Tarunabh Khaitan

How did you come to be an academic?

Serendipity opened key doors, and personal inclinations settled the rest. I went to law school in Bangalore by chance, after a cousin passed on an unwanted prospectus (information was scarce in the small Indian town where I grew up, and the internet hadn’t quite reached us yet). And once at Oxford as a grad student, I discovered my calling, as it were.

In layman’s terms, what is your research about? What arguments or views are central to your research?

I am interested in the role of law in facilitating living with difference. Specifically, I have worked on the conceptual and moral foundations of discrimination law. More recently, I have been looking at democratic constitutionalism (with a focus on non-judicial institutions, especially in deeply divided societies). 

In accessible terms, what are some of the most important claims you have argued for? And some of your central views in, or contributions to, jurisprudence?

My instincts are more synthetic than critical, and I believe that in most scholarly debates, each side has usually landed upon some valuable insight. Often, my work ends up synthesising seemingly incompatible positions.

In explaining discrimination law, for example, I have shown that both distributive justice and corrective justice are at work—the former determines the purpose of the law, the latter shapes the tools the law employs to seek just distribution. 

In a paper on constitutional theory, I have argued that political constitutionalism (enforcing constitutional norms politically rather than through courts) is compatible with thick moral commitments in the constitution. 

In another paper, I have argued that the role of dignity in human rights law is neither a source of all rights nor a vacuous placeholder. Rather, its unique contribution to human rights law (as distinct from other values such as equality and liberty) is to facilitate legal recognition of our expressive interests.  

What do you find most exciting about your research?

Scholars have an important truth-telling function. I love the freedom my vocation provides to work on topics that I am passionate about. Sudden moments of clarity, even epiphany, after having mulled over a problem for months, are very satisfying. Conclusions that challenge my own presumptions and beliefs are disturbing, but also reassuring because they reveal the internal and reflective dimension of truth-telling. While the activist in me does want to make a difference in the world, I try to ensure that the activist only gets to choose the topic—the scholar alone must do the research.

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

I notice a growing interest in ‘special’ or ‘particular’ jurisprudence—theorising not so much about law generally, but about particular areas of law (such as discrimination law, torts law, criminal law, labour law and so on). This is a very welcome development, and as the sub-discipline grows, it will need to confront special methodological challenges that this turn to special jurisprudence poses.

What would you like to see change in academia (at large or your field of research)?

Better access to the underprivileged, greater focus on legal systems in the Global South, better working conditions for early career scholars, and a better work-life balance for all academics. 

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

Board games. Computer games. Reading groups. I enjoy cooking. Prefer human company to solitude. For holidays, ski slopes or animal safaris are usually at the top of my list. 

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

I would hate to be on a desert island. If I must go, I think I would take a computer game that lasts a very long time—probably Sid Meier’s Civilization or Concerned Ape’s Stardew Valley.

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. 

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