For Laura Gillespie, what began as an avoidance of math class became a lifelong pursuit. She was completing her undergraduate prerequisites and had to take an honors seminar. The choice was between a class on fractals, which combined art and mathematics, and another class called "History of Conscience," taught by a biologist and a philosopher. “And I thought, ‘I don’t want to do any math,’” she recalls, laughing. The resulting paper she wrote for the class dealt with free will and biological determinism. She was so engaged with the topic that she ended up piecing together a philosophy major so she could writer her senior thesis on the matter. “From the beginning I had particular questions about human responsibility and agency,” she says.
After going all in on philosophy and earning her PhD at UCLA, she is now a General Ethics Fellow at the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society. The focus of her work is on developing a relationship-centered account of state punishment. “My dissertation focused primarily on interpersonal forms of redress and in thinking about those issues, a picture began to emerge for me about a kind of strategy for how we might think about our justifications for hard treatment,” Gillespie says. “It’s a deeply embedded notion that the human instinct is conflict and retribution and the role of morality is to check that. But might it be the case sometimes that a kind of wrongdoing occurs where you fail as a friend, or in your role as a citizen, by not stepping up and engaging in some kind of conflictual treatment?” Her goal is to see how that strategy might be employed against some standard models for thinking about what the state does when it punishes.
Stanford, with its strong faculty in political theory, was a good fit for Gillespie. “I’m not a political theorist by training. I do moral and legal theory, so I’m hoping to take advantage of the resources at Stanford to help me think about the relationship between the state and those who live under its laws.”
As part of her responsibilities as a General Ethics fellow, Gillespie will be teaching undergraduates, as she did at UCLA. In her view, studying ethics is essential for any student, regardless of field. “All of the problems of ethics are generated in the course of being a person walking through the world, generated by our daily experience in a very straightforward way,” she says. “It’s just a space to step back and think critically about those fundamental questions of how to live and how to think about how to live.”
SARA BUTTON is a writer and editor. She lives in Menlo Park.