Katrina Sifferd

APA Member Interview: Katrina Sifferd

Katrina Sifferd holds a PhD in philosophy from King’s College London, and is Professor and Chair of Philosophy at Elmhurst College. Before becoming a philosopher, Katrina worked as a senior legal research analyst on criminal justice projects for the National Institute of Justice, the research arm of the US Department of Justice.

What excites you about philosophy?

When I worked as a lawyer and research analyst for the US government I became frustrated because I was asked to write reports that cohered with the politics of the agencies where I worked (the Illinois Criminal Justice Research Authority and the National Institute of Justice). To give an example, I was asked to review the way in which Illinois’ criminal statutes reflected the major principles of punishment (retribution, specific and general deterrence, incapacitation, rehabilitation, and sometimes restoration) and to make recommendations for cohesive reflection of these principles across arms of the state justice system – police departments and sheriff’s offices; the jail; state’s attorneys and defense attorneys; and the prisons and parole offices. Although agency superiors approved my analysis of the code, they didn’t pass on my recommendations – either because they could be taken as criticism by some official, or because they cost money nobody wanted to feel obligated to spend.

I decided I’d rather write academic papers that nobody in policy reads than policy papers that don’t reflect my ideas. Philosophy excited me because it allowed me the freedom to think really hard about criminal responsibility and punishment – to explore the grounds of holding persons responsible – and to critically discuss criminal justice practices. Of course, now that I am writing for an academic audience my ideas have even less of an impact than they did when I worked for the government and wrote white papers that were censored. So I guess I’m still trying to figure out how to have it both ways: how to research and talk about things I think are important and true, and to have some impact on actual policy. Maybe I’ll figure that out in the next decade of my career. Philosophy is exciting because it is broad enough to allow me to try to find this balance.

What topic do you think is under explored in philosophy?

I’m surprised that there isn’t more work on the philosophy of criminal guilt (there is quite a bit on criminal punishment). More specifically, I’m surprised at the lack of research regarding how the criminal law utilizes folk psychological concepts like the ones listed in the US Model Penal Code (purposely, knowingly, recklessly, and negligently), and how entities posited by other theories of psychology map onto those folk concepts. The courts have been trying to suss out how neuroscientific evidence is relevant to criminal guilt for quite a while now, and philosophers haven’t really weighed in except with regard to the larger free will question. I think this is because so many philosophers are averse to a reductionist theory of mind. I believe this is a mistake. I think the criminal law can generate true verdicts if a non-eliminative reductionist theory of mind is true. Once we accept this, we can begin to figure out if fMRI or other neuroscientific data is ever relevant to criminal verdicts.

If you could wake up tomorrow with a new talent, what would you most like it to be?

I wish I could sing and write songs. I love music and tend to surround myself with musicians and songwriters. They are sort of like philosophers: a weird, quirky, often difficult lot who have a gift for seeing things others don’t and expressing what they see.

What is your favorite sound in the world?

My two kids playing with each other. It is the sweetest.

Name a trait, skill or characteristic that you have that others may not know about.

When I was in law school in Chicago the 1990’s I worked in a fancy restaurant at night as a maître d’. Michael Jordan owned it and we had lots of celebrity and professional athlete guests. It was a tough job – I had to handle a lot of people who expected the world to revolve around them; keep track of what was going on in the kitchen and manage the pacing of seating; offer wine service; and divert Michael’s stalkers. They ordered designer outfits for us to wear and I had to work six hour shifts in high heels. Much of the job was mind reading and quick problem-solving. I learned how to be a calm, courteous, and efficient part of a team even while people were yelling or leering at me. I learned to treat others with respect even when I dislike them. These skills serve me when I play leadership roles in the academy, such as Chair of a philosophy department.

Just kidding.

Sort of.

What books are currently on your ‘to read’ list?

I’m about to begin reading Douglas Husak’s Ignorance of Law in order to write a review. This summer I also hope to do a close study of Michael Moore’s Act and Crime. I’m currently writing a book with my Elmhurst colleagues Bill Hirstein and Ty Fagan called The Responsible Brain, so I’m also reading lots of neuroscientific studies regarding disorders or cases may be exculpatory under the law, including psychopathy. Interestingly, there’s a lot of new evidence that psychopathy (as diagnosed by the PCL-R) may not tell us anything interesting regarding a person’s culpability under the law. That is, high scores on the PCL-R may not indicate a person has any particular mental disorder or dysfunction relevant to their ability to be law-abiding.

What’s your top tip or advice for APA members reading this?

When I went to King’s I had only done a year of philosophy (as a graduate student at Loyola University Chicago). I was a psychology major as an undergraduate. I had no real idea what sort of work a contemporary philosopher was supposed to do – my plan was just to research certain real-life problems. My advice to graduate students of philosophy would be to pursue important problems they wish to solve using philosophy, instead of pursuing types or subareas of philosophical knowledge. The knowledge will come as you try to solve your chosen problems. Trying to solve a problem you are passionate about will keep you from being bored or getting lost in the literature. It will also make it more likely that your research is relevant to some human concern, which I think is a good thing.

Find out more about Katrina here.

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This section of the APA Blog is designed to get to know our fellow philosophers a little better. We’re including profiles of APA members that spotlight what captures their interest not only inside the office, but also outside of it. We’d love for you to be a part of it, so please contact us via the interview nomination form here to nominate yourself or a friend.

1 thought on “APA Member Interview: Katrina Sifferd

  1. Perhaps the biggest philosophical problem is the unresolved relationship between a posteriori feelings and a priori thoughts. It is generally assumed we are responsible for our behaviour and should be held accountable for the consequences, but accountable to whom: ourselves, each other or the state? At one time it was felt, accountable to ourselves with respect to each other but the retributive justice system now tells us we are accountable to the state and its imposed retributive justice system. But as William James said: “Instinct leads, intelligence generally does but follow” – to which might be added the rider: ‘and look what a worldwide mess it’s got us into’.

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