Seana Valentine Shiffrin is Professor of Philosophy and Pete Kameron Professor of Law and Social Justice at UCLA. Her philosophical research concentrates on moral philosophy, political philosophy, and the philosophical foundations of contracts, freedom of speech, and other substantive legal areas. Jenna Donohue is a sixth-year Ph.D. student. Her research interests include moral philosophy, ethics, and moral complicity. She is also interested in bioethics, philosophy of explanation, and history of modern philosophy.
JD: I want to start by asking how you got started in philosophy. What piqued your interest and made you want to pursue it?
SS: I went to a public high school in L.A. with a humanities program that offered two philosophy classes a day! That got me acquainted with the subject. At the time, I thought I would go into mathematics as a career, but by the time I was at UC Berkeley and taking both math and philosophy courses, I realized I found the philosophy courses more challenging, more rewarding, and more social. Philosophy shared some of the virtues of mathematics—the emphasis on rigor and argument structure. But, by contrast with math, for my philosophy courses, I actually had to talk to people and hear their perspectives to understand the material. Philosophers also seemed to have a richer, more subtle sense of humor that informed their work.
JD: You seem to teach different classes almost every time you teach an undergraduate class. Are there any classes you particularly like teaching?
SS: I teach different classes because I find so many issues interesting. I don’t have a favorite. The course about death triggers some deep experiences in students and can be more emotionally demanding for the class because the topic is more directly connected to our fears and our losses. On the other hand, contemplating mortality offers an occasion for students to think about the trajectory of their lives; they tend to remember it and some write to me about it years after they graduate. My course on political philosophy offers students some analytical resources to think about our social structure, civil liberties, and economic inequality. The students become impassioned. For some, it’s one of the educational experiences that sets them on a career path to social work or law school. That’s awfully rewarding. My course on truth-telling and promising elicits some very interesting philosophical reflections on students’ personal relationships.
I LOVE THAT OUR FACULTY AND THE GRADUATE STUDENTS DON’T TREAT THE DEPARTMENT AS A COMPETITIVE ARENA. BECAUSE PEOPLE AREN’T TRYING TO SCORE SMALL POINTS AGAINST EACH OTHER, THE ATMOSPHERE LENDS ITSELF TO A MORE COOPERATIVE PHILOSOPHICAL APPROACH WHERE PEOPLE TAKE ON BIGGER QUESTIONS WITH SOME CONFIDENCE THAT OTHERS WILL HELP THEM.
– SEANA SHIFFRIN
JD: I happen to have listened to two podcasts that you were featured in. One came out a couple of years ago when your book came out; you were interviewed about Speech Matters for the New Books in Philosophy podcast. And more recently you were featured in an episode of Hi-fi Nation that focused on free speech and free speech restrictions. Do you listen to podcasts? And if you do, if you have particular favorites?
SS: I listen to This American Life, Serial, The Moth, Why We Argue and recently, Against the Rules. Another had a really short life: Mystery Show. It was another spin-off from someone involved in This American Life. It was serious investigative journalism about minutiae—“I found this belt buckle and it had this interesting bespoke design feature, and I decided I just had to figure out who it belonged to.” And she did!
JD: Are there philosophers that you feel particularly inspired by who have triggered important thinking for you in your work?
SS: In addition to many of my colleagues? Kant. Mill. Marx. MacKinnon. Nagel. Rawls. G. A. Cohen. J. J. Thomson. Dworkin. Scheffler. Kamm. I’m sure there are others.
JD: I know that you love UCLA. What makes it special?
SS: I love teaching at a public university and the diversity of students who are here. Our undergraduates are as smart as the undergraduates anywhere, but they’re less self-consciously anxious, which means they’re eager to participate and ask questions. I learn more from them than I learn from people who think there is a certain way they’re supposed to talk, a certain question they’re supposed to ask, or a certain posture they’re supposed to assume. The students here are more exciting to engage with because they appreciate what the university has to offer, and they’re not too cool to show it. Also, I love that our faculty and the graduate students don’t treat the department as a competitive arena. Because people aren’t trying to score small points against each other, the atmosphere lends itself to a more cooperative philosophical approach where people take on bigger questions with some confidence that others will help them. Our all being on one floor has helped—that’s a structural part of making it more of a community.
JD: What’s your main project now?
SS: I delivered the Tanner Lectures on Human Values at Berkeley in 2017. Now, I am finishing a book that expands them and includes the comments of three critics—Anna Stilz, Richard Brooks, and Niko Kolodny. The lectures addressed the relationship between democracy and law. It has long troubled me that theoretical accounts of law don’t talk much about democracy, and theoretical accounts of democracy don’t talk much about law. But the two seem integral to each other. Many philosophers think that democracy is the best form of political organization and certainly, the one required by justice. It seems that strange that an account of law wouldn’t be designed to be responsive to the form of political organization that it should be embedded in. Further, democracy is, in large part, valuable as a kind of collective self-determination that takes its explicit form in impartial and fair ways that represent commitments to ourselves over time. At least for large populations, that will require law and its role will not merely be instrumental. My claim is that a just political organization could not meet its own conditions of justice without using democratically crafted law. In part, it’s because law has a special capacity to acknowledge, communicate, and instantiate the relationship of equality we must have to each other as well as our joint commitments to ourselves to treat each other justly. We have to have a system of law to be able to do that. For it to reflect what we stand for, it would have to be democratic, at least in a sense of emerging from an egalitarian, responsive, and deliberative form of political organization, or else it would not reflect our common stance.
JD: And so the idea is that you actually need the law to do the expressing?
SS: The law within a democratic political society is the only forum we have of collective expression that includes everyone as an author and a recipient.
JD: It strikes me that there are at least two ways to understand this idea. One would be that this is a value we can achieve through use of democratic laws, expressing this to one another. Another way, one might argue, is to say something like we have a duty or an obligation to express this to one another, and this is the way to bring it about. Is it kind of both?
SS: Both, but more the latter. I think we have a duty to contribute to an environment of mutual respect that supports a variety of statements and actions devoted to ensuring that people’s status and needs as equals are acknowledged and respected. Law involves both explicit expression and expression through action in the form of a commitment. There are some kinds of stances that are important for mutual respect that can only be done through commitments. We don’t really respect your needs as a vulnerable person if we make only contingent provisions, reconsidered day-to-day or month-to month, to ensure provisions for satisfying your basic needs. You can’t live a life as an independent person unless there’s a commitment to that. Law is not only expressive, it’s also an expressive form of official, collective commitment.
JD: That sounds so interesting. I look forward to reading the book once it’s out. Are there any other projects you’re excited about the moment?
SS: I have been working on what I call ‘negligent deception’— cases where you have a responsibility not to give others a false impression, you don’t intend to deceive them, yet your negligent behavior leads them to a false belief. This may happen when you are responsible for discovering and disseminating the facts about some topic but you fail to investigate sufficiently; you then testify inaccurately in a way that other people have reason to rely upon and so, they believe you. It can also happen when you’re not paying much attention to how you communicate on an occasion on which you have a responsibility to communicate successfully. You can mean to say one thing when you should really understand that a person would take it another way that involves acquiring a false belief, even when you have no aim to make them believe something false. Expanding the topic of deception from a focus solely on intentional, manipulative deception to include deception through negligence is stimulating because it prompts one to think more about when we have duties for ensuring the accuracy of others’ mental contents.
JD: Outside of philosophy, what your hobbies and passions?
SS: Hiking, cooking, and I read for pleasure
JD: What are you reading now?
SS: Of the books I’ve recently read, I especially enjoyed Women Talking by Miriam Toews, Bowlaway by Elizabeth McCracken, Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday, and The Friend by Sigrid Nunez. Milkman by Anna Burns is next up. I hear that Michelle Obama’s autobiography and Richard Powers’ The Overstory shouldn’t be missed, so they are on my list too.