‘Are human rights doing what they’re supposed to be doing?’
In Conversation with John Tasioulas (BA/LLB, 1989)
As a pre-eminent thinker within global human rights discourse, the work of MLS alum John Tasioulas demonstrates the link between the legal and philosophical academy and the advancement of human rights discourse in society.
John Tasioulas is the inaugural director of the Institute for Ethics in Artificial Intelligence and Professor of Ethics and Legal Philosophy at the University of Oxford. John is also a Professorial Fellow at the Melbourne Law School, and has held permanent positions at the University of Glasgow, University College London, and King’s College London and visiting posts at the University of Chicago and Harvard University.
Before embarking on his academic career, John completed the LLB at the Melbourne Law School in 1989. John notes that when he began his tertiary education, he “had always just assumed I would become a lawyer.” He recalls that “coming from an ethnic working-class background, the idea that you could make a living as a philosopher didn’t really enter into my consciousness.”
In spite of these feelings, John held an enduring interest in all fields of philosophy. As a student, John was drawn to great philosophers who found their way into popular discourse. Plato, Aristotle, Nietzsche, and others, occupied John’s nightstand long before he stepped foot in a university lecture hall.
Reaching the end of his tertiary studies, John was faced with a dilemma between pursuing graduate work in law — particularly international law — or philosophy. He notes that this dilemma was the result of “how inspirational my teachers were in both the philosophy department and the law school at Melbourne.” Ultimately, it was the guidance of teachers and professors — many of whom are now John’s peers — that gave him the confidence to pursue a career as a philosopher.
John began his career as a lecturer in jurisprudence at Glasgow University, before transitioning to the University of Oxford as a fellow and tutor in Philosophy. John then took a position at University College London, as the Quain Chair of Jurisprudence, and then at King’s College London as the director of its centre for Politics, Philosophy, and Law. Within the interdisciplinary environment at King’s College, John was able to put into practice his belief that many important issues, including those within human rights, “could not really be addressed on purely a philosophical basis.” John understood that human rights was consequential outside of philosophy, and had major implications for the law. It is at the intersection between philosophy and the law, that much of John’s work has been focused.
John’s work on human rights deals with the way we should think about human rights, but also how they should be implemented and protected globally. John feels that academics such as himself have a responsibility to be reflective and critical of the human rights system. He notes that ”a lot of people who engage with human rights seem to assume that you’ve got to defend the existing human rights structure in all its basic features.” John takes a different view:
“that the existing human rights structure is a fallible structure, created by human beings, and we always have to be testing it, and asking whether it’s really doing what it’s supposed to be doing.”
Part of John’s critique of the existing human rights structure is his argument that human rights discourse should never be made into an elitist, purely academic or technical discourse. “A lot of people, especially in human rights discourse, have the view that good social change is elite driven… I think that isn’t true.” Rather than ‘progressive social change’ being made in the ivory tower of academia, or through the decisions of highly-paid judges, John believes that positive social change is “a matter of social movements.” That is, that popular movements initiated by ordinary people have, historically speaking, been the engines of real, powerful social change. Related to this, he also believes that democracy is key to sustaining a strong human rights culture and that it is important for human rights issues to be engaged with as part of democratic politics.
John’s background in interdisciplinary research has led to his appointment as the inaugural director of the Institute for Ethics in Artificial Intelligence. The institute is “based on the idea that technologies mobilising artificial intelligence are going to be increasingly prominent and have increasingly consequential effects for our lives.” Getting ‘ahead of the game’ by thinking about what these changes might be underpins John’s work at the Institute.
The Institute includes researchers from a range of disciplines within Philosophy, the Humanities, and Social Sciences, and exists as an acknowledgement of the idea that “you can’t really have a strong democratic deliberation about the implications of AI, unless you draw in” what these disciplines have to offer. John’s work within the institute explores how philosophy can contribute to our understanding of what ethically sound AI regulation might look like, and how regulation might not only protect us from the risks posed by rapid technological advances but also enable new technologies to promote our flourishing as individuals and communities.
Part of the work of the Institute includes challenging professionals from disciplines such as health, law, business and government to step back and consider how AI might impact the fields in which they operate. John believes it is important to have a domain-specific approach to AI regulations, as different values, or different priorities among values, are salient depending on the field (e.g. law or medicine) that is in question.
This inclusive approach reflects another of John’s important beliefs: that academics should avoid circumstances wherein they, as experts, “get to determine over the heads of the democratic public what ought to be done.” Instead, John believes that his role is to “help enhance the level of democratic deliberation on these topics.” The legal academy can do this, argues John, by helping to “model civil and reasoned discussion about ethical issues,” and avoiding the politically polarised discussion that often takes place “based on the soundbite and superficial analysis.”
Overall, John encourages young, interested students to consider a career in human rights. He recalls that “when I started University, there was hardly any human rights law as a distinct field of law at all,” and that this provides a unique opportunity for courageous, talented individuals to enter the field while it is in its infancy and make significant, positive changes. To these students, John provides one piece of final advice
“always remember that the value that you bring is that you subject human rights norms and institutions to intelligent scrutiny, in the hope of improving them and better realising the functions that they should be performing.”
Prepared by: Tim Bamford
JD Student MLS