Meet Dr Holly Lawford-Smith: Prize-winning Author, SHAPS Philosopher, and Seamstress Extraordinaire!

On the back of her new book, Not in Their Name: Are Citizens Culpable for Their States’ Actions?, SHAPS Senior Lecturer in Political Philosophy, Dr Holly Lawford-Smith sat down for Q&A with Forum’s Carley Tonoli.

What sparked your initial interest in philosophy?

My initial interest in philosophy came during my undergrad. I took a course just out of curiosity; I was actually studying fashion design full-time at another institution, and had decided to pick up a few papers at the nearby university for interest. The course I took was ethics; I loved thinking about all the crazy-complicated issues and I did really well in my first essay … I guess I got hooked after that!

What do you enjoy most about philosophy?

I really enjoy how philosophy gets me thinking! Feeling like there’s progress to be made on a problem, but that there’s so much disentangling to do, so the problem isn’t going to go away any time soon. I love getting really into something and talking to people about it and working out my ideas. I also really enjoy having great, smart, funny colleagues and students to talk to about my ideas and their ideas and feel excited about it all together. There is nothing like going to a great talk and getting really absorbed in their problem for a few hours!

Across which areas of philosophy does your work span?

I work mainly in social ontology – the nature and properties of the social world – on collective action, agency, responsibility, stuff like that. I also do some climate ethics, some x-phi [experimental philosophy – an emerging field of philosophical inquiry that makes use of empirical data], and some random other ethics and political philosophy, and, since last year, I’ve also been more interested with feminism. I like to have my fingers in a lot of pies; it keeps things interesting. Even though it can be kind of stressful sometimes; like when you feel like you’re failing everyone at once because it’s in the middle of a marking period.

Tell me about your recent work?

In recent years, together with my teaching and other projects, I have been working on the book I published recently. It came about after I won the Marie Curie People Career Integration Grant to work on my project, ‘Modelling International Cooperation Between States’.

My ultimate goal was to end up saying something about what states are like as agents, and whether we can expect lessons from experimental economics on cooperation and cooperation failures between individuals to apply between states in the same way.

For individuals, there’s this famous result of decay; where people start off cooperating well and then things quickly spiral out of control and one of the partners ends up free-riding. I wanted to know if we could apply some of what we know from those findings to thinking about interactions between states. But, as commonly happens in philosophy, I had to answer these questions before I was in a position to answer those questions, and so I ended up with a whole book on stuff like: What even is the state? Is the state an agent? Are the citizens a part of it?

Can you tell me a bit more about the book?

Sure. The book’s title is Not in Their Name: Are Citizens Culpable for Their States’ Actions? In it, I start out by pointing out there are lots of actions we tend to think of as being performed by the state – like Australia turning back boats full of asylum-seekers—and asking the central problem of the book: Who is implicated in the state’s wrongful actions? The easiest answer to this is, whoever authors the state’s wrongful actions, which is to say who or what ever the state actually is. I offer a bunch of different ways of thinking about what constitutes the state. Is it its leader? Is it the people? Is it just the elected government? Is it the departments and agencies working loosely together? I also ask about who the members of the state are, assuming that the state is some kind of collective agent.

This sets things up to address two main models of the state, one that includes citizens and one that doesn’t. The first is what most people probably think of when they think about who is culpable for something like Australia’s treatment of refugees – like, Australians! I argue throughout the book, if the state is the people then it’s not an agent, and we kind of want it to be an agent so it can be responsible for its actions. I explore a handful of collective agency models to demonstrate the state is not a collective agent on any understanding that includes the citizens. Eventually, I end up defending a model of the state that’s something like the elected officials and public service employees.

Toward the end of the book I talk about other ways that citizens can have reason to take responsibility for their states, even when they’re not actually culpable in their actions. I also talk a bit about collective punishment. For example, how do you actually punish a collective, and how does this differ depending on whether the group is hierarchical or egalitarian? Overall: the state is not the people, and (so) the people are not culpable in their states’ wrongdoing.

What was the writing process like?

Fine, actually! I guess teaching and stuff always gets in the way, but the grant gave me a couple of semesters off and I spent one of them in Edinburgh, so had a pretty good routine. It all came together without too much stress. I co-hosted a conference with Princeton in the final year of the grant when the manuscript was coming together and that was really helpful because we managed to get a bunch of great people together for some interesting conversations on this topic.

I believe you won an award for the book, can you tell me about it?

Oh yeah, that was cool! I used to have this running joke with some colleagues when I was at Sheffield University that we probably deserved more prizes, and we’d check in and ask, ‘hey how’s your week going, did you win any prizes?’, which we never did. Then I applied for the Annual Montreal Political Theory Manuscript Award two years in a row and, in the second year, I won. So that was good, finally a prize! I’d left Sheffield by then though, so it wasn’t as funny.

How did it feel to receive that kind of recognition?

It felt really good! It’s a pretty great award because they bring you to Montreal and assign members of faculty from the political theory group, which crosses a number of different universities in the area, to each chapter of your manuscript. So you get really detailed helpful comments that you can use for revision. That was super helpful in terms of making the project better.

What do you do to chill out?

Hermit stuff! I’ve been writing a novel, I make clothes, I read fiction and watch all sorts of nonsense. I also run – badly. I’m currently watching Killing Eve and wishing it would never end. I’m in the middle of trying to make dresses for two friends but getting nowhere, like cutting out the pattern pieces and then getting distracted by some work task and then it being three weeks until I pin the bits together. Poor friends, they might be waiting forever!

What’s next for you?

Good question! I’ve started work on my next book, which will be on radical/gender-critical feminism. That’s the main thing research-wise. I have a bunch of papers in progress around this topic too, fairly applied philosophy aimed at proposals to change the law as it applies to legal sex, and the implications of that for things like women-only spaces. I’m also doing some experimental stuff about gender – sex –diversity in the Australian workplace. So it seems it’s all feminism for the foreseeable future.

Holly Lawford-Smith currently teaches the following subjects:

PHIL10002 (1st-Year) Philosophy: The Big Questions

UNIB10014 (1st-Year Breadth) Philosophy, Politics, and Economics

PHIL20045 (2nd-Year) Freedom and Equality Across Borders

PHIL30054 (3rd-Year) The Metaphysics of Ethics

PHIL90029 (MA) Climate Ethics