What kind of a place was UCD then to do philosophy in?
It was actually quite good. It was mixed. All of the professors and many of the staff were priests. The philosophy course had been designed, really, as the undergraduate course for students from Clonliffe who were going to be trained as priests, so it was not particularly scholarly and it was very authoritarian. There was a very public UCD student revolt in 1968/69 and one chapter focused on the department of metaphysics. That was the writing on the wall for the old order, though it took almost another twenty years for philosophy to find its feet. Ethics and Politics was an early mover towards modernisation. Logic and Psychology had the sanity of logic and was generally quite good for students. So when I was a student I was able to do contemporary philosophy under the guise of philosophy of logic and the philosophy of science. That’s where I came across Quine and Ruth Barcan Marcus and all sorts of people like that.
When I came to work in UCD in 1977, I suggested some courses, initially agreed courses, but I was never told what to teach or how to teach it. I had complete academic freedom and respect. I was never told how to mark students, or to mark them down or to mark them up, ever, so it was an idyllic time. I was never told, but of course, nobody was ever told “you have to publish”. Teaching was the primary thing and you fitted your research around it at that time. There was a huge commitment to teaching students who would be leaders of the country – they would go into the civil service, they would go into RTÉ, they would become politicians, become businessmen. That was part of the old UCD goal.
What was the gender ratio for students and staff?
I think it was very small numbers of women. I seem to remember hundreds of young men dressed in black clericals and a handful of women, some of us sporting long legs under our very short Mary Quant minis. When I joined the staff there were two women in philosophy – Josephine Newman was the other. I was really quite a radical hire because I wasn’t religious. I wasn’t interested in Thomism. I was interested in contemporary philosophy. It was actually two priests who hired me, Connor Martin and Fergal O’Connor.
And they would have taught you as well?
They taught me as well, yes. They always taught ethics and politics. And they taught from primary texts Plato and Aristotle, Hobbes and Rousseau, Kant … In metaphysics some of the professors told us that we could read when we graduated, but what matters for students was the key we were being given in the lectures!
Can we talk about your research a bit? I already asked you why philosophy, why political philosophy … why liberalism?
I think that the task of the twentieth century, particularly after the Holocaust, was to deal with the end of what Hannah Arendt called the idea that humans were sacred. It was a continuation of the problem that Dostoyevsky set: if God is dead, then everything is permitted. So I think that the twentieth century task after that was to reconceive the terms in which we think about the world – quite radically, across all areas of philosophy, so if it’s philosophy of science, epistemology, metaphysics, and political philosophy. By that I mean, in the simplest terms, the idea that the meaning and value in the world isn’t just there. We have to make it, it’s human-originated and we have to take responsibility for it. And that’s quite a radical idea if you’re coming from religious cultures. It is an idea that people find arrogant, perhaps. In political philosophy, John Rawls undertook that task. Of course, it was undertaken in a particular context, and political philosophy, perhaps all philosophy, is best done when it addresses the problems of its time. The practical problem of his time for Rawls, particularly in the United States, but more generally too, was how to reconcile liberty and equality, and later he reframed that as how to reconcile liberty and equality in a context of pluralism. I was very taken with that. There were many different strands feeding into my particular battles. For me, it was how to develop a secular constitutional state, but I found Rawls inspiring. The thing that really was very important for me as a philosopher was his Kantian constructivism in moral theory. That is the shift to seeing ourselves as agents of the law, as agents of the moral law, as well. It’s a Kantian idea that’s been around for several centuries, but it hadn’t been systematically worked through. He used that to generate a methodology, and to generate his resolution to that conflict that is still driving oppositions in American society.
Liberty, for me, is a matter of liberal equality – it’s fundamental. Whereas, if you start with equality as fundamental – you can have equality in an authoritarian regime – so, if you like, my problem would be how to develop autonomy against authoritarianism. Authoritarianism is very strong in many societies. It’s very difficult to eradicate. I always liked the Rousseau/Kant idea that basically humans should live under no law but one they’ve made themselves. The underlying thought is that there is no moral value to doing the right thing because some authority, even a divine being, told you so. What makes it worthwhile is that you initiate the right action yourself. So, the making of the law oneself has been very central to me and to my way of understanding the construction of rights. My understanding of liberalism is that we’re on our own, and even if we are not, we have to construct a decent society together with others and for Hobbesian and not prior moral reasons.
Hobbes was a philosopher of practical reason. He says “if people don’t have security, they’re going to kill each other”. Now, what are you going to do about that? He has a solution, which most people would reject, which is the absolute power of the sovereign. But the element of the solution that matters is its social contract basis. The social contract matters because it’s an agreement between people. It is the agreement that people make the law together in some fashion. That is the central point that I take from something like the French Revolution. The talk about rights is the talk about putting together a state. Now, putting together a state is very dangerous because of its coercive power. So, against Hobbes, rights are about restricting the power of the state. Historically they have been thought of as pre-political, natural, and perhaps God-given. I think of rights as founded in agreements. That, for me, centrally involves the notion that every time you claim a right you must remember that you’re saying somebody else has a burden, they have a duty. What’s important is that the burden-sharer has to be able to agree. In a Hobbesian world the burden-sharer agrees because the alternative would be irrational – you know, I’d fight you or kill you, or get killed or whatever. That’s why I think we must remember the Hobbesian world. It’s not always nice to feel that you’re dependent on another person through the duty that is the counterpart of your right, but you are. Our problem is: how do we get acknowledgement of those dependencies. We should be talking much more about duties – not in a moralistic sense but remembering that there are burdens attached to rights and that other people have to shoulder those burdens. The key here is: do you get agreement on the burdens, as well as on the rights. The big shift from the great declarations, and the big shift from a religious view of natural law have been evident in, for example, the UN Declaration of Human Rights. It’s agreed – it’s not that it’s implemented or implementable in full, but it’s agreed. That agreement is important. Agreements can be standards for human conduct.
This is an extract from a longer interview http://www.swip-ireland.com/index.php/blog conducted by Clara Fischer with Attracta Ingram. Dr Ingram is professor emeritus in University College Dublin. She has published extensively in political and social theory, particularly on the philosophy of rights, social justice, pluralism, state and nation, constitutional patriotism, and cosmopolitanism. She has held a Jean Monnet Research fellowship at the European University Institute, as well as visiting fellowships at St Andrews, Harvard, Columbia, and Berkeley. Dr Clara Fischer is a Newton International Fellow at the London School of Economics and communications officer of Society for Women In Philosophy-I (see www.swip-Ireland.com). SWIP Ireland are holding their fourth annual conference on the theme of Feminist Philosophy of Science and Epistemology on 27th-28th November.