Remarkable lives › 1980s (from 1979) › Roger Crisp (Classics, 1979)

Professor Roger Crisp was born in Essex in 1961. He studied Classics at St Anne’s College in 1979 in the first cohort of male students.

In 1988 Professor Crisp completed his DPhil on utilitarianism, a topic on which he would later become an expert. Following his graduation, Professor Crisp was a lecturer in philosophy at Magdalen College (1986-7), St Anne’s College (1987-9) and Hertford College (1988-9). Since then Professor Crisp has occupied Fellowship roles at University College and, since 1991, St Anne’s College, where he is currently Uehiro Fellow and Tutor in Philosophy.  Professor Crisp has chaired the Humanities library committee and was Chair of the Philosophy faculty board (2006-8), he was recently awarded the Thank-Offering for Britain Fellowship (2015-16). Professor Crisp has written numerous journal articles and books, notably his ethical work Reasons and The Good (2006), with his most recent work The Cosmos of Duty published in 2015. Professor Crisp lives in Oxford with his wife and two children.

Could you share a memory from your student days at St Anne’s?

I found this quite a difficult one because I can remember so many things but I think one abiding memory I have is of the kindness of my tutors, all of them. I could exemplify these many kindnesses maybe as follows, I remember for example Margaret Hubbard, who was my roman literature tutor, taking us all for a pre-Mods dinner at The Feathers in Woodstock. She didn’t bother with dinner after Mods, she didn’t see that as necessary, what mattered was getting us in peak condition for Mods so she took us to Woodstock and we all had a very good steak. Gwyneth Matthews was my philosophy tutor and not only did she listen to I think some rather long and tedious essays by me, she used to send me books to read after tutorials about the things we’d talked about – she took a real interest in what I was doing. 

What attracted you to the world of academia?

Partly because I think [philosophical] questions matter I think it matters to pass them on to other people, to help them answer these questions for themselves and maybe themselves become professional academics in the future, and fortunately quite a few of my students have done that. There’s a kind of promethean aspect to academia that I like, passing on the fire. And I’ve been very lucky working in Oxford because I think it probably is the best university in the world for philosophy, it’s probably the best undergraduate university in the world, so playing a small part in that can be quite satisfying.

How would you hope to see the world change over the next ten years?

I think probably two main changes I would like to see are first of all wider recognition of the problem of climate change, how serious it is, and some substantial moves to deal with it as far as we can. Obviously we’ve gone too far to avoid all the problems, but we can certainly mitigate some of them. And the reason for that is that I think that this is probably the most important time in human history because it’s now quite possible that we will bring the history of humanity to an end through our negligence and that’s going to be bad for the people who are alive at that time obviously, and we have to take their interests into account, but much more significant is that it will prevent the existence of billions and billions of people in the future. At the moment they are just possible people, but I am inclined to think that the interests of possible people matter as much as the interests of actual people so I find it very sad that climate change seems to be so low on political agenda even now when we’ve got so much evidence about the damage its doing. So that’s the first I’d like to see change, and the second… would be greater work to alleviate global poverty. There is huge inequality in the world with billions of people on one side of the world wasting resources, destroying the planet, and billions of other people on the other side of the world who really don’t have enough to eat, it seems to me highly regrettable.

Since your time as one of the first male students at St. Anne’s, how do you think the college has changed?

When I came to St Anne’s in 1979 the college bar was in what is now the Bursary. It consisted of a couple of planks nailed across a corner with a kind of battered cardboard box under them and in the box was I think a bottle of sweet sherry, a bottle of advocaat and some other rather dubious drinks and a book where you had to sign for the drinks that you took, as you can imagine it wasn’t very well used. So that changed very quickly. The reason I mention that is that I think it exemplifies something that happened in St. Anne’s once men were admitted which is that people’s social life became centred in college in a way they hadn’t been before… But I think things have also remained the same... I think it should be a matter of pride at St Anne’s, if you do take the Norrington Table seriously, that we perform better on that table than any of the other ex-women’s colleges. When I arrived the college quite rightly had the reputation for friendliness and openness which I think it’s retained. So I would say the two things that characterised St. Anne’s when I arrived were friendliness and intellectual excellence and I find it lucky that that’s still the case. 

What is currently your greatest goal?

I feel my major goal at the present is this: I have two children who are 15 and 13 that I would say on the whole are happy so my aim is really to make sure that continues so that they become happy and well-adjusted adults. I guess a personal goal would be to complete a research project I’m about to start which is called ‘Taming the Beast’ in which I’m going to be looking at responses to the egoism of Thomas Hobbes and the British moral philosophical tradition and I really would like to finish a draft of that book by October 2017.

You attended St Anne's at a point of great change, what change (great or small) do you think would benefit the university today?

I think the challenge for Oxford is to retain its excellence particularly in undergraduate teaching but to modernise in various ways. For example, to centralise back-office functions in colleges and other operations within the University which are very inefficiently run at the moment because they are all done separately in individual colleges in different ways without losing academic autonomy and the sense of attachment which people have to their colleges. I think that’s a huge challenge which the Vice-Chancellor before our existing Vice-Chancellor struggled with and failed to deal with for political reasons. So I’ve got great hopes for our incoming Vice-Chancellor, Louise Richardson, that she might be able to take it a bit further forward.

How would you describe the dynamic of your year as the first co-educational year in 1979?

Yeah it was a bit tricky… many of the female students at college clearly hadn’t signed up to be members of a mixed college and I’m sure many of them had deliberately chosen St. Anne’s because it was single sex… To deal with some of the problems I suppose the college could have delayed it going co-ed, but they didn’t. They decided to do it in the following year and 40 men were admitted. And some of the [female students], particularly the finalists, made it clear that they thought this decision was a mistake and demonstrated a certain kind of resentment at our presence which struck me then as unjustified. I mean entirely understandable, but unjustified. So there were some tensions which emerged during JCR meetings and in various other ways and I think the effect of that was to make the men bond in a way that again was to some extent regrettable because it created something of a ‘us and them’ atmosphere in the college. But equally many of the women who were there were very welcoming to us. I remember the classicists in particular who I think were called mentors, we each had a mentor in the classics school and those people were extremely kind.

What advice would you give to your university age self?

I don’t really have many regrets. I think one piece of advice I would give myself is maybe to be bolder. I was interested in developing my own views on things but I think I, like many undergraduates, tended to think that what I had to do on any issue in philosophy or elsewhere was read all the literature, find out what the questions were and what the literature implied and then maybe tweak things a little bit in the light of that to form my own view. And I think it was only when I was a graduate student that I realised that one could, particularly in philosophy because its rather a priori…, step back from the stuff that’s out there and come up with a view, develop it… and then use the literature to inform that position rather than the other way round.

Playing music is an important part of your life now, does that interest come from your college days?

I was in several bands when I was an undergraduate, the least unsuccessful one was one called The Dream Factory with Patrick Gaul as lead singer, Dominic Ogden on drums, Dominic Emery on bass and I played guitar, and Peter Thorne on trumpet and I think we also had a saxophone player called Steve... We used to do a mixture of cover versions, we used to do a Monkees song and I think we did one or two soul songs like ‘Tears of a Clown’, and we also did some of our own songs. But it has to be said most of our performances were in St. Anne’s, we weren’t in wide demand. Though we did play once at May morning outside Univ in the street which was quite fun.