Gregory Jarrett is a continuing lecturer in the religious studies department as well as the philosophy department at UC Santa Barbara (UCSB). He primarily teaches courses on applied ethics, legal philosophy, and cognitive science. Lecturer Jarrett shared his views and career journey in an email interview with The Bottom Line; responses have been lightly edited for formatting and clarity.
What is your biggest pet peeve?
A pet peeve is both petty yet loved like a pet. I have a fecund barnyard of peeves. I hate the abuse of language — by politicians, lawyers and academics. The word “individual.” That sounds technical, but is it really clearer than “person”? It’s pseudo-clarity. It’s dehumanizing.
Worst of all, it smuggles in an obnoxious philosophy of moral individualism — that someone can be understood outside of the context of her relations to others. Notice that we never execute people, only “Individuals who…”. I hate that more than canned zucchini.
How did you get into the study of the philosophy of law and ethics?
When faced with an ethical choice, we have at least three options: Do the right thing; do the wrong thing; or go into graduate school to buy six or seven years on deciding.
Ethics is hard to teach. Liberalism works well when you pull together diverse groups who bring in their rich heritages and a strong sense of ethics and purpose. The rub is that over the generations, folks tend to lose these traditions and ethics, or come to see them as subjective.
The only reality they can see is the framework of liberalism: Rights, harms and consent. This framework is important, but it’s an empty shell when all the ethics and purpose is drained out. If you ask 100 students why it’s wrong to sleep with a sibling, 99 will spout some nonsense about genetics. I tell them that whenever I sleep with my sister, we use really good contraception. “Siblings with benefits.”
But one student will say, “I’m not sure — it’s really hard to explain. It has something to do with the purpose of family.” That student is on the right track. If I can get three students to see the tracks, that’s a good day’s work. They don’t have to believe what I believe — they just need to see the tracks.
What made you decide to pursue higher education and to become a professor?
I’m a continuing lecturer. A professor is someone with a grownup’s job, with job security and all that.
You are what you do. If you are a lawyer for a fracking company, you spend eight hours a day being an ass, and four hours recovering from that. I’m not here to judge other people’s choices but whatever you do, if you hate it, if it is meaningless, you hate yourself. Plus, I think these budding fracking lawyers need to have their cages rattled a bit. That’s my job. I love it.
What is a philosophical conundrum that still keeps you up at night?
Philosophical questions don’t keep me up. They make me wake up at 5 a.m.
Suppose you have two really big-brained experts on the law. One says this is “clearly unconstitutional.” The other says the opposite, with equal conviction. The reality of law is that neither expert has misread a sentence, suppressed a clause, ignored a precedent, or “failed to do one’s sums right.” The reality of law is that judges must interpret the meaning.
There are many tools for this, but which tools to use — and how to use them — is not found anywhere in the rulebook. Yet there is a right interpretation of the law; one expert is wrong despite not making a single demonstrable error. In other words, asking about the meaning of the Constitution is ultimately a philosophical question. It takes ten weeks to convince my students of this, but eventually, if they get it, they can’t sleep either.
You’ve mentioned that you used to be in a rock band. Is there anything else that your students would be surprised to find out about you?
I really like brussels sprouts.