Philosophical-Policy & Legal Design


When decisions need to be made in politics, business or daily life, it’s worth giving all due care to The Problem to be solved, and The Action to be taken.  This is also the foundation of classical philosophy – but when was the last time politics seem philosophical to you?


Professor John Martin Gillroy of Lehigh University speaks with us today about how philosophical frameworks can teach us about practical policy. From understanding motivations, actions and decisions, he considers how todays dilemmas can be approached with a fully considered view of the politics, and the people, involved.


Read more about his work in Research Features


Find his original work at: 

Read the Matrix of Paradigms here.


Read his paper “Refining Our Understanding of Law and Policy Through Philosophical Method, Philosophical-policy and Legal Design” here


Read “Navigating Through the ‘jungle’ and Relaxing the ‘Dead Hand ’ of Philosophy in Legal and Policy Studies” here.


Read his draft chapter “Ecosystem Policy & Law : a Philosophical Argument for the Anticipatory Regulation of Environmental Risk” here.


Music source : Symphony No. 83 In G Minor “La Poule”,  Joseph Haydn; Collegium Musicum, Vienna; Anton Heiller, Haydn Society (HSLP-1015), via


Image Credit: Adobe Stock / bbourdages





Will Mountford 00:06

Hello, I’m Will. Welcome to ResearchPod. When decisions need to be made at any scale, be it in neighborhoods or nations, it would be reassuring to think that all due care has been given to the problem to be solved and the action to be taken. In the same vein, consideration of problems and potential actions is the backbone of classical philosophy. However, the ever-shifting tides of daily politics can feel a world away from deep philosophical thought.

Professor John Martin Gillroy of Lehigh University speaks with us today about how philosophical frameworks can teach us about practical policy by helping us understand the axes of personal and cultural motivations, collective or individual actions, and processes or principles that led to decisions. He considers how today’s dilemmas can be approached with a fully considered view of the politics and the people involved. And joining me to talk about their work at Lehigh University is Professor Gillroy. Hello, there.


Prof. Gillroy 01:08

Hello, I’m looking forward to having a conversation with you about my work.


Will Mountford 01:13

Well, if you tell me a little bit of background about yourself and what has led you through the work in an academic and professional sense, and then building up to some of the body of work that we’re talking through today.


Prof. Gillroy 01:26

I got interested in the philosophical aspects of public policy when I was doing graduate work at the University of Chicago. And in fact, I was in the political science department there. But when I was there, they just started a master’s degree in public policy. And I thought my interest in theory and my interest in public law might be enhanced if I took this MA in policy. And when I looked into it, I thought, well, the philosophy I’d studied had been very difficult and a lot of work. And so I thought, well, policy must be simpler. I looked into it. And I found that, basically, there was only one methodology, one theoretical approach. And that was basically market analysis or cost-benefit analysis. I thought, well, this will be simple; this will be straightforward. But then, after actually trying to tear apart cost and benefit, I found so many problems and so many questions that I had about what it wasn’t taking into account that I decided that the enlightenment or the philosophy I was studying would give the policymaker so many new tools and so many new sets of assumptions. And also that these guys, mostly men, had basically done all the work, especially during the Age of Reason in the Enlightenment, when a philosopher’s job was to understand everything comprehensively.

So like in Hobbes Leviathan, he starts out with some physics about how we perceive things. And then, by the time you get to the end of the book, you’re in the kingdom of God. So it’s completely comprehensive. And I thought, well, these guys have done all this work. They have these logical arguments for practical reasons and the requirements of human moral agency, and they’re all different; they all have different ones. But there’d be so many more tools for a policymaker to use, depending on what they were trying to figure out, what issue they wanted to figure out, what they thought was wrong with it, or what the problems were.

So I just launched myself on this adventure, trying to figure out, first of all, why weren’t they using these philosophers? And then, as a postdoc, my first postdoc was through the American Philosophical Association, and I was a congressional fellow. And I worked in the US House of Representatives for a member from Massachusetts. So I got firsthand experience looking at these problems and how to solve them. And I was doing them, trying to integrate the philosophers, but I also found out from the people there who were doing it that the reason they didn’t use these philosophers was because they had no idea. Either they existed, or they knew they existed. They certainly didn’t spend the years that I did trying to delve into them and understand that. So then I started out thinking, well, okay, what I’ve got to do is take a philosopher like Hume or Kant and boil them down into a paradigm structure, the central assumptions. And if I boil them down into this paradigm structure and hand that paradigm structure to a person who’s not a philosopher, they should be able to look through it, figure out what’s going on, understand what the theory of practical reason was, what the requirements for moral agency were, and then that could affect their deliberations. And then, when I got my first teaching job, I basically integrated this into most of my classes. In all my classes, I teach argument, which for me is a very formalized format of six parts to write a short, concise argument, a political or policy argument. So I generated these paradigms for class, my students generated them, and that’s been going on now for as long as I’ve been teaching. And then, as I went along and needed areas of expertise, I picked them up. I picked up one environmental law; I picked up one constitutional law; and more recently, at Cambridge, I picked up an LLM and a PhD in international law.

I basically had two big projects. The first big project was a content-based approach to environmental risk policy. And then, in the middle of this, I’m looking at the origin, dilemmas, and future of the international legal system through the lenses of David Hume, Hegel, and Immanuel Kant. That’s where I am. And as a corollary to that, my development of what I call philosophical policy and legal design has gone along. And it’s gotten to the point where now I’m thinking of putting together a handbook with my ex-students. So I’m trying to organize a group of my ex-students to help because they’ve been out in the policy realm now for 20 years, doing all kinds of different things. And I was thinking about trying to figure out how to do that.


Will Mountford 06:10

Philosophical methods and philosophical arguments to many of our listeners might seem kind of abstract, whereas policy does have real-world applications in day-to-day life for everyone, including people under the jurisdiction of that policy and internationally as well. So in terms of the practical application of philosophical methods to arguments about humanity and legality, what does that look like in practical terms?


Prof. Gillroy 06:35

Well, I think you have to start with the assumption that a lot of social scientists and even people in the humanities don’t start with, and that is that policy and law are riddled with normative assumptions. The question is, are we going to be honest and uncover what those assumptions are? And try to decipher them and understand them? Or are we just going to look at the surface just because this policy is written this way in the law, that’s all we have and not take the essential substructure of what we see? One of the basic premises here is something that my grandfather told me once, and that is that everything you see is not everything there is, and in policy and law for years now, the surface of the law, the codified law, and the surface of policy arguments have been all that people felt it was necessary to understand. However, in all of those, there are absolute and relative presuppositions about who we are as people, who we are making policy for, what kind of social collective problems or action problems we have, and what the role of the state is in any kind of political policy decision.

What I’m trying to do is say, well, look, let’s be conscious of that. Let’s open it up. Let’s say this policy is aimed at a person as a consumer. Is that okay? Is that what we want? It’s trying to settle a kind of prisoner’s dilemma, an assurance game, or a strategic situation that has certain requirements, but let’s be honest about what the strategic situation is. And then finally, what role should the state have in this? If it’s about the environment and our climate change, it ought to have a role. It ought to have a big role because it needs to coordinate a huge collective action moment. International or a global one. Whereas maybe some local school questions should be handled much more locally, with much more hands off, maybe private markets could do something there. But in order to make those distinctions, in order to make those assessments, we have to understand what the basic normative premises of the argument are, what’s its absolute presupposition, and what are the fundamental assumptions it makes about us as individuals, societies, and governments? And so my particular tendency is to look at the idea of humanity in the person as the core, essential goal or objective that policy ought to have. But that’s just one.

I take that from Immanuel Kant. And I think that’s the way that both environmental policy, in my opinion, or my argument, and the international legal system should be judged. But again, it’s just taking the normative, well, I call it superstructure substructure. The superstructure of the law, as you see in the law books, was once policy. It was a persuasive policy argument, and that persuasive policy argument was basically a normative or moral argument. So we have to tear away the layers, if you will, like an onion, and try to figure out what’s there. I think this is the ultimate practical application to really understand what values we’re taking into our decision and what values we have had. Every status quo piece of law or policy has a story behind it. And it’s uncovering what that story is, which I think is a prerequisite to understanding whether it works or not, why it doesn’t work, and then what we need to replace it.


Will Mountford 10:16

Well, to come back to something that you mentioned in the setup of all of your reading and research, it’s mostly guys that you’re referencing here, but they’re not getting any more recent. So to think of how that fits into a modern world, and sometimes a very different world to what they’re exposed to, and certainly increasingly fragmented geographical slices of the West, Europe, the UK, or state law, even in terms of philosophical analysis for law and policy, how can there be an approach to our relevance in culture and in history?


Prof. Gillroy 10:51

Well, this, of course, is the topic of the hour. My approach is that you can emphasize differences, or you’re going to emphasize commonality, the universals or particulars, if you will, and it seems to me that all of the questions of culture and identity and all these things come down to our humanity; that’s what we share. That’s the ultimate universal, if you want. And also, as long as we are trying, no matter what our cultural differences are, no matter what our identity differences are, at base, my argument is that if we take care of the human factor, if we understand what humanity requires of us, in terms of practical reason, in our moral agency, as human beings, we understand that then a lot of the other stuff falls into place. And that is the way I think that you look at fundamental freedom, access to political participation, and commonalities across cultures and across time. And also, my method looks at things as refining themselves over time, so that the requirements of humanity have changed. But again, it’s sort of the common denominator.

Also, I think that I’m very influenced by the writings of Immanuel Kant on this issue, who had trouble with his applications because of the era in which he was. But also, I think that what’s really important here is to understand what we share as human beings and what that requires of government, of policy, and of law. And it’s sort of the ultimate fundamental fairness. Now, that doesn’t mean that once we’ve settled that issue, once we’ve got policy that reflects that, once the policy, for instance, when environmental policy or climate change policy, protects people from disaster and harm, and we may want to discuss particularities, we may want to discuss specifics, we may want to look at this and say, Well, there aren’t enough women philosophers who were reading, there aren’t enough people of different gender identities. But I think we’ve tried to do it, looking at differences, and this is another thing: I think that what I call positivism is the current way that social science is done.

In the application of the scientific method, one of its tenants is that you either have to definitively classify things or if you can’t definitively classify this insect, then it doesn’t fit into any pattern. It’s no use to you. And I think we’ve taken that to the human and tried to definitively classify and sort people, which emphasizes differences, emphasizes conflict, and intensifies, I think, this sense of isolation that is permeating all our cultures right now. So I’m just suggesting that maybe we need to approach it from the other end that we need to look at our common humanity in a non-contextual, not time-sensitive place, and see whether or not we can’t get better policy. In some areas, I don’t think we could do any worse, but to see if we can get better policies focusing on what makes us the same rather than what makes us different,.


Will Mountford 14:02

That was a very concise and useful explanation of positivism there. Could we go over some more definitions and state some terms as a foundation to build up our language and fluency in terms of philosophy, law, and public policy? What are some essential chapters, categories, and indexes that people should have as a foundation to build on?


Prof. Gillroy 14:36

Well, I think the fundamental distinction that I tried to make is between the scientific method and the philosophical method. And in philosophical method, I’m talking about one particular philosophical method, which isn’t a philosophical method. But from my standpoint, the philosophical method is a method that was created by a man named Robin George Collingwood. Who was an Oxford professor in the 1930s? And basically, he looked at the scientific method, which is the basis for what I call positivism, which is basically a focus on the surface and sort of the power of the state. And he said, well, it’s making a mistake here. It’s not really talking about humans; it’s talking about nature and the causality of nature. And so he came up with five differences: that the philosophical method had to understand humanity and basically make policy for human beings rather than for molecules or other scientific things. And basically, the first of the five is comprehensive philosophy over compartmentalized theory. Again, emphasizing the universal, a philosophical argument tries to integrate the logic of human thought all the way through to how we act and how we ought to act.

The second is a dialectic argument over eristic. And an eristic approach basically says that an idea should be definitively classified again as a scientific thing and isolated both for study and practical application, like physical objects are classified. And any ensuing debate is then based on creating confrontation rather than argument. Confrontational sets of definitive and isolated precepts will then be pitted against one another in a kind of struggle to the death, which I think is the way our politics looks all over the world right now. We’re not arguing dialectically anymore. We’re arguing erratically. And arguments are important in both, but differently for an eristic debate, one is right or wrong before the discussion even starts. While in dialectic argument, all the positions are assumed to have some fragment of the truth. And the idea is that an argument will be exchanged for a counterargument, positions will change, ideas will change, and you’ll come up with a greater truth; you’ll come up with a more sophisticated result than you would if you just had combat. And because in an eristic argument, you can’t see it or change any of your premises, that destroys your argument. And that’s what we’re seeing a lot of, I think, all over the world, in terms of the way in which we are talking to one another or talking past one another. So that’s the second one.

The third one is where, in the scientific method, the idea is discovery. In the philosophical method, the idea is refined. Because the idea of freedom, for instance, meant one thing 150 years ago, it means something different now, and it means something more complex now than it did then. For most of human history, slavery and freedom were considered not to be contradictory. The Greeks existed as a society with both. And it’s been part of the human experience for a long time. Now, that’s not true. We consider them completely contradictory to one another. In the same way, that doesn’t mean that people aren’t still enslaved in many ways, but it’s illegal. So we’ve gotten to the point where we’ve separated those terms to refine freedom to mean, first of all, that people are above price and second, that you have legal recourse in these situations. So refinement is the main idea.

The fourth is the overlap of concepts. Collin would argue that, unlike the definitive classification of science, in fact, in human subject matter, all these terms exist. First of all, we know all the terms. We haven’t had that many philosophical terms added to our vocabulary in the last 800 years. Again, they’ve all been refined; it means something different, and they overlap. So you can’t talk about freedom without talking about equality. You can’t talk about independence without talking about sovereignty and dependence. So it’s a matter of sorting them out and understanding what the relationship is between these concepts.

And lastly, we can’t let words like metaphysics intimidate us. Everything, even the scientific method and even scientific theory, has an essential metaphysics of what Collin would call a single absolute presupposition and then a set of relative presuppositions that are the means to that absolute presupposition. And instead of just a dependence on surface validity, positivism and scientific methods are looking for surface validity. They’re looking at an experimental inductive system for surface validity. This has more than surface validity. It’s trying again to unpack the normative substructure and figure out how it really works. So the philosophical method is comprehensive rather than compartmentalized and dialectic rather than eristic. About refinement instead of discovery and about the overlap of concepts instead of a definitive classification. And there’s a central metaphysics of absolute and relative presuppositions. So for each of the philosophical systems or arguments that I look at, I’m looking to apply this to them. Those five assumptions are more than the assumptions of the scientific method.


Will Mountford 20:13

Which leads to the illustration of your matrix of paradigms, putting one versus the other on a two-by-two grid. I’ll see if we can link directly to the illustration for this in the show notes for this episode, so people can have it as a visual reference as they listen. But if you could talk me through the labels on those axes, along the sides of tops versus left, right, up, and down, and some of the applications for when you can address things as here, there, or otherwise,.


Prof. Gillroy 20:44

This is a very preliminary part of my work. It’s taken me a long time to put this together. But again, my goal was to give policymakers who weren’t philosophers’ tools to utilize philosophical arguments, different arguments for practical reason and for moral agency. And so the matrix of paradigms takes eight philosophical arguments: those of Rousseau, Hegel, Hobbes, Kant, David Hume, JS Mill, John Locke, and then the market paradigm, which is related to Smith but more than him, especially with modern microeconomics. The idea is that an appropriate paradigm for whatever problem the policymaker is looking for can be found by answering three questions. The first question is, do you want the state to be active or passive? That is, do you want the state simply to allow markets or allow private choice to make these decisions? Or do you want a more invasive regulatory structure? And that would depend, I guess, on the issue.

Again, I talked about climate change; it needs a more invasive structure just to coordinate the people, whereas I don’t know about housing or something that’s more local. So the passive state may be fine for that. Especially if you want the legal system to maintain stability and reinforce social conventions, then indeed, you’re talking about a passive state. So that’s first, active or passive. The second one works off my distinction between contextual process conventions and critical principles that are based on reason. What we’re talking about here is: do you want to emphasize order function security, or are you emphasizing process conventions over critical principles like freedom, liberty, and happiness, a critical principle that’s verified by reason over those conventions? And then the third question is about whether or not you want to emphasize the collective or the individual. What are you most worried about? If this is a rights question or an identity question, you’re more worried about the individual. If it’s a social question about environmental harm, then you want to do that.

So, by answering those three questions and deciding which side of each of these dialectics you’re looking at, you can locate on the matrix the philosopher that I think has the best idea of practical reason and moral agency for you. The problem here, though, is working this out. Again, this is very preliminary. I’m hoping that this will also be refined, as it’s been used more. I keep going back to it, but if you walk into a library and you put cost-benefit analysis into the search engine, you’ll come up with hundreds of books. So the market paradigm has been refined for decades, and it’s been worked on by many. This has only been worked on by me and my students over the years.

The proof will be in the use; the proof will be in how people use it and what problems they find in actually using it. But it’s preliminary, but I think it’s a step toward a friendlier way or a more accessible way for policymakers and lawyers to look at utilizing a union argument for social convention and stability of property, or Russo’s idea of consent and democracy, or Hegel’s idea of freedom through recognition, or Kant’s humanity in the person as absolute presuppositions of policy arguments. Again, just two more tools in the tool belt that’s a bad idea, I guess, but more tools in the tool chest, and that’s what the matrix is for.


Will Mountford 24:58

Some of the points that you’re picking up there about individual rights versus state are things that someone will probably as fast as I have pulled to mind headlines or news coverage from predominantly American news sources, where those aspects have become increasingly politicized, personalized, and polarized, where some individual rights or individual groups are being under greater scrutiny, or things that you think the state should have some intervention with. You’ve mentioned that environmental policy has drawn a lot of news coverage in the UK recently where the state has not been as involved as it should, by independent monitors and people who think that it should be involved. So to think of legal frameworks and decision-making, having this philosophical grounding, what’s the influence of just personal opinion of pre-existing political beliefs skew bias? Any way if it’s cultural, personally involved, or just downright opportunism?


Prof. Gillroy 26:00

I think we shouldn’t mistake what we’ve degenerated into for how things ought to work and how they used to work in different facets of human endeavor. Also, I think that what’s important here is that we’re not talking about opinion; we’re talking about argument. One of the things the philosophical method emphasizes is argument. Polemics and opinion are one thing, and that’s what I think we’re seeing on the surface of politics. Again, it’s a kind of eristic argument. Eristic arguments have a tendency in politics to degenerate into conspiracy theories and other kinds of things. So we’re talking about arguments. And that means I think that argument is not polemic. It’s not just emotion or passion. In fact, it’s the application of reason. It’s a well-thought-out logic of facts and values. And the goal of it is persuasion. Remember that my sort of premise here is that law is codified policy, and policy is persuasive moral argument. So what you have are different moral arguments. But once you take morality and make it an argument rather than an opinion, then you have to subject it to reason; you have to talk about it. I’m told I don’t know this for a fact.

But I’m told that the very conservative Speaker of the House in the United States recently, who has been an opponent of Ukrainian aid, in a series of briefings by security and defense officials here in this country, has changed his opinion or changed his heart. He was persuaded by the argument that Putin and Ukraine were important issues. So much so that he finally got this Ukraine aid package done, I think, yesterday or the day before. And so again, thinking from the standpoint of philosophical method and dialectic argument takes as much of the personal, polemic, and passion-based part of this out and replaces it with reasoned argument. I think that the framers of the original government here in the United States look naive now. But they based everything they were doing on the premise that educated people could sit around, could talk reasonably, and tried to persuade one another about what was important and why it was important, and that it wouldn’t degenerate into a kind of mud match, which, again, you’re right, is what’s happening around. But again, I think making this fundamental distinction is important.


Will Mountford 28:36

That brings us to something that we mentioned earlier for the current and future debate dilemmas: the Ukraine aid bill that’s contemporary as of the time of recording in the middle to late April 2024. Are there any other specific kinds of landmark rulings or other applications that you see this bearing? I think of changes in the US legal structure, the Supreme Court, or anything else that you are keeping an eye on in the UK if you think fondly of your time in Cambridge and then look at all of the water pollution that we’re having to deal with all over the country.


Prof. Gillroy 29:10

Well, there’s a couple I was thinking of: the refinement of the idea of civil rights in the United States, which I think is a very good example. And there were two landmark Supreme Court opinions, one in the late 19th century called Plessy versus Ferguson, and one course of the famous one in 1954, Brown versus Board of Education. And what you have is a situation where process conventions, the conventions that set up the apartheid of slavery after our Civil War were constitutionally banned. That was replaced by a set of conventions known as Jim Crow laws. And then the Supreme Court ratified that in Plessy v. Ferguson by saying that separate but equal was a reasonable definition of freedom. The brilliance of Thurgood Marshall’s argument and Brown’s, which completely reversed that, was basically that, through a series of sociological studies and other things, he made an argument basically that separate but equal dehumanized African Americans. And because this is a quasi-Kantian argument, diversity is actually a humanity in the person problem in the sense that human beings can’t be truly three-dimensional human beings if they only know people who look, talk, and act like them; they have to see the diversity of people and learn from them.

The thing is, what people forget about assimilation is that all the groups that come out of an assimilation exercise have changed. One may appear more dominant, but they’ve all changed. And so the Brown versus Board of Education, I would say, is a classical example of a philosophical argument that, even though they may not have known it was, significantly changed. That was a unanimous decision that overturned Plessy 50 or 60 years later. And then, very soon after that, 10 years later, we had the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act, which completely changed the legal structure of our system. Another one that comes to mind is actually an international law case called the Trail Smelter case. This was a case of an altercation between Canada, the United States, and the Pacific Northwest. Smelter in Canada was polluting across the Washington border and international border, affecting farmers and citizens of Washington State. This was in the 1940s; there was no international law, basically, in the 1940s to cover this. There certainly wasn’t a Clean Air Act; it would now be covered by the Clean Air Act. In both jurisdictions, there wasn’t anything like that. And so they ended up in arbitration; they ended up with a court case. And in the trial case, they came up first with compensation, some kind of compensation package, which law courts like. They like that. But then that was seen as not enough.

So they created this principle called the good neighbor principle, which basically became the duty of all countries to prevent transboundary harm. This was ratified both in the Rio agreement and other things, but it was also applied outside the environment. For instance, there was actually a British case, the Corfu Channel case, where British naval vessels, the British Merchantman, were basically harmed by mines that had been placed in shipping lanes. And the International Court of Justice said that the duty to prevent transborder harm was violated in that situation. And that eventually became part of the articles of state responsibility, which are now customary law internationally. And then finally, in other court cases, this evolved or refined itself into international environmental impact statements. And lastly, the precautionary principle, which is the way we are trying to handle risk internationally, But I think that both Britain and Canada, for instance, have a lot to do with the fact that governments remove themselves. Because no one person can clean a water system, it needs to be monitored. Years and years ago, in Canada, a Conservative government stopped the funding that they gave to municipalities to check their water supplies. And it led to an almost epidemic-like number of deaths. It took another 20 years to remove the harm.

Now the Conservative government in the province of Ontario is thinking about doing that again. But in these cases, in these specifications, you can see the refinement over time of the idea that it’s not just about finances; it’s about humanity, what humanity requires, and what the freedom of the person means in all these cases. And so in these instances, maybe you don’t need as invasive estate as or as active estate for local water supplies, but you need something; they need an international legal structure to handle things like climate change and anything on that level. And again, we’ve sort of come to terms with that. I think we would have come to terms with that more quickly. If we first of all kept argument at the center of our focus rather than polemic, and we also had principles like freedom through recognition or humanity in the person as our core operating principles. But I think you can see them in these cases, even if they weren’t explicitly there. You can see them in these cases.


Will Mountford 34:45

To zoom out a bit and come back to you after we’ve talked through the matrix of paradigms, your research, and all of the extent of your thought, but to put you back into this conversation, what kind of guiding principles do you personally advocate for yourself and your work, and how do they fit into legal and policy analysis?


Prof. Gillroy 35:06

Well, I think that there are a number of principles. I’m big on what I call philosophical pluralism. And again, a sort of positivist traditional scientific method approach would argue that you can look at the evolution, the dynamics, something like international law, with a single theory. You can have a single theory about one principle or one idea, and that’ll take you through the whole thing. And I think that doesn’t take seriously the idea of the evolution of the system. Just to look at the international system, it starts out with a series of conventions, a series of practices that turn into conventions, then events, then formally created into law, but the process of conventions focuses on sovereign will, the sovereignty of states. And that’s one principle, the idea of stability. Well, what I call justice is sovereignty. However, that doesn’t take care of everything. And more and more now, we’re looking at the idea that, well, freedom has to be important.

Freedom is important to humanity, and so we need to integrate that. So in the next phase, we might want to look at that. How are human rights, international criminal law, international environmental law, and the harm that’s trying to be averted? How do you handle that best? And I think that, again, I keep focusing on the content idea of humanity in the person as the best way to take what’s really important into account and what’s really essential. Because if human beings aren’t prospering, then policies are basically not doing their job, I think. And so, personally, that’s where I am. I think that international law and the evolution of what’s known as Cohen’s principles, or Aragonese obligations that are basically based on authority beyond the state are going to be required to take care of things like a juridical status for people who aren’t citizens of any country. That’s a major, major problem nowadays: states are unable to handle human rights.

Most people in the world today have rights as citizens of specific countries. But that can’t last because if you’re a human being and we’re talking about human rights, not citizen rights, then we have to have some way of codifying those. We have to have some way of debating them in policy and coming to terms with some kind of constitutional structure that puts certain of these things aside as rights for everyone and grants people juridical status, whether they’re part of a single country or not. These kinds of questions, I think of as future questions, that humanity and the person, as an idea, as a critical principle, verified through reflection, can handle much better than the way we’re doing it now, which, again, emphasizes differences and not commonalities and emphasizes the state as the major international player.

Since the end of the Second World War, that’s changed significantly. But again, I think the trend can be best recognized as a growing awareness of what the demands of humanity in a person are and what it requires of policy and argument. And what it requires is a codified law, both in terms of administrative law, common law, and constitutional law. And the Constitution law that goes internationally may not look anything like state constitutions, or it may look more like America’s Articles of Confederation, which were replaced by our Constitution. But we don’t know because we haven’t gotten to the point yet of discussing it. And the arguments, I think, have to have some kind of richer philosophical base, even to decide what’s reasonable and what’s not.


Will Mountford 39:08

I think they’re structures that serve and support a commonality, and humanity is certainly something that I can get behind. And if people want to find out more about you and your work in this world, where can they find it? I’ll do the other question first. For anyone who is listening to this, what should they be able to take away? And I always try to frame it in terms of public opinion and policy. If there’s anyone listening to this as a layperson on the street, what would you like them to come away from the last hour of conversation having kind of taken on board, or for people on a peer level in academics and research and for policymakers who might be part of that effort to inform, educate, and engage in philosophical structures? What can they take from today’s discussion?


Prof. Gillroy 39:54

I think the main thing is that dead philosophers don’t mean dead philosophy. These philosophical systems were worked out at a time, during the Age of Reason in the Enlightenment, when human beings were coming to terms with the fact that they were all human beings and that that meant different things to different people. But these philosophical arguments, these systematic, integrated philosophical arguments are worth our attention, and they are accessible. The people shouldn’t be intimidated by them. They shouldn’t be intimidated by metaphysics, the word that has made many policymakers heads explode. Because what’s really important here is to understand that, to separate a philosopher’s argument from the philosopher themselves, the philosopher is a creature like all of us, of context, and of time.

When Kant was writing about active citizenship and everyone’s inherent right to be an active citizen, he lived in a world where only white males and property owners were recognized as active citizens. However, his imperative that everyone should have a channel to become an active citizen has incorporated many more groups of people since then. But you have to separate the argument that says the sort of argument for humanity and the person from its applications and its contextual applications, and I think a layperson can take that away. I think that a policymaker can certainly take away that it is his or her pay grade to think about these kinds of things. And I hope that people look past the surface and try to be honest and understand the values and principles that drive what they’re really thinking about. And then submit those principles to reflective analysis. Don’t just assume they’re right. A very famous senator once said that you’re allowed your own opinion, but not your own facts. Well, I would say that you should be both the facts of the matter and the values that are being mixed with them, the values that are organizing them and making them real in the world. You need to be unpacked. And we need to make a little effort to do that. Because I think most of the major problems that we have now, both in terms of policy and law, have to do with the unwillingness of people to actually look at things dialectically, to look at things as if each of us has a little piece of the truth. And only through an honest, well-intentioned argument can we get all the best parts of all these things and put them together to try to really understand what these issues are and how we really want to solve them.

For instance, maybe the way out of climate change is through a more diverse set of choices. Maybe we all don’t need to drive electric cars; maybe we shouldn’t depend on markets and carbon taxes; maybe we ought to think more about the different tools that we might have. And then, of course, that brings you to the question: Well, what are we trying to achieve? And what’s important in the achievement of that? And I think that anyone can think about this and can try to be honest, at least with themselves, if not with anyone else, about whether or not what they’re thinking is logical, whether it takes the facts and reasonable values into account, and whether it actually will produce the result that we think is necessary.

Well, I have two major books, and I have a book called Justice in Nature. That’s a Kantian argument for the regulation of environmental risk. It’s a bit dated now. But again, the universal argument about humanity, I don’t think, is dated at all. Also, I’ve written a book on the origins of the international legal system, called An Evolutionary Paradigm for International Law. That applies, according to David Hume, to the origin of the idea of sovereignty. I have an article in a very recent piece called Ecosystem Policy and Law. That’s for a Palgrave reader. And also, I think that I followed a character here, but I think you guys are putting together a page where I might get some of my PDF setup. So you people might want to look for that.


Will Mountford 44:26

Yes, we can link all of those again in the show notes that go with them so people can click through to find what they need.


Prof. Gillroy 44:33

Thank you very much, Will. I appreciate your efforts.


Will Mountford 44:36

Thank you.


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