what it is, and which are not contingent on the prevailing social or economic or political conditions of particular legal systems. Some legal philosophers regard this as a wild goose chase when the phenomenon in question - law - is a thoroughly human-made social construct. In contrast, I believe that, providing we adopt a domain-apt account of what "the nature of" means in the case of a social phenomenon such as law, that we can and should persist with the vital jurisprudential task of attempting to ascertain law's nature, and what makes it into what it is.
Interesting! Any other legal philosophy views going against the mainstream?
Yes! Another issue that I address in my work is the role of evaluation in legal philosophy. Some theories of law - for example, those espoused by John Finnis, Ronald Dworkin, Nicos Stavropoulos and Mark Greenberg - believe that successful theories of law must engage in directly evaluative judgements. These are judgements concerning the moral value of law and the conditions under which it is truly justified in the claims over us that it makes.
I agree that issues such as law's moral value and justification conditions are important, but I argue that we should arrive at a place where we are able to answer such questions via a somewhat indirect route - by first of all, confining ourselves to making indirectly evaluative judgements to the effect that certain features of law are important and significant to explain, but without yet taking a stance on whether those features are themselves, a good or bad thing or on whether they render law such that it morally ought to be obeyed.
What motivates your "evaluative-but-not-yet-full-blown-morally-evaluative" approach to legal philosophy?
At the core, a concern I have that moving too quickly to direct moral evaluation and justification of law might risk us prematurely and overly venerating law, and being too quick to regard it, in its nature, as something which is morally valuable and morally ought to be obeyed. Given some of the devastating things that law has done, and still does, to people's lives around the world, I think this is too big a risk to run, and think that we should approach our subject matter with an attitude of due wariness, and not rush to judge law to be worthy of our obedience until we are clearer about exactly what its character is.
What do you find most exciting about your research?
The opportunities that it brings to discuss ideas with extremely bright and hugely committed students and colleagues all round the world!
What would you like to see change in academia (at large or your field of research)?
I would like to see debate in legal philosophy, in both oral and written contexts, become less adversarial and polarized, and more constructive and collaborative. Overly adversarial polemical debate is not the best way to shine illuminating light on the issues under discussion. Sometimes, sadly, it does seem to be the way to get grants, promotion, invitations etc. And I think that puts many people off entering academia. The issue is definitely not restricted to legal philosophy.
What are some of your non-academic interests, pursuits, or hobbies?
I have always enjoyed reading and cinema, but in the last few years have managed to pick up a couple of new hobbies: photography, especially wildlife photography, and bird watching. They kind of go together well as hobbies too. My partner Richard and I spend a lot of time on nature reserves and cliff tops, attempting to see and photograph birds.
Sounds fantastic! Are you active in your college?
Yes! I enjoy taking an active role at Somerville. We recently had a bunch of alpacas visiting for student welfare purposes, and I brought my camera in and photographed them. I hope to be remembered at Somerville as the college alpaca photographer. I also hope to be remembered as haggis stabber extraordinaire: every year, at Burns supper, I recite an address to the haggis, prior to stabbing it. Happily there have been zero non-haggis casualties as yet.
If you had to pick a desert island book (academic or not), music album, or film, which one would it be?
I am going to cheat and have one of each and even add another genre!
1) Book: Alasdair Gray's "Lanark: a Life in Four Books". I am Scottish and this book is a kind of epic imaginative and surrealist narrative about the idea of Glasgow and of Scotland. I read it as a teenager and it mesmerized me. I have always meant to go back and re-read it, but as yet have never found the time.
2) Music album: Shearwater's 2016 album, Jetplane and Oxbow. I love it and the band's lead singer, Jonathan Meiburg, is a bird nerd as well as a brilliant songwriter.
3) Film: The Godfather Part I.
4) If I can add a TV box set, I am a very recent convert to both seasons of Fleabag. I resisted for ages because of the hype but I was an idiot to do so: it is absolutely brilliant.
This interview was conducted in April 2019 by Carolina Flores (St. Hugh's, MMathPhil, 2016) who is a philosopher working in epistemology and social philosophy.