Leif Wenar holds the Chair of Philosophy and Law at King’s College London. Stuart Hampshire was his thesis advisor at Stanford, and after graduation he was briefly Karl Popper’s research assistant. He then went to Harvard to study with John Rawls. He wrote his qualifying thesis on Karl Marx’s theory of history, and his dissertation on property rights with T.M. Scanlon and Robert Nozick.
What topic do you think is underexplored in philosophy?
The use of empirical generalizations in political philosophy. Think of Hobbes saying that religious pluralism risks civil war, while Locke says that it’s persecution that does—and what a difference this makes to their views on toleration. Or think of the dispute between these two over whether office will ennoble or corrupt the monarch—and how deeply this affects their theories of sovereignty.
Consider the democratic peace thesis, now one of the most robust results in International Relations, which originated in Kant’s work. Or think of Rawls saying that the great evils of human history follow from domestic injustice—and that with justice, the great evils will disappear. Most of the lasting work in political philosophy rests on ambitious empirical judgments, and I wonder if we might be losing touch with that tradition.
What are you working on right now?
On unity theory—a new moral and political theory.
In Blood Oil, I explained why oil so often brings down the curses of war, oppression, corruption and extremism. But I also wanted to offer solutions. And any feasible solution to the oil curses will itself be costly, possibly involving much suffering and many deaths.
I found I couldn’t offer solutions without personal conviction in them, ‘all the way down.’ And I also found that I didn’t really believe in any of the usual moral and political theories—not even close. The responsibility of putting my name to costly reforms forced me to burn through what I’d been taught to find what I believe. You can imagine what a different experience it is doing theory now, working within a framework that carries conviction.
What are your goals and aspirations outside work?
My ‘day job’ is probably a lot like many other APA members’ day jobs: teaching and writing articles. My ‘night job’ is to engage with people who have the power to fight the injustices around oil: politicians, investors, lawyers, consumers and citizens. I’ve gathered these efforts under the name Clean Trade.
But it’s not really right to say that this politically-engaged activity is ‘outside work,’ because I’ve become a much better theorist by doing it. Listening to experts and ordinary people—and then trying to convince them—has been crucial for learning how the world really works, and so how it can change.
Last time I was teaching Political Theory 101 at Princeton I said to my students: Think about who’s on your reading list for this class. Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Marx—each had to flee his country for fear of prison or worse, because of the philosophy he was doing. And Mill was a Member of Parliament. These philosophers were deeply engaged in the political struggles of their day—and we still benefit today from what they learned when they were in the mix.
What technology do you wish the human race could discover/create/invent right now?
That’s easy—cheap, safe, transportable nuclear fusion. We need an energy transition to save the climate. And the best way to end blood oil is to get off oil altogether.
What advice do you wish someone had given you?
When you have to choose, as an academic philosopher, always go for the noun—not the adjective.
Find out more about Leif here.
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