How did you come to be an academic?
I studied law as an undergraduate and, like most people who take that degree, assumed at the beginning that this would lead to my working in legal practice. Once more deeply into it, I felt sure that practice wasn’t for me. I was fairly good at studying (good enough, anyway!), so I decided to stay on and complete a Masters degree and buy myself more thinking time. One thing led to another, and before I knew it I was writing a doctoral thesis in legal and moral philosophy. That seemed to suit me very well, and with a lot of invaluable support and encouragement I managed to turn my academic life into a long-term arrangement.
What is your field of research?
All of my work to date falls within the remit of what has been called ‘applied legal philosophy’. That means that it concerns questions at the intersection of morality and law, and treats contentious matters of regulation in light of the ethical questions they throw up, while being attentive to the difference that law makes.
I wrote a book on the law and ethics of abortion and right now I’m working on a few different problems surrounding consent to sexual activity and feminist criticism of free speech protections for pornography.
You’ve written a book about the laws and ethics of abortion. What do you argue for there?
I argue, ultimately, for a broadly permissive regime of abortion regulations. Despite this fairly liberal conclusion, I claim that the argument for both the moral and legal permissibility of abortion cannot skirt the very thorny question of the moral status of the foetus, that is, whether or not the human embryo and foetus is rightly regarded as a person with the same fundamental right to life that you and I enjoy. Contrary to some very influential defences of abortion (including by Judith Thomson and Ronald Dworkin), I argue that the denial of foetal personhood is an essential plank in the case for abortion rights.
What do you find most exciting about your research?
I’m far too British to describe my own work as exciting. But I like it that much of the work I’ve been doing has an obvious bearing on moral and social questions that occupy a lot of people and command attention outside the world of legal academia, and academia in general. The answers to some of the questions I think about may well determine important things, such as whether we should restrict abortion, or pornography, and how far.
Debates about foetal personhood in particular are engaging because they force us to try and give answers to the more universal question of what personhood, or moral status, consists in, and why we think we are such morally important beings that are owed very strong protection against being killed. This might also have significant implications for the rights of non-human animals.
What are some big trends in Jurisprudence these days and how do you feel about them?
People working in my sub-field are becoming increasingly interested in what philosophical progress looks like, how we define it, and the virtues and vices of the orthodox argumentative standards of moral philosophy. I cut my teeth very much in that orthodox tradition – so methods such as thought experiments, analogical arguments, and reductio ad absurdum-type arguments are second nature to me. Because of that, it’s a little strange for me to see other people questioning whether these are even useful methods for finding things out, but it’s also intriguing. It’s good to remain inquisitive about the standards of argument and progress with which we are working, and whether they are the correct ones.
What are some of your non-academic interests, pursuits, or hobbies?
Really nothing very exciting! I like reading novels (Daphne du Maurier is one of my favourite authors), watching movies, exploring Cotswolds villages, and pubs. I love dogs, and although I don’t have my own dog right now, my parents sometimes let me borrow theirs (Samson is pictured with me – he’s not dead, he’s just tired!).
If you had to pick a desert island book (academic or not), music album, or film, which one would it be?
Pitch Perfect 1, 2, and 3.
This interview was conducted in May 2019 by Carolina Flores (St. Hugh's, MMathPhil, 2016) who is a philosopher working in epistemology and social philosophy.