Reflecting on the Law

By Amy Little

Philosophy. We have all heard the word but it's not often that we get to really understand its meaning, or how it intersects with the legal profession and everyday life.

John Tasioulas
John Tasioulas

"Philosophy of law is concerned with holding up to critical scrutiny the basic ideas and assumptions built into ordinary legal thought," says John Tasioulas (LLB(Hons) 1988), Quain Professor of Jurisprudence, Faculty of Laws, University College London. "It involves ideas and assumptions about notions such as rights, obligations, wrong-doing, punishment and harm."

Professor Tasioulas, who studied at Melbourne Law School prior to moving to the University of Oxford as a Rhodes scholar, will return in 2013 to teach a subject about the Philosophy of International Law in the Melbourne Law Masters.

"The question of the legitimacy of international law is incredibly important, but it has tended to be neglected   by legal thinkers until very recently ... The US-led invasion of Iraq, however, brought sharply into focus the question of whether states have a moral obligation to obey international law."

Professor Tasioulas' work has tried to elucidate the reasons why international law might be legitimate; reasons that go beyond the standard answer that international law binds only insofar as it has received the prior consent of the states subject to it.

Despite the pressures in a fast-paced age of technology, he says the importance of reflection should not be neglected.

"There are many pressures in society that work to short-circuit the process of reflection. It can be hard to find the time for reflection, and it takes us out of natural comfort zone. But, if we are to be genuinely intellectually and morally responsible, we have to resist these pressures."

Professor Tasioulas believes that those in a legal and corporate environment have a special duty to engage in such reflection because their decisions can impact heavily on other people's interests. He cites the global financial crisis as an extreme example.

The US-led invasion of Iraq brought sharply into focus the question of whether states have a moral obligation to obey international law.

"My hope in teaching legal philosophy is not that students will become specialists in the area, but they will acquire a set of conceptual tools and familiarity with a series of important texts that will help them to engage in independent critical thinking throughout their careers."

Over the past 20 years, Professor Tasioulas has reflected and written about topics in the philosophy of law such as the nature of justice and mercy, the basis of human rights and the justification of punishment.

"What I hope to bring back to Melbourne is this more developed perspective – not as something I want to preach, but as a contribution to a dialogue with students, a dialogue that I hope will benefit them and also prompt me to re-think, or to do better in defending, some of the views I currently hold."

Professor Tasioulas says that when he was a student, there was hardly any philosophically-informed literature but in recent years there have been greater contributions.

"Thankfully, legal philosophers have in the last few years increasingly addressed questions about international law and whether states are bound by it. I hope my teaching in the Melbourne Law Masters will help attract some bright and engaged students to make these vital questions their own."

Image: Professor John Tasioulas

This article originally appeared in MLS News, Issue 8, October 2012.