Kimberley Brownlee Profile
Kimberley Brownlee (Quebec & Corpus Christi 2002) is an Associate Professor in Legal and Moral Philosophy at the University of Warwick in Coventry, England. In 2012, she published a book with Oxford University Press entitled Conscience and Conviction: the Case for Civil Disobedience. Her work focuses on the ethics of sociability, human rights, conscience and conscientious disobedience, ideals and virtue, and philosophy of punishment. She holds a DPhil in Philosophy from Oxford University, MPhil in Philosophy from Cambridge University, and BA in Philosophy from McGill University.
Rhodes Project: Where did you grow up?
Kimberley Brownlee: I grew up in Abbotsford, British Columbia, a city about an hour east of Vancouver in an agricultural area of hills, farms, and mountains.
When I was 16, I went to study at Lester B. Pearson United World College on Vancouver Island, in the International Baccalaureate programme.
Rhodes Project: Is there anything you miss about Canada?
Kimberley Brownlee: When I moved to England, I missed the mountains. My memory from childhood is that a village or town always has a frame of mountains around it as a protection, a reference, and a check on urban sprawl. I felt that English cities lacked a certain context; a natural rather than a legal set of limits. I’m now used to wide-open English countryside, but for a long time, I longed for an embrace of rolling blue peaks.
Rhodes Project: How did you become interested in philosophy?
Kimberley Brownlee: While studying at Pearson College, I had to take a compulsory Theory of Knowledge course. The teacher was wonderful. In addition to holding classes on the roof and using planted actors to gauge our perceptual abilities, he delighted in discussing what things, if any, we can know, how we can know them, and what kind of confidence we can have about knowledge. He linked these discussions up with other branches of philosophy without overtly telling us he was doing it. We explored issues in moral philosophy, political philosophy, and philosophy of science using literature, case studies, and thought experiments along the way.
In addition to that course, I took a philosophy option in the International Baccalaureate that focused on canonical thinkers such as Descartes, Kant, and Mill. I was jubilant when I read Immanuel Kant for the fourth time, and realized suddenly: “Ah! I know what he’s saying!”. It was one of those revelatory, breakthrough moments that people often have studying mathematics or logic. All at once, I got it, and I knew why it mattered. During the same time, I was also reading de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex and was waking up to feminist ideas, which were unsettling and thrilling.
Studying all this at a United World College was invaluable since the College’s 200 students came from over 80 countries. In that environment, students can learn a lot incidentally from each other just by being exposed to each other’s cultures. My two years at Pearson were deeply formative, and hooked me for life on philosophy.
Rhodes Project: Philosophy is quite a male dominated discipline. Do you feel that diverse perspectives are effectively represented in philosophy?
Kimberley Brownlee: Philosophy is a male dominated discipline, but over the past decade the profession has become acutely aware not only of this fact, but also of the cultural problems that go with it. The current debate is focused on women’s negative experiences in philosophy. It’s startling how many women have a story to tell about being talked down to, dismissed, or even sexually harassed. I’ve been fortunate so far not to have had any of those experiences. Certainly, I had supervisors who pushed hard and were relentless in their criticism, but I’m the better for it because their criticism was productive and ultimately helpful. Also, as a graduate student, I was essentially mute in public discussions – never raising my hand to speak in seminars. The problem with not forcing myself to speak is that, when I became a professional philosopher, I had a shock when I realized: “Okay, I have to go lecture to 250 people now.” I don’t know that I would have participated more as a student if the gender balance had been equal or if I’d thought about training myself for professional life, but I did eventually realise that I could not be reticent anymore, that this is my community and I had to engage fully.
Rhodes Project: What do you most enjoy about teaching?
Kimberley Brownlee: Teaching can be a wonderful part of the job. Supervising, in particular, can be a special way to teach, as it allows me to work with students who really want to study the subject, and, at the doctoral level, most students are very knowledgeable, excited, and exciting.
Undergraduate philosophy teaching can also be highly rewarding because it provides – for many students – their first glimpse into a fascinating, disorienting, eye-opening subject.
Each year, I change my teaching approach. At the moment, I’m incorporating practical moral thinking and practice into my lectures. Instead of just telling students about Plato’s ideas, I do a lot of meditation, interactive work, and group work with them. We act out scenarios like the prisoner’s dilemma and engage in small group debates about conflict resolution. The aim in these strategies is to translate complex, abstruse moral theories into something grippable that students can use to reflect on their own approach to morality.
Rhodes Project: You recently wrote a book about civil disobedience. How do you think a philosophical approach to this concept could improve public policy in the UK?
Kimberley Brownlee: The book aims to do several things that have public policy applications. One is to rethink what it means to have a sincere conviction. The prevailing view in policy is that people who are privately disobedient, who quietly follow their own beliefs, should be respected as conscientiously disobedient. For instance, someone who surreptitiously avoids performing some part of their job for reasons of belief, or someone who tries to practice a banned part of their religion in secret, tend to be seen as morally animated by their moral beliefs; and if we can tolerate or ignore their conduct, then we should do so. My claim is that people who engage in civil disobedience, who try to communicate their objection about a law or policy, who are willing to be seen objecting, actually have a better claim to the protections of conscientiousness. There’s no doubt about the risks they’re willing to take – they’re putting their money where their mouth is, essentially. So when someone is willing to break the law in defense of a cause in a constrained way, it should be tolerated, and there should be a legal defense for it.
In the book, I go so far as to say there’s a moral right not to be punished for disobedience that’s animated by sincere conviction and that takes this restrained, communicative form. Part of the reason for that moral right against punishment is that we think there’s a moral right to express deep conviction which doesn’t stop at the law. There has to be some space to step outside the law in the name of deep conviction, and the moral right has to extend to protection against retaliation for that.
Rhodes Project: What inspires you?
Kimberley Brownlee: I have a persistent, lifelong love of learning. This is a driving piece of my identity. I am animated in the morning by the desire to grow, to know more, and to be wiser, if I can. A lot of that desire is a moral desire. The moral practices I offer to students are also practices I do myself, trying practically to cultivate more compassion and understanding.
There is evidence from neuroscience and psychology that people who cultivate the virtues of compassion, kindness, care, attention and mindfulness tend to have more accurate memories, more correct perceptions of their environment and their experience as well as better judgments of other people’s experience and mental life. A person’s grasp of things is improved by the cultivation of virtue. I want to understand this idea both theoretically and practically in my own life. I hope that I’ll improve with age!
Rhodes Project: Do you try to impart that in your teaching?
Kimberley Brownlee: Yes, I often discuss concepts of morality in terms of “ways to be happier.” Being a student is very stressful, and spending some time pausing, relaxing, resting, being mindful, as well as cultivating compassion, are ways to be a bit less stressed. That’s one way to make the pitch to students that these practical and theoretical reflections matter. Another way is to create a sense of awareness among students that morality matters. Students tend to be relativistic in their moral thinking, they tend to ask who gets to decide that some act is morally right or wrong. One way to work with that is to show students the implications of a relativistic view. If there were no objective moral standards, then, ultimately, it would not morally wrong for people to engage in genocide in another country, or for me to grade student papers according to hair color, or for a spouse to cheat if he happens to have a different view than his partner about fidelity. If we think there’s something morally wrong in these cases, then we are in fact signing up for some objective moral standards, and if we care about morality, then there are practical things we can do.
Rhodes Project: What do you think you would have done if you hadn’t gone into academia?
Kimberley Brownlee: I trained in ballet from the ages of 3 to 17, and might have pursued a professional career. But, then I tore cartilage in my knee at the same time that I was beginning to wonder: “Do I really want to dance? Or do I want to go to university?” Although I did not pursue it, dance is a part of my identity – I saw myself as a ‘dancer’ for many years after I stopped training. I love movement and the pursuit of perfection. Ballet is a highly demanding, body-straining activity that reveals one image of what the human body has the potential to do. Getting a glimpse of that from the inside was exciting.
Rhodes Project: What do you do to relax?
Kimberley Brownlee: I go on silent meditation retreats. It’s a great way to slow down – I literally do nothing in silence with fifty other people for five or six days. It wakes up my creativity. It makes my senses more acute such that I can smell spices a room away. That’s the best way to relax.
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