Ethics, Law and Politics


Richard Marshall interviews John Kleinig in 3:AM Magazine:

3:AM: You’re a philosopher who has written widely on both legal and ethical and political philosophy. How do you see the relationship between ethics, law and politics as it seems to be a relationship that needs to be borne in mind as we follow your thinking, in particular how you separate legal and moral requirements because they often parallel each other in the domains you examine.

JK: Although my earliest interests were in philosophy of religion, my masters and doctoral dissertations were on topics in moral/social/legal philosophy (conscience and punishment, respectively). That more or less set the course for my subsequent career. The interest in political philosophy came a bit later, though my main doctoral supervisor – Stanley Benn – had made significant contributions to the revival of political philosophy in the 1960s. However, I remember him remarking that one needed to be a certain age to engage with problems in political philosophy – I think he had in mind a certain breadth of understanding and experience – and so my political interests developed more slowly than the others.

As for the ethics, law, and politics relationship, there has always been a tension for me as I try to keep them distinct while recognizing their interactions. A valuable contribution to my thinking there and elsewhere was Ellen Meiksins Wood’s Mind and Politics, which reinforced for me the ways in which seemingly disparate philosophical endeavors were/are interconnected, and although I have tended to give a certain priority to ethical considerations as part of practical reasoning, I am reminded often enough that this position makes some contentious presumptions . In separating out, say, legal and moral requirements, I tend to work with paradigms rather than strict divisions – eg, paradigmatically, legal requirements are jurisdictionally bound whereas ethical requirements are aspirationally universal; ethical requirements focus especially on intentions whereas legal requirements focus primarily on conduct; ethical requirements take priority over legal requirements; and so on. One starts there, but then has to kick away the ladder with qualifications – to accommodate ethical obligations to animals, environmental objects, criminal excuses, etc. I guess something like that is true in most disciplines – we step off the ladders we necessarily construct to deal with more complex understandings.

More here.