Maris Köpcke

How did you come to be an academic?

I’m not sure if I came to be an academic or always was one - in a deep, de-institutionalized sense. Doing something other than what I love never seriously crossed my mind. And I love thinking, writing and teaching. It helped to have a comic artist mother.

What is your research about? 

My research is about whether, and if so how, law can serve as a tool to foster justice. Specifically, I am intrigued by certain kinds of considerations that are treated as decisive in lawyerly argument, and hence also in the reasoning of judges whose determinations seal the fate of many persons, for better or worse. One of these considerations is the fact that something -  a mortgage, a passport, a licence, a statute, a deportation order – is “legally valid”. This is how we teach students to reason in law schools. But it is not obvious why “legal validity” deserves such a central place in our dealings. It is certainly not a synonym for justice.

Tell us some more about your views on legal validity. 

I have argued that the idea of legal validity is closely associated to the manifest choice of a person or institution to shape rights and duties. Such manifest choice (“I hereby”) is as much at the heart of a contract as of a will, a statute, or an administrative resolution. By making and unmaking valid things, we can, in a sense, craft rights and duties by saying so. 

There is no guarantee that valid choices will be just rather than misguided or evil, or that what looks like a choice harbours a genuinely free resolve. But there are good reasons for entrusting to different persons and institutions the responsibility to design legal relations in different domains To confer legal power is also to limit that power’s scope. Among the good reasons to confer and limit legal power is the value of individual and collective self-direction. Paradoxical as it may sound, justice requires that we settle many social quandaries by reference to what was validly chosen rather than what is just.

What do you find most exciting about your research? 

The freedom to challenge authority with the power of thought, imagination, indeed truth.

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

For the last two centuries Jurisprudence has developed in the thrall of modern constitutionalism. That may not sound to you like a recent trend, but one should bear in mind that Western legal thought has been flourishing for some 2000 years. 

Since Roman times it was understood that private arrangements such as contracts or wills could be legally valid or invalid. Only with the generalisation of written constitutions binding on the legislator did legal thought embrace the view that law itself can be legally valid or invalid, that law itself is a creature of law. Current discussion of the validity of norms (or rules, or standards…) is an offshoot of this turning point in our tradition. I do not feel unhappy about this “trend”, but I worry that it may be blinding us to many exciting puzzles in legal reasoning and practice that are poorly apprehended by abstract talk of norms or rules. 

I have just finished a book about the 2000-year history of legal validity in Western legal thought, and I’m currently writing about the origins of the idea of a territorially bound jurisdiction.

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

I’m reasonably good at tap-dancing (good for a non-sporty intellectual!). 

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

A Macbook?

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. 

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