Seeking Answers to Big Questions

Jeffrey Kaplan '18Does God exist? What happens when people die? These were top-of-mind questions for Jeffrey Kaplan ’18, when he was a child. “I was definitely interested in the big questions as a kid,” says Kaplan, a graduate student in UC Berkeley’s philosophy department. “It seemed that most adults stopped thinking about them. I never did.” Kaplan, an Irving and Jean Stone Fellow in the Townsend Center for the Humanities, quickly found kindred minds in college. “People were taking these questions seriously . . . students and professors were rigorously trying to answer them.”

At Cal, Kaplan was drawn to the interdisciplinary focus of the Townsend Center, which provided the intellectual flexibility to pursue his dual passion for philosophy and law. Here, he’s tackling another big question, one that harkens back to the heavenly queries of his youth: In the absence of Divine Law, how do we explain the existence of law using scientifically acceptable resources?

“It’s a question scholars have been pondering for 250 years,” says Kaplan, one he hopes to answer in his dissertation work, which is funded through private gifts. “There are two types of normative facts, and legal theorists have missed this distinction,” he says. “There are moral facts — what’s ethical and right — and then there are rules, or laws — like in games such as basketball — that are not driven by moral thinking.”

It’s this distinction, says Kaplan, that may help scholars tackle this eighteenth-century intellectual challenge, and more importantly, shape how we define down-to-earth laws as they relate to our world today.