Introduction This chapter began as my inaugural lecture as Foundational Dean of Griffith Law School. Before starting to write it, I asked some colleagues what an inaugural lecture should be. One described it as an opportunity to give your considered view of your discipline and where it should be going. Another told me that it was a time when the university invites you to ‘profess’ – ‘it has anointed you as a professor and presents you to the world in the expectation that you will have something useful to say’. I must say I treated all this with a fairly robust scepticism. I am not, by nature, a hierarch and I am wary of the tendency to listen with greater intent to professors than others. I was very conscious of the fact that I would be asked to speak in public many times a year when I have, at most, a day or two to prepare. I compare this with my position some years earlier when I would have been asked to speak in public two or three times a year, and enjoy around 100 days to prepare. But I had not changed. The fact that I was a professor merely carried with it the ever-present possibility that I might be wrong for the simple reason that I had less time to contemplate my errors. In my defence, it might be suggested that I could have relied on accumulated wisdom. However, the gradual accretion of considered thoughts is just as likely to lead to intellectual ossification and dogmatic reassertion. It might be suggested that one continually questions one’s own ideas and is continually dissatisfied with their content and expression. All that is true, but I must admit that the longer one goes on subjecting one’s ideas to self-criticism and challenge, the less likely those challenges are to succeed – a reason, I suspect, why we remain so ready to subject them to those challenges. Indeed, the elevation to a chair always carries with it the attendant danger of complacency and smugness. Philosophers are under a particular professional disability in this regard. As the stock in trade is argument, there is a professional tendency to stick to positions once taken and to respond to attacks with new sets of arguments. To some extent, it is true that being a philosopher means never having to admit you are wrong! Having said all that, I took this opportunity to ‘profess’, not because this moment stood as a key point at which those long-encrusted thoughts would magically transform themselves into wisdom, but because it was a convenient
point in an academic life to reflect on what brought me to think as I do and to see where those thoughts are taking me or, to put it another way, to provide a statement of where my thinking has taken me, how I got there, and why. This makes this chapter something of a personal intellectual journey. It is a thought path along which I have travelled – sometimes running with expectation and assurance, sometimes walking gingerly, and sometimes getting nowhere. Here, I will take you along that thought path – without dwelling on the stumbles, the wrong turns, the dead ends and the occasional lay-bys. This is, inevitably, a personal journey because knowledge is always perceived from the point of view of a participant. Knowledge is what is known, and knowing is an active pursuit of an individual with a history. I will explain how I came to believe in the value of applying philosophy to public affairs in general and law in particular. I will indicate some of the areas in which applied philosophy might make a contribution and discuss a few examples of those. In so doing, I will suggest a role for philosophy in assisting the process of reforming Australian institutions – by coordinating legal regulation, ethical standard-setting and institutional design. In particular, I will look at the role of applied philosophy in attempting to resolve what I consider the biggest question currently facing the West. In so doing, I will look at the potential danger of applying philosophy to public affairs – its ready degradation into simplistic ideologies.