Mountains to Climb: In Conversation with Felix Lambrecht

Published: April 5, 2022

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The past few months have proven a period of success and recognition for Felix Lambrecht, a Vanier Scholar and PhD candidate in the Department of Philosophy with primary research interests in political philosophy, legal philosophy, and ethics. Not only did the School of Cities name him one of its 2022 Graduate Fellows but the University of Toronto Alumni Association also recently honoured him as a Graduate Scholar, an award that forms part of the University of Toronto Awards of Excellence suite. These two acknowledgments came in addition to a Michael Smith Foreign Study Supplement and a DAAD research grant for his dissertation project on reparative justice. We spoke to the scholar and activist about his work, the meaning of collaboration and community, and about what makes a good philosopher.

At the University of Toronto, you were recently both awarded a 2022 School of Cities Graduate Fellowship and named a 2022 University of Toronto Alumni Association Graduate Scholar. In addition, you received a Michael Smith Foreign Study Supplement and a DAAD research grant for your (dissertation) project. Congratulations! Can you tell us a little bit about your work?

Thank you! My research investigates reparative justice for historical injustices. Historical injustices present an important puzzle for political philosophy. Most countries and communities have deep histories of injustices—genocide, colonialism, slavery, violent conquest. On the one hand, there is a strong intuitive pull that these massive injustices require repair. Yet, on the other hand, since the injustices occurred so far in the past, it is not at all clear what we can do in the present to repair them, or whether doing so is even possible. The philosophical literature exhibits a lot of confusion and many objections around what (if anything) reparative justice requires. Does justice even require repairing past injustices? Why not let bygones be bygones and focus on distributive justice in the preset? Or, is it even possible to repair them, given that those involved have long since passed away?

My research argues that we should think of these historical injustices as ongoing injustices in the present. By working through concrete examples, I want to show that the same things that made these injustices wrong in the past continue into the present. We should include the kinds of structures, unjust systems, and relations we see in many areas of contemporary society as part of the ongoing historical injustice. Justice requires we address these unjust structures and relations as part of obligations for past wrongs. Not only does this approach address important concrete social issues but it also responds to the philosophical objections many have raised against reparative justice for historical injustice.

Consider, for instance, the horrors of residential schools in Canada. Of course the original policies, and heinous actions involved, should range among the things that reparative justice addresses. Yet residential schools also form part of an ongoing and continuing injustice. They have (among many things) precipitated generational trauma that affects political intuitions in Indigenous communities, prevented communities from cultivating cultural practices, and kept Indigenous people involved in an ongoing relationship in which the Canadian state dominates Indigenous bands and communities.  These reasons all form part of the original residential schools’ wrong. Reparative justice must address all of them to repair the original wrong.

What is your working definition of reparative justice? What are its most important elements, in your view, and where is the concept often misunderstood or challenging?

Reparative justice concerns what perpetrators owe victims to address their wrongful actions. It tells us what a wrongdoer must to do for the victim to address their wrong.

Many discussions of reparative justice focus on the harms a victim experiences. The wrongdoer addresses their wrong by compensating or making up for the harms, injuries, or losses the victim experiences.

But I think this is incorrect. Of course, there are good reasons to think that addressing the harms experienced by the victim form an important component of what a wrongdoer must do. And any good account of reparative justice should be able to explain this. But I think it is mistaken to say that addressing harms is all that reparative justice demands.

Take some of our most common examples of (simple) wrongdoing. Suppose I promised to meet you for coffee and arrive two hours late. Suppose I never apologize. Later you learn that I have transferred you cash to compensate for the two hours of labour you missed. I’ve compensated the harm of time lost, but something remains missing: I have not addressed or acknowledged that I broke a promise. Reparative justice generally requires more than merely addressing harms. To truly repair an injustice, we must address all its morally relevant features. In the context of being late for coffee, this will include acknowledging and apologizing for my action, and committing to not doing it again.

This requirement proves even more salient in the context of historical injustice. Certainly wrongs in the past have caused many harms that occur in the present. And certainly our reparative duties must address these. Yet many times, the features of the historical injustice extend beyond harms. Historical injustices may have created unjust social structures and systems. And they might have created relationships of domination in contemporary society between individuals and between communities. These must all be included among the normatively significant features of the wrongs and, thus, I argue, must be among the things reparative duties address to properly repair wrongs of the past.

You have spoken about the importance of collaboration for your work and for the pursuit of equity in general. Can you elaborate?

I find collaboration essential for my philosophical work. Working with other areas of philosophy, other disciplines, and outside community partners provides invaluable perspectives and countless examples to use in philosophical analysis. Some philosophers manage to engage in rigorous and clear philosophical thinking without these sorts of concrete examples. I am not one of them. I need the concrete examples to inspire my philosophical thinking. Collaborating with other philosophers, disciplines, and community actors is invaluable to provide this spark. For instance, my work as a translator for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) ignited a philosophical interest in multiculturalism. Many of my philosophical interests have started this way, with a desire to systematically understand precisely what is going wrong in examples of injustice drawn from these other disciplines or in concrete work.

But these perspectives and examples don’t just spark philosophical analysis; I think they also prove essential for quality social and political philosophy. If we think the role of social and political philosophy is to get to the core of complex social problems, then we need perspectives and real-world examples to ensure that the core idea we end up thinking about tracks the important problems we want to understand.

Collaborating with diverse perspectives is perhaps even more important in the context of my non-philosophy volunteer work, for instance, as vice-chair of Kensington-Bellwoods Community Legal Services. I have a lot of privilege. And in many of the issues and areas I contribute to—Indigenous-settler relations, community legal aid, reparations for systemic injustice—I remain very much an outsider and ally. Listening to different perspectives and approaching the work as a learner helps ensure that when I do try to step into this space as an ally, I do so in an informed and sensitive way.

Can you speak to what these awards mean to you and the impact they have on your work?

Mostly I’m just humbled to receive them. It is both humbling and validating to see that others value the kind of collaborative work I try to enact in my scholarship and volunteer service. And I’m excited that the awards will help continue these collaborations. The School of Cities Fellowship, for instance, provides resources and the opportunity to apply my dissertation research to dimensions of urban studies. This is precisely the kind of example that I think makes collaboration useful in philosophy—urban studies and city community networks teem with fascinating and important examples that help me think through reparative justice. For example, there is a growing literature about the effects of systemic racism on urban design and the way this structures our cities. My research argues that this sort of effect indicates how historical injustices are continued wrongs and, thus, among the things reparative justice should address.

Though the Michael Smith Foreign Supplement and the DAAD research grant are more “traditional” academic scholarships, they will similarly facilitate a kind of collaboration. I’m thrilled to get the opportunity to conduct research at Ludwig Maximilian Universität (Munich) this summer. Since (I think) philosophy functions best when in dialogue with a plurality of interested researchers, I am excited by the opportunity to present and discuss my work in a different environment of world-class researchers, before bringing it back here to this one.

What brought you to philosophy, and to your area of specialization?

I think I have always been interested and affected by injustices of the past. As a first-generation German Canadian, my family history is deeply tied to the horrors of the Holocaust and Nazi Germany. And as a person having grown up on unceded Lekwungen, Songhees, and WSÁNEĆ traditional territory in Victoria, British Colombia, histories of injustice have always proven salient in my world. At some level, I think I have reflected on our relationship to past injustices my whole life. At the same time, I was drawn to the rigour and clarity that philosophy can bring to thinking about extremely complex and abstract ideas. One of the incredible things philosophy does is to impart strong analytical skills. Political philosophy aims to apply this analytic rigour to complex social issues and structures.

In retrospect the combination seems obvious. The analytical skills philosophy teaches constitute the perfect tool to think through the kinds of tensions and social issues I experienced since childhood as part of my family and national history. This analytical clarity makes for an invaluable resource to develop potential solutions to address the problems these histories have created.

What makes a good philosopher?

Ha! What a tough question, and I’m sure no matter what I say, someone here will disagree. But I’ll take a shot at it. I think philosophy is at its best when we can use it as a tool to think through abstract and confusing phenomena. In my case, of course, I use it as a tool to think through complex social and political issues. but I think the same analytical role applies generally to philosophy, whether we’re thinking through the nature of knowledge itself, through concepts of race, logic, or whatever magic it is they do in metaphysics. To that end, I think analytic skills, precision, and rigour all prove vital for a good philosopher to tackle complex, abstract core ideas.

Yet I also think good philosophy requires the ability to genuinely listen. I am always impressed with faculty and my fellow students’ ability to take in, understand, and respond to arguments and ideas. The most productive and interesting philosophical work I’ve witnessed addresses ideas by genuinely listening to and engaging productively with others. I strive to be able to engage in the same way.

In the Department of Philosophy, you are not just a student, scholar, TA, and Milestones and Pathways mentor but also actively involved in the Graduate Philosophy Students Union (GPSU). Can you talk about the value of community in academia and scholarship?

Grad school is difficult. Of course the actual material is complex, and difficulties adhere to learning to conduct novel research. But so many other challenges exist, including family-related stressors, mental health, imposter syndrome, worries about the job market, and so on. A strong community is paramount to surmounting these challenges: It builds a sense of solidarity and provides resources to help overcome the many complexities of grad school and academia.

But community also fosters the kind of collaboration I think essential for good scholarship. One of the things the pandemic prevented was the casual and impromptu interactions that were (are!) commonplace in the department. You couldn’t, for instance, run an idea past a friend in the hall or drop into an office to ask a quick question. Though small, interactions of this sort have immense value to research and the fostering of ideas. These are the sorts of things we’ve tried to bring back, since it is where academic community is at its best—fostering a caring community that breeds both solidarity and research.

Outside of philosophy, what might we find Felix Lambrecht doing or enjoying?

I like to joke that I spend most of my time since moving to Toronto “desperately searching for mountains.” Honestly, at this point I’ll take any semblance of a hill or incline. Less flippantly, most of the time I can be found rock climbing, biking, or rock climbing more on one of these rare aforementioned inclines. Sometimes I will change it up and hike —to, you know, be a well-rounded person.