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Faculty Q&A with Raff Donelson

Raff Donelson joined the LSU Law faculty in the Fall 2017 semester as a joint appointment with the College of Humanities and Social Sciences and its Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies. Starting in Spring 2018, Donelson will teach criminal procedure at the Law Center, and he currently teaches courses in moral, political, and legal philosophy for Philosophy and Religious Studies.

Where are you from and what schools did you attend?

I grew up in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, and then I moved to northwest Massachusetts to attend Williams College where I majored in philosophy and political science and earned a certificate in French language and culture.  Later, I earned a M.A. at the University of Chicago, where I continued to study philosophy but also took some classes at Chicago’s law school.  After my M.A., I stayed in Chicagoland and attended Northwestern where I earned a J.D. and a Ph.D. in philosophy.

How have you adjusted to living in the south?

Having lived most of my life in the Northeast and the Midwest, it has been a big change living in the South full-time. The pace of life, the need to drive everywhere, and the heat all take some time to get used to.  As a child, I spent summers in Atlanta, so that gave me a little preparation for Southern living, but Louisiana is very much its own place.

What brought you to LSU?

I wanted to teach both law and philosophy since I was a senior at Williams College. That is why I pursued both a J.D. and a Ph.D.  I didn’t know if it would be possible during an early stage in my career, but LSU presented me with a unique opportunity to do exactly what I dreamed to do.  I knew I had to say yes.

What has the reception been like for you at LSU?

It’s been really wonderful!  Both faculties are really unique and fun. I haven’t had the opportunity to teach law yet, but my philosophy students have been wonderful, the undergraduates especially.

What makes the fields of philosophy and law so closely connected?

There are a lot of connections between the two fields.  The most obvious point of intersection is a subfield called jurisprudence.  In jurisprudence, people ask about the nature of law is.  Legal scholars like talking about law, and philosophers like talking about the nature of various entities, so jurisprudence is a wonderful blend of these two tendencies.  My dissertation was an essay in jurisprudence  In addition to jurisprudence, one can pose philosophical questions about many different areas of law.  One tried-and-true area is criminal law.  Criminal lawyers ask many questions that have been traditionally raised by philosophers. For instance, criminal lawyers wonder about the justification for punishment, the nature of punishment, whether an action is intentional.  I have written on or am beginning to write on many of those topics.  While substantive criminal law has been a traditional area for philosophically minded thinkers to investigate, I have begun considering whether philosophical thinking can shed light on questions in criminal procedure too.

Are there any differences teaching philosophy vs. teaching law?

Teaching law and teaching philosophy differ because often the goals of instruction are different. That difference is particularly striking when the audience is undergraduates in the one case and law students in doctrinal courses in the other.

When teaching undergraduates in philosophy, one aims to introduce new ideas, to get them to think differently about familiar topics, to read texts carefully, to engage with others in a civil but critical way.  In the typical instance, one is not trying to instill in students any particular facts.  For instance, even in reviewing Kant’s categorical imperative, I don’t care that an undergraduate remembers the categorical imperative and all its different formulations after the class concludes.  Really, I hope that a student can leave my course and, upon hearing a normative argument by a journalist, politician, or op-ed writer, can dissect that argument and note its assumptions, as we did with Kant.  Generally speaking, philosophical training, especially for undergraduates, succeeds to the extent that it empowers students to be engaged, reflective citizens of the world.

While, of course, I want law students to be engaged and reflective too, law school is, at the end of the day, a professional school.  My job, then, is offer students specific training that will help students to join a particular profession.  Unlike in philosophy, I do want my students to learn and retain particular concepts.  For instance, I want students in my criminal procedure class to know when a person needs to receive a Miranda warning and when she doesn’t.  Thinking more philosophically about how forced interrogation threads upon someone’s autonomy is not going to be sufficient.

The difference in teaching goals also leads to different methods of evaluation for law and philosophy. I usually don’t give closed-book exams in philosophy classes; I assign essays where students are supposed to grapple with a difficult text and either support or rebut one of its central claims.  This method of evaluation is designed to test critical thinking skills.  Whereas in law context, I aim to foster critical thinking and specific knowledge of particular doctrines, so I use quizzes and exams.

In what areas of law do you specialize?

At LSU, I teach the Administration of Criminal Justice I, which covers the rules that the government must follow in investigating crime.  I have begun to further research some of those questions.  Most of my research concerns what happens after the investigation, trial, and conviction.  For instance, I’ve been writing about the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

What draws you to criminal justice?

My interest stems from the fact that my intellectual life began with moral philosophy. Criminal law is the site at which moral thinking becomes applied most concretely. Criminal law is a way of proclaiming that some behavior is really, really wrong. As someone who’s spent years reading about the history of ethics, I am interested in what we criminalize and the values those choices reflect. I am also interested in who falls into our sights when we use the criminal law to broadcast and enforce our values. Much of my work is infused with concern about what happens to that person. We can become so absorbed in stamping out wrongdoing that we forget that wrongdoers are persons too.  Criminals occupy a very low spot in our social hierarchy, and somebody once said that we should judge a society by how it treats the least among them.