Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Philosopher Spotlight: Jess Flanigan

Thanks to Jess Flanigan for contributing this guest post, sharing her interesting and provocative work, as part of my ongoing "philosopher spotlight" series.  Enjoy!

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My published research falls into three categories. I am interested in rights and their enforceability, public health policy, and economic justice issues. In this post I’ll say a bit about my research, hopefully in a way that explains how these topics are all related. Then I’ll talk a bit about the things I’m working on lately. Instead of listing the titles of each paper, each link will just say what the paper is about. If you’re interested in that argument you can click through to see where it’s published.

First, let’s talk about rights and enforceability. A lot of my work is motivated by the conviction that just because something is bad doesn’t mean there should be a law against it. I wish that this were more widely appreciated. For example, it’s bad for people to fail to help those in need, but it doesn’t follow from that fact that duties of rescue are enforceable—they aren’t. Assistance isn’t enforceable because people aren’t liable to be interfered with just because they’re well-placed to help. On the flip side, there are lots of rights that people don’t think are enforceable but they are (e.g., gun rights or economic freedom). I argue that all liberty is basic because the same considerations that liberal egalitarians cite in support of upholding the classic list of basic liberties are also considerations in favor of protecting people from governmental interference more generally. Property rights are tricky though. On one hand, ownership is vague. That’s ok! The fact that the boundaries of a right are indeterminate doesn’t mean that the right isn’t real. On the other hand, I do think capitalism requires compensation for the rights violations involved in enforcing existing property conventions.

Second, I’ve also written a lot about public health and health policy. I think public health scholars are too paternalistic, and that discussions of health care ethics often overlook the fact that people may reasonably make different tradeoffs than health officials would. This is part of the reason that public health officials are unreliable and their policies often backfire. Not everyone values health and wellbeing, and public officials should respect that. This is why privatization is presumptively better than the public provision of services and medical market are good—because markets are often more capable of advancing patients’ values. I also argue that a person’s capacity for wellbeing doesn’t determine moral status and officials should generally focus less on promoting wellbeing than they currently do. More generally, paternalistic public health coercion is bad even if it does promote wellbeing. And it’s bad even if taxpayers pay for other people’s healthcare because public healthcare doesn’t justify paternalism.

That’s part of the reason that I wrote a book arguing that officials should respect rights of self-medication, because medicine shouldn’t need permission slips. Patients’ voices shouldn’t be overlooked when it comes to pharmaceutical policy. And while we’re at it let’s pay drug war victims to compensate them for the harms they’ve suffered as a result of these policies. Pharmaceutical paternalism not only because violates rights, it also can backfire since patients are better at judging if a choice is in their interests. This point applies in other cases too. For example, challenge trials should be permitted for this reason. And in some cases, patients are so knowledgeable that patients can help develop drugs alongside researchers.

In other words, public health officials and physicians may be experts about health but each patient is an expert on her life as a whole. This is why I also defend the normalization of prescribing neuroenhancement drugs for kids (sometimes) on the grounds that we shouldn’t think of pharmaceutical choices as only weighing health risks—other values matter too. For this reason, even if a policy promotes health and wellbeing on balance, it can still be wrong. Tobacco policy is too restrictive because even if marketing restrictions and smoking bans did promote health on balance, they violate speech rights and property rights and they don’t let people weigh the risks of tobacco exposure for themselves. The case against seatbelt mandates takes a similar form—even if seatbelts save lives, it should be legal to ride unbelted.

Nowadays, people may wonder how this applies in cases where a person’s medical choice could be harmful to others. For example, do people’s bodily rights include rights against contagious transmission of disease? I think that people can have enforceable rights against contagious transmission (seriously people, get vaccinated) but also that enforcing policies that criminalize contagious transmission are risky. For example, I suspect HIV criminalization would backfire in most cases and so it isn’t worth the moral risk of enforcement.

Pregnancy is another case where people’s bodily rights could potentially expose others to harm. I’m currently writing a book about pregnancy ethics. Earlier, I argued that moms have rights during childbirth even if their decisions endanger their children or their own lives. I also wrote a paper arguing that prenatal injury shouldn’t be punished and fetal personhood protections violate women’s bodily rights.

The third area of my research extends this “my body my choice” commitment to the economic realm (we might say, my body, my economic choice) For example, I’ve argued that people have strong rights to choose their intimate partner and rights to choose the terms and conditions of their labor. That’s why public officials should treat sex workers like workers in other industries and why courts should uphold all contracts even if they seem particularly objectionable. Officials also shouldn’t regulate wages or working hours because people choose sweatshop jobs and officials should respect that choice. This is also why officials shouldn’t require employers to pay for healthcare (ACA: kinda bad for workers!)

Relatedly, I’ve also written a bit about the ethics of business and political leadership. I think leadership ethics needs philosophy but there’s been surprisingly little engagement between the two disciplines. I’ve argued that we should beware of charismatic leaders especially because many leaders are terrible people. So while authentic leaders are morally better than leaders who lie and mislead people, it’s often hard to tell.

As for my next steps, in addition to the book about the ethics of pregnancy, I’ve also been thinking more about philosophical methodology lately. I recently wrote a review essay arguing that, Rawlsianism can mean anything because Rawls’s framework has so many moving parts it’s easy to interpret it in a way that is favorable to people’s preexisting judgments. Related to this project, I’ve written a bit lately about philosophy as a form of model-building, and I recently presented a paper exploring the distinctive methodological significance of Biblical parables. And finally, I’m very interested in the ethics of social norms and I have a few works in progress on this topic. For example, I’ve been writing a bit about the ethics of privately regulating speech, the ethics of conceptual engineering, the ethics of norms of spelling and grammar, and the ethics of asking people to reveal their identities or personal histories in public spaces. If any of this is of interest to readers feel free to email me! I’d love to hear what other people have to say about these topics.

- Jess Flanigan


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