Attracta Ingram in Conversation with Clara Fischer

Why did you get into philosophy and how?

I was a child of the sixties, and everybody was reading philosophy – of some sort. You read philosophy on the bus, you read existentialist novels, so there was a cultural “in” so to speak, and it was very easy to move from that into philosophy. The other things I wanted to do: I wanted to do medicine quite strongly at that stage, but I already had a child and I was advised that there was no way I could do medicine and look after a child so, reluctantly, I didn’t do it. Philosophy was the other thing, and I haven’t regretted it. It’s been a wonderful ride.


Why political philosophy?

I initially did a degree in philosophy, pure philosophy, and then I did a Ph.D. in philosophy of science and logic, and the job came up in moral and political philosophy, so I converted, and that was fine. It took some time and I tended to get boxed into “well, you did philosophy of science, so you can do philosophy of social science,” which I did for a while, but the empirical social scientists were only then breaking free from philosophy in Ireland, so I couldn’t make any headway in that area. I had to start over in normative work. Of course I had undergraduate experience of moral and political philosophy, and in the beginning it was moral and political philosophy. Gradually, it shifted more to political philosophy for institutional reasons. The original department of ethics and politics in UCD was split with ethics migrating to what became the department of philosophy.


What kind of a place was UCD then to do philosophy in?

It was actually quite good. It was mixed. All of the professors and many of the staff were priests. The philosophy course had been designed, really, as the undergraduate course for students from Clonliffe who were going to be trained as priests, so it was not particularly scholarly and it was very authoritarian. There was a very public UCD student revolt in 1968/69 and one chapter focussed on the department of metaphysics. That was the writing on the wall for the old order, though it took almost another 20 years for philosophy to find its feet. Ethics and Politics was an early mover towards modernisation. Logic and Psychology had the sanity of logic and was generally quite good for students. So when I was a student I was able to do contemporary philosophy under the guise of philosophy of logic and the philosophy of science. That’s where I came across Quine and Ruth Barcan Marcus and all sorts of people like that.


When I came to work in UCD in 1977, I suggested some courses, initially agreed courses, but I was never told what to teach or how to teach it. I had complete academic freedom and respect. I was never told how to mark students, or to mark them down or to mark them up, ever, so it was an idyllic time. I was never told, but of course, nobody was ever told “you have to publish.” Teaching was the primary thing and you fitted your research around it at that time. There was a huge commitment to teaching students who would be leaders of the country – they would go into the civil service, they would go into RTÉ, they would become politicians, become business men. That was part of the old UCD goal.


What was the gender ratio for students and staff?

I think it was very small numbers of women. I seem to remember hundreds of young men dressed in black clericals and a handful of women, some of us sporting long legs under our very short Mary Quant minis. When I joined the staff there were two women in philosophy- Josephine Newman was the other. I was really quite a radical hire because I wasn’t religious. I wasn’t interested in Thomism. I was interested in contemporary philosophy. It was actually two priests who hired me, Connor Martin and Fergal O’Connor.


And they would have taught you as well?

They taught me as well, yes. They always taught ethics and politics. And they taught from primary texts Plato and Aristotle, Hobbes and Rousseau, Kant ... In metaphysics some of the professors told us that we could read when we graduated, but what matters for students was the key we were being given in the lectures!


Can we talk about your research a bit? I already asked you why philosophy, why political philosophy…why liberalism?

I think that the task of the 20th century, particularly after the Holocaust, was to do deal with the end of what Hannah Arendt called the idea that humans were sacred. It was a continuation of the problem that Dostoyevsky set: if God is dead, then everything is permitted. So I think that the 20th century task after that was to reconceive the terms in which we think about the world – quite radically, across all areas of philosophy, so if it’s philosophy of science, epistemology, metaphysics, and political philosophy. By that I mean, in the simplest terms, the idea that the meaning and value in the world isn’t just there. We have to make it, it’s human-originated and we have to take responsibility for it. And that’s quite a radical idea if you’re coming from religious cultures. It is an idea that people find arrogant, perhaps. In political philosophy, John Rawls undertook that task. Of course, it was undertaken in a particular context, and political philosophy, perhaps all philosophy, is best done when it addresses the problems of its time. The practical problem of his time for Rawls, particularly in the United States, but more generally too, was how to reconcile liberty and equality, and later he reframed that as how to reconcile liberty and equality in a context of pluralism. I was very taken with that. There were many different strands feeding into my particular battles. For me, it was how to develop a secular constitutional state, but I found Rawls inspiring. The thing that really was very important for me as a philosopher was his Kantian constructivism in moral theory. That is the shift to seeing ourselves as agents of the law, as agents of the moral law, as well. It’s a Kantian idea that’s been around for several centuries, but it hadn’t been systematically worked through. He used that to generate a methodology, and to generate his resolution to that conflict that is still driving oppositions in American society.


Liberty, for me, is a matter of liberal equality – it’s fundamental. Whereas, if you start with equality as fundamental – you can have equality in an authoritarian regime – so, if you like, my problem would be how to develop autonomy against authoritarianism. Authoritarianism is very strong in many societies. It’s very difficult to eradicate. I always liked the Rousseau/Kant idea that basically humans should live under no law but one they’ve made themselves. The underlying thought is that there is no moral value to doing the right thing because some authority, even a divine being told you so. What makes it worthwhile is that you initiate the right action yourself. So, the making of the law oneself has been very central to me and to my way of understanding the construction of rights. My understanding of liberalism is that we’re on our own, and even if we are not, we have to construct a decent society together with others and for Hobbesian and not prior moral reasons.


Hobbes was a philosopher of practical reason. He says “if people don’t have security, they’re going to kill each other.” Now, what are you going to do about that? He has a solution, which most people would reject, which is the absolute power of the sovereign. But the element of the solution that matters is its social contract basis. The social contract matters because it’s an agreement between people. It is the agreement that people make the law together in some fashion. That is the central point that I take from something like the French Revolution. The talk about rights is the talk about putting together a state. Now, putting together a state is very dangerous because of its coercive power. So, against Hobbes, rights are about restricting the power of the state. Historically they have been thought of as pre-political, natural, and perhaps God-given. I think of rights as founded in agreements. That, for me, centrally involves the notion that every time you claim a right you must remember that you’re saying somebody else has a burden, they have a duty. What’s important is that the burden-sharer has to be able to agree. In a Hobbesian world the burden-sharer agrees because the alternative would be irrational – you know, I’d fight you or kill you, or get killed or whatever. That’s why I think we must remember the Hobbesian world. It’s not always nice to feel that you’re dependent on another person through the duty that is the counter-part of your right, but you are. Our problem is: how do we get acknowledgement of those dependencies. We should be talking much more about duties – not in a moralistic sense but remembering that there are burdens attached to rights and that other people have to shoulder those burdens. The key here is: do you get agreement on the burdens, as well as on the rights. The big shift from the great declarations, and the big shift from a religious view of natural law have been evident in, for example, the UN Declaration of Human Rights. It’s agreed – it’s not that it’s implemented or implementable in full, but it’s agreed. That agreement is important. Agreements can be standards for human conduct.


But isn’t part of the critique of that agreement that some of it takes place under coercion? That it is a Western imposition and, really, lots of other countries are only signing up not out of some sense of agreement but because of other factors that have to do with power and so forth?

First of all, I think agreement is important. I think free agreement is important. What we do as philosophers is try to work out the arguments that underpin what would be a free agreement. Is it Western? I think that if you’re locating the basis of rights in natural law, which traces back to divine law, it is a particular religious tradition, and I think the South-East Asian challenge was quite right in that context. But if you’re looking at it in much more brutal Hobbesian terms, what do you need, as a matter of practical reason, in order to stop us slaughtering each other? I think that it’s not Western. I think that people don’t particularly want to be killed, frankly, and one must say that now as there’s an awful lot of killing going on. In my own approach to rights, to human rights, it’s only those rights that we are willing and able to defend right now that are universal. The whole panoply of 30 articles in the UNDHR is aspirational. There’s only about four of them that we are prepared to defend under international law - life, liberty, property, and natural justice). The rest are aspirations. Of course, many of us think that we have a whole panoply of moral rights. NGOs depend on this, and do amazingly good work. Most of that panoply of rights is not agreed by other cultures at this time. They might never be agreed, by the way. We can’t just declare rights that aren’t real for people. You always have to ask “what is the cash-value of this right”? If it has no cash value in that there’s nobody there to enforce it, and you can’t enforce it yourself, it’s not a lot of use to you. You should be saying “these are rights that there should be, but aren’t.”


I’d like to come back to the point you raised about duties and your framing of interdependence in terms of “every right you bear means a duty on somebody else.” Often we think of the state as the duty bearer, and I’m thinking in the particular example of reproductive rights, which I know you’ve written on as well in the Irish context, it seems to be the state, as the duty bearer, who determines whether or not we have access to those rights, and at the moment we don’t and we never have in this country. So how does that fit in with something else that you said, which was about people making the moral law themselves?

I think that people have to realise that modern states are run by a democratic process, for good and for bad, so, actually, people have to talk to each other and argue with each other. It’s not just the state all on its own. The government of the day will do what it thinks will…re-elect it, probably, so, you actually have to work for a majority. The state cannot, except within its constitutional framework impose illiberal legislation just like that – that would be just as authoritarian. It actually won’t get away with it. The contestation that is part of life in a liberal democracy has weak points as well as strong points. The state isn’t actually the duty-bearer, we all are. The state merely channels them. Yes, sometimes it corrupts things. I’m not defending the State as a hypostatized entity. We have to have much stronger civil societies where we talk to each other seriously about these matters. It’s changing a bit through social media now. I remember going through all these miserable debates about divorce, and it was people telling each other their stories. It was the inconsistencies in the system: you could go abroad and get a divorce. It was all the problems with legitimacy, which we solved in an Irish way. The important thing was that people were telling their stories, and arguing with each other. I think that the media were great at that time. Eventually, the divorce referendum passed, on a basis that I didn’t like, which was the appeal of compassion. There was a good civil liberties argument, but it wasn’t being pressed as the reason for a yes vote.


You’ve also written on the relationship between women and rights, particularly in the context of communitarianism, and I suppose that would be the major critique of Rawls: his individualism, and that when we talk about autonomy we’re neglecting the fact that we are interdependent beings who are relying on each other in the world and impact on each other, and so forth. What is your stance on that?

I think we’re deeply interdependent, in that we have to sustain together the institutions that make human life possible. But that interdependence isn’t an excuse for subordinating anyone, including women. In the case of women and community, I have to ask always, empirically, what has community done for women? And again and again, I look at communities and the defences of communitarianism and say, well, what’s the role of women there? You know, the strongest communitarian groups are Christian or other religious groups. Some of these were deeply involved in the scandalous treatment of single women and their babies in Ireland. Our communitarian nation-state didn’t provide equality for women. More broadly, we still have a situation where women can’t train for priesthood, never mind apply for the highest job in Christianity. That is symbolically very important. The message is that women aren’t actually equal. Until we get beyond that, those kinds of symbolic messages will go out in the name of tradition, they’ll go out in the name of community, they’ll go out in the name of family values. Communities have to be communities of choice, particularly when they’re civil communities that have force attached to them. Women as citizens are part of a civil community, and the civil community should not enforce the subjection of women – the continuing subjection of women despite all the advances. The subjection is more evident now in, for example, the difficulties that women have in maintaining a family and work. Why don’t men have difficulty in maintaining family and work?  


Wasn’t the marriage equality referendum the same? It was about the family, rather than about rights?

You see that’s my problem. People should be able to assert such rights. But, you know, it has to fudged through families and feeling sorry for people. And I should tell you, there’s quite a little literature building up in rights about the importance of emotions, and I wouldn’t neglect that. If emotion does it, it does it, but you don’t have a steady civil system unless you have a reasoned order. I’m not being rationalistic, but in the end you have to have reason because it is a bit more objective than emotion. I’d rather not depend on emotion. When affections fail you need reason-based rights.


You were talking about the need for people to talk to each other in civil society. There has been a lot of talk, though, especially since the Savita Halappanavar death and subsequent tragedies, there’s been a lot of advocacy work, and constant coverage in the media. We know from the opinion polls that the majority of people are in favour of change, but there seems to be this disconnect with our government.

I think the word ‘disconnect’ is the crucial one here. I think in moral philosophy, and in other areas, a failure to connect is actually quite central to there being various kinds of moral problems. It’s one of the tasks of the philosopher to express the connections – it’s one of the difficult tasks. I think there is a failure to connect on this issue as far as I can see. Some of it is what you get when you have very traditionalist governments. What is at issue here is the 8th Amendment and if it looks like a majority of citizens would now vote for repeal then it should be put to referendum. Nobody is thereby forced to have abortions against their personal religious views. And the argument is not one of religion versus secularism. It is about women’s lives, health and wellbeing.


In your estimation, since you started working in political philosophy and connecting all these social issues and political problems that we’ve had in Ireland owing to our having been so closely aligned with one particular belief system, do you think we’ve come a long way?

Yes, we have actually. It was just after the period when women in the public service had to give up their jobs when they got married, so we’ve come a long way from that. We’ve come a long way from when marriage break-up was treated, at best, as a matter of “well, if you’re well off you can get an annulment.” But you still couldn’t remarry of course in the state. Some of the important things that symbolically, maybe even more than that, are things like Article 41.2, making home and family the alpha and omega of women’s purpose in life. Note that the Constitution doesn’t give women any right to anything. There is no cash value to work in the home. It is a dependent existence, which is a pretty bad situation for women to be in. Of course most women cannot luxuriate in their homes. They have to work, family or no family. So the disconnect is between the Constitution and reality and nobody in power is seriously looking at the structure of work.


Earlier you noted that philosophy is best done when it addresses the problems of our time. And yet, the perception from outside is that the people in the ivory tower of academia are, again, disconnected from the real world. How does the connection happen between philosophy that is done mainly in the university and political practice outside of the university?

But the work of a university is central to public reason and decision-making. For example, years of academic research and publication have gone into normative issues of redistribution, migration, climate justice, human rights, democracy, and citizenship, and much else of importance to public life. The first beneficiaries are the students who are the citizens that bring this connection to the so-called ‘real world’ and make it a lifeworld. They shape the public and the political.   Politicians are normally only too glad to learn new ideas on vital issues on which they must legislate. A fair number of politicians seek advice, clarification, information, from political philosophers and political scientists. Philosophy generally is appreciated as developing the ‘how to think’ powers of young people. There are technical and more abstract aspects of philosophy just as there are in other disciplines in the university, and when we deal with those, as we must, we may indeed inhabit our ivory towers. What we do in those towers is mainly the work of imagination. Our imagined futures are of course disconnected from the present. They may be tomorrow’s present.  


Attracta Ingram is Professor Emeritus of UCD Politics and International Relations. She has published extensively in political and social theory, particularly on the philosophy of rights, social justice, pluralism, state and nation, constitutional patriotism, and cosmopolitanism. She has held a Jean Monnet Research fellowship at the European University Institute, as well as visiting fellowships at St Andrews, Harvard, Columbia, and Berkeley. Dr Clara Fischer is a Newton International Fellow at the London School of Economics and communications officer of Society for Women In Philosophy. This interview was conduced in September 2015.

An excerpt of the interview was published by Dublin Review of Books in November 2015, see

Find us on:

Client Section