Laura Gillespie is a seventh-year Ph.D. student in the Department of Philosophy, completing her dissertation this spring. She was interviewed by Austin Beltrand. Austin is a philosophy and neuroscience double major and the president of the Undergraduate Philosophy Club. He graduates this spring.
AB: Where are you from and how does it compare with Los Angeles?
LG: : I’m originally from the rural Midwest – from southern Illinois. But I moved here from Boston where I lived for about a decade. I’m very attached to Boston. It’s an intimate city and an academic city. But I have to say—I’ve really fallen in love with Los Angeles. LA, despite its reputation as a city of actors and producers, is mostly a city of writers and artisans—set designers, set builders, studio musicians, make-up artists—active, unionized creatives working hard to get their projects out into the world, in front of an audience. I don’t know of another city like that—of people making a living doing creative work. So it’s kind of cool because that tracks in a way what I’m trying to do, which is do essentially creative writing. And I’m trying to do it in a way that ends with actually getting things out there in the world to be read. So I find that energy to be enormously helpful in terms of my academic work, even though LA, unlike Boston, is supposedly not an academic city. The vibe here—there’s just something to it that makes sense to me and that I find enormously energizing in doing my own work. And of course there’s the fact that living here a person can find more than 3 hours of energy a day even in that long stretch of January, February, March. I have like a full year of all-day energy.
AB: What brought you to philosophy and how has its study enhanced your life?
LG: I started studying philosophy because I was required to study philosophy for a sophomore year honors seminar when I was an undergrad. I was an English and Political Science major at the time and came in kicking and screaming. I thought that philosophy was a lot of people wasting time on self-indulgent crap while the world was burning. As I began to dig in, though, I had this realization that if at that moment I’d had the power to bring about all the changes in the world that I wanted to see, I would probably make a pretty big mess, because I actually had no clear idea how things should be. I began to see some value in setting aside a part of life to work some of that out for myself. I became very interested, in particular, in stuff about free will and responsibility, which is more or less where I have stayed. How has it enhanced my life? Well, it has certainly brought me into conversation with a lot of wonderful and interesting people. And I can say now with a little more precision what it is I think about a thing or two.
AB: What do you love about UCLA?
LG: There’s an approach here both to philosophy and to professional relationships that has just always felt right to me…I just think that there’s a lot of warmth, and a lot of heart, and a lot of dedication to ideas and getting things right. There’s a sense that the questions we’re all here to answer are important, but also that the human people who inhabit the place are important. That’s a really hard balance for a department to strike. Anyway, no department is perfect, but I’ve been able to absorb so much here, just from looking around, about the kind of philosopher I’d want to be, and the kind of teacher, and the kind of advisor. How many people get to learn from their heroes? I’ve been very lucky.
AB: What other disciplines, if any, do you draw from in your teaching and your research?
LG: The older I get, the more I draw from literature. I have found that teaching philosophy works best when we start from an account of experience and then we come to see how just that human experience gives rise to certain pressing questions. This helps students orient themselves towards the problem—helps them make better-informed judgments about what the relevant questions are, how we might go about answering them, and what kinds of considerations bear on those answers. There’s just something about facing the problem in abstract, third-personal terms—like, “Abortion: yay or nay?”—that orients us to the problem in the wrong way. Things go better when we can think about a certain experience one might have, try to work out what the contours of that experience look like—what it feels like to be in the position of having to make that choice. Some people seem to think that this clouds the philosophical question, but I think it’s what makes the important questions visible. Literature provides me with a rich set of resources for illustrating a certain experience where that can be a starting point for a conversation in a way that I think a text—where the experiences come to us already theorized—can be unhelpful or misleading. So I try root students in experience, to get them really thinking about their own experience, and engage their own moral imaginations, but oftentimes we’re talking about experiences not everyone has had, or can imagine, so a good literary account of it is often a good place to start.
AB: What is your research about?
LG: My research is largely focused on issues about response to wrongdoing and moral failure…. My dissertation approaches questions about what might justify punishment, but rather than thinking about state punishment I try to think about the place and possible value of punishment in a certain interpersonal context. What value is there in punishing children? What role does hard-treatment play in our mature personal relationships? If we look at the very best cases of how hard-treatment functions in human life more broadly, we get a deeper sense of both what that kind of treatment is and what range of legitimate purposes it might serve. I try to show that punishment’s value across a range of contexts, both interpersonal and institutional, is reparative. Where punishment is justified, I argue, it will not be as a good in itself, nor as a tool of the aggregate good. Neither will it be justified because it serves the interests of either the punisher or the punished. Punishment, where it is permissible, will be permissible because it works to restore the relationship between punisher and punished, which I’m conceiving of as being itself something of value.
“Expend less effort struggling against your weakness, and more on seeking opportunities that maximize your strengths. You can work on your weakness but they will never be your strengths, and the world provides many different opportunities for helping others and self-actualizing, and you’re allowed to pick the ones that play to strengths you have. One needn’t always be overcoming.”
AB: Describe your upcoming job!
LG: I’ve accepted a position as a post-doctoral fellow at the McCoy Family Center for Ethics and Society at Stanford. The McCoy Center brings together scholars from a range of disciplines. They have people there with philosophy backgrounds. They have people there with political theory backgrounds. They have people with education backgrounds, psychology—a range of subjects. I’ll be working there with Stanford faculty from across these fields, and with eight or so other postdocs, participating in a couple of writing workshops and teaching a little in the spring. I hope to focus there on developing a relationship-centered account of state punishment.
AB: What philosophy have you been reading?
LG: I have been reading two books. I’ve been reading Tommy Shelby’s Dark Ghettos, which I began reading for a seminar that Barbara [Herman] is currently teaching. The book is riveting, so I kept reading despite not being able to finish the seminar (Sorry, Barbara!). I have also been reading Sarah Shulman’s Conflict Is Not Abuse. Shulman isn’t a philosopher, and the arguments get pretty shaggy, but she has some very interesting things to say about the proper place of conflict in human life, whether at the level of the interpersonal, or the international. A fun set of books to read together.
AB: What philosophical reading might you recommend for the reading pleasure of alumni or undergraduates?
LG: Well, it’s neither strictly speaking philosophy, nor what I would call “pleasurable” in any simple sense, but the piece of writing most on my mind lately is David Grann’s new book Killers of the Flower Moon, about Oklahoma’s Osage tribe, and a large-scale plot by white Oklahomans to rob the Osage people of their oil money. It’s a story that feels important to read both as a citizen, with a responsibility to understand the history of this nation, and as an ethicist thinking and writing about interpersonal wrongdoing, and the ways that we learn to move past it. What’s so incredible about it is the excruciating intimacy of the betrayal. These men married Osage women, had children with them, and then, years later, began to kill them, one by one, along with their extended families… But it’s also the story of Mollie Burkhart, one of the central targets of the plot, and of her extraordinary strength of character. Important and satisfying to read. And honestly, Grann is just a wonderful journalist and storyteller.
AB: What would you say to your undergraduate self?
LG: I would say to her, expend less effort struggling against your weaknesses, and more on seeking opportunities that maximize your strengths. Because you can work on your weaknesses but they will never be your strengths, and the world provides many different opportunities for helping others and self-actualizing, and you’re allowed to pick the ones that play to the strengths you have. One needn’t always be overcoming.