‘Ethics & Public Policy’ course in Fall ’18

For the Fall semester of 2018, I’m planning an upper level course here at the University of Kentucky in ‘Ethics and Public Policy,’ PHI 531, Section 1, which will run on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 3:30 – 4:45 pm. The course will begin with an examination of major moral traditions as well as ethical problems that are special challenges for leadership in the policy sphere. We will then survey a variety of policy areas and documents in which moral consideration is deeply important and needed.

The Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.

A stack of newspapers.Areas of interest and application for the course will include:

  • Educational Aims & Policies
  • Mass lncarceration
  • Healthcare Ethics
  • Economic Development Policies
  • Climate Change
  • Human Rights
  • Research Ethics
  • Animal Rights
Image of a flyer for the course, featuring the information described on the present page.

Flyer for the course.

My former students who have studied ethics and public policy with me have gone on to work in the White House, under both the present and previous administrations, the House of Representatives and the Senate, the State Department, the F.B.I., the Heritage Foundation, the Center for American Progress, and numerous think-tanks, as well as a variety of offices in state government. There is need for study of the kind addressed in this course also for countless advocacy groups and organizations, as well as in current events journalism.

For those interested, here is the University of Kentucky’s page with information about how to register for courses for the Fall of 2018.

For those interested in more information now, you can check out my books on ethics and public policy, including:

Cover for 'Morality, Leadership, and Public Policy.'


Morality, Leadership, & Public Policy (London: Bloomsbury, 2010)


Photo of the paperback and hardback editions of 'Democracy and Leadership.'Democracy and Leadership: On Pragmatism and Virtue (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2013)


Paperback editions featuring the cover of 'Uniting Mississippi.'Uniting Mississippi: Democracy and Leadership in the South (Jackson, MS: The University Press of Mississippi, 2015)


The logo for Philosophy Bakes Bread, which involves to slices of bread with tails, making them look like dialogue bubbles.In addition, for those who are unfamiliar, I co-host the Philosophy Bakes Bread radio show & podcast that airs on WRFL Lexington, 88.1 FM and in the show we cover a number of public policy topics. Give it a listen!

“Violence Taught When Corporal Punishment Used”

Originally published in The Clarion Ledger, May 14, 2013, 9A.

The harsh treatment of prisoners in the U.S. causes much controversy, yet in our public schools, institutionalized
violence is commonplace.

This image is shows part of the scan of my 2013 Clarion Ledger article, 'Violence Taught When Corporal Punishment Used.' If you click on this image, you'll be taken to the full scan on my Academia.edu page.

In April, the Hattiesburg American reported that corporal punishment declined in Mississippi schools between 2007 and 2012 from more than 58,000 reported instances to around 39,000.

Photo of the map Southern Echo created of Mississippi counties and their use of corporal punishment in the 2009-2010 and 2010-2011 school years.The use of corporal punishment varies greatly by school district. For the Lafayette County School District’s roughly 2,700 students, there were seven recorded cases of corporal punishment in the 2009-2010 school year and none the following year. By contrast, the Quitman County School District enrolls just under 1,300 students, yet recorded 1,594 instances of corporal punishment in the 2010-2011 academic year, which is only about 180 school days.

In the U.S., all 50 states permit corporal punishment in domestic settings. For public and private schools, however, only 19 states still practice it, while in Iowa and New Jersey it is illegal to perform in schools.

Iowa is a helpful state to use in comparison with Mississippi, since it is largely rural and has a comparable population size. Of course, Iowa has its problems, with seven schools districts named “dropout factories” in a 2007 Associated Press report. The same report called 44 of Mississippi’s schools “dropout factories.”

At best, corporal punishment in schools is not helping Mississippi. At worst, it is part of the problem.

A public domain photo of a courtroom.According to studies, most parents find spankings in the home to be acceptable. It is important to distinguish parenting from schooling, however, and to watch out for institutional excesses. The 1980 federal case Hall v. Tawney said that excess corporal punishment in schools could violate a student’s “right to ultimate bodily security, the most fundamental aspect of personal privacy, (which) is unmistakably established in our constitutional decisions as an attribute of the ordered liberty that is the concern of substantive due process.”

Not all spankings in schools might be called excessive, of course, yet cases reported on in the Hattiesburg American raise serious concern. In 2011, 14-year-old Trey Clayton of Independence High School was paddled so severely that he fainted, “fell face-first onto the concrete floor … (and) had five shattered teeth and a lacerated chin,” according to reporter Marquita Brown.

Beyond legal concerns and the tragically severe cases, there are strong reasons to end institutionalized corporal punishment.

Bust of Socrates.

Bust of Socrates, Plato’s teacher.

First, students are compelled to be in school, and with good reason. Democratic societies must educate citizens to be self-governing. Yet Plato and other philosophers believed correctly, I think, that learning cannot take hold by compulsion. Socrates argued that “nothing taught by force stays in the soul.”

Compulsory schooling can address Plato’s worry, however, by showing students the value of education. It is vital to create an environment in which education is welcoming and inviting. Corporal punishment has the reverse effect.

Second, corporal punishment teaches students that when confronted with a challenge, adults use violence rather than reason to achieve our ends. It solidifies “school-to-prison pipelines” that the Justice Department is combating.

In Mississippi, we know that culture matters and that many of our schools are struggling. Corporal punishment is only one element of a culture which discourages students. Ending the practice, however, would contribute meaningfully to the reconstruction of an encouraging and positive culture of achievement in education.

Eric Thomas Weber is assistant professor of public policy leadership at the University of Mississippi and author of three books, including Democracy and Leadership (2013). He is representing only his own views. Follow @EricTWeber on Twitter. Visit EricThomasWeber.org.

Philosophy Lies at the Heart of Mississippi Education Debate

Originally published in The Clarion Ledger, September 6, 2015, 2C

Click here for a full-sized Adobe PDF scan of the artile.

Click for a printable PDF scan.

Mississippians have been entangled in a deep philosophical debate about education funding for months, though attention has focused largely on technical details. Ballot initiative 42 that will be decided this November asks: “Should the state be required to provide for the support of an adequate and efficient system of free public schools?” If voters pass the initiative, they would be demanding an amendment to the state Constitution making that requirement explicit.

This is a photo of the top of the scan of my Clarion Ledger article, 'Philosophy at Heart of Mississippi Education Debate.' If you click on this image, it will open a full-size, printable Adobe PDF scan of the original piece in the paper.

People who want voters to choose “yes” explain that such a requirement should be enforceable in the courts. Without that, a parent would have no recourse when his or her child must attend a chronically underfunded and failing school.

In their involvement of the courts, the proponents of 42 have made a crucial move for taking Mississippians’ educational obligation seriously. As the Legislature has continually failed to fund education even to the level of basic adequacy, the proponents of 42 are right to demand a check on that negligence.

The Legislature proposed an alternate initiative, 42A, which asks: “Shall the Legislature be required to provide for the establishment and support of an effective system of free public schools?” On the surface, that sounds sensible, as it is the Legislature’s responsibility to allocate proper funding. If we obligate the state instead, however, then it makes sense that the courts would be able to protect citizens’ rights, forcing the state to fulfill its obligations. 42A omits reference to the courts and calls for an “effective system of free public schools upon such conditions and limitations as the Legislature may prescribe.”

The problem people have is with the Legislature. We have had budget surpluses and contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to a rainy day fund. Officials have additionally been proposing tax cuts. At the same time, the Legislature continues to severely underfund public education.

The critics of 42A are on to something when they point out that the Legislature already has the control that the alternate initiative has in mind.* 42A amounts to a rejection of the idea that the Legislature should be checked and held accountable in the courts when it fails to fully fund education. In that sense, it denies that the people of Mississippi have a real obligation to provide access to an adequate education for all our citizens.

Given the confusing technical details of the two proposals, it is vital that we consider seriously whether and why we have the obligation that 42 suggests. That philosophical question is crucial, since if we have such an obligation, it cannot be optional and contingent on the Legislature’s fluctuating will.

When the state has an obligation, citizens have corresponding rights. If we believe we have an obligation to provide access to an adequate education, we must give people a meaningful mechanism for recourse when the state fails to fulfill its obligation.

No one has seriously denied the idea implicit in initiative 42 — that the citizens of Mississippi should support and provide access to a free and adequate public education for all of our young people. We should consider the question for the sake of argument, however, because it illustrates why 42A falls short of meaningful reform. What reasons can we give to an imagined skeptic of our obligation to provide adequate, if not good or excellent, public education?

There are many reasons, but four stand out:

• Self-governance requires education. According to Thomas Jefferson, education is essential for democracy. It is necessary for wise governance, for peace, and for political legitimacy.

• Education for all is a requirement of equal citizenship. Mississippi has a troubled history. Today, reasonable and responsible officials rightly explain that those parts of our history are not what Mississippi values anymore. After James Craig Anderson was killed in a racially motivated murder in Jackson, U.S. Attorney John Downy argued that “the actions of these defendants who have pled guilty… do not represent the values of Mississippi in 2012.” I agree. At the same time, in the 44 Mississippi school districts that were labeled “dropout factories” in 2007, only a small portion of the students we were failing were white. Overwhelmingly those schools are made up student bodies 75-100 percent of which are minority kids.

• Inadequate education is one of the most powerful forms of oppression. Eighty percent of people incarcerated in the U.S. have not graduated from high school. As so many of our schools have been failing or at-risk of failing, we have been perpetuating the history that we say we want to leave behind. Republicans and Democrats from all over Mississippi are sick and tired of these impediments to the state’s progress. Educational failure is one of our most obstructive problems. To redress our history of injustice and our present challenges, we must stop accepting gross inadequacy that systematically holds our citizens back and reaps division, rather than unity.

• Expectations of responsibility depend upon personal development. In America and especially in Mississippi, we value personal responsibility. At the same time, we don’t demand rent from babies. We know that personal responsibility and self-respect are developed over time and through education. If we expect people to prize freedom and independence, we cannot assume that citizens are born as responsible adults. In youth, we are all dependent and in need of an education.

Education is both a necessity for democracy and a value in itself. If our government is intended to protect the pursuit of happiness, that protection must be extended to everyone. If we are obligated to ensure that all Mississippians are afforded at least an adequate education, furthermore, then we must provide the people with a mechanism for recourse when the state fails to fulfill its obligations. Rights and obligations are not optional, which is why we need the courts for their enforcement. That is also why 42 could lead to real progress in education and why we must choose it instead of more of the same failure.

Eric Thomas Weber is associate professor of Public Policy Leadership at the University of Mississippi and author of “Uniting Mississippi: Democracy and Leadership in the South” (Sept. 2015). He is representing only his own point of view. Follow him on Twitter @EricTWeber.

For a week or two, The Clarion Ledger will have the text version of the article on their Web site here.

* The original article included a next sentence here that was edited in such a way that did not capture what was intended. I have omitted the new version from the text here. You can still see it in the scan, however.

The European Parliament Focuses on Commons

The European Parliament is formally focusing on the commons paradigm through a new “Intergroup on common goods,” which is part of a larger group known as the "European Parliamentary Intergroup on Common Goods and Public Services."  The group met for the first time on May 26 in Brussels, at the European Parliament.  At this early stage, it’s hard to tell if it will be influential either within the European Parliament or with the public, but it certainly represents a significant new threshold for commons activism. 

Intergroups are official forums of the Parliament at which members, political organizations and movements can air their views and try to rally attention to a given topic. As Sophie Bloemen of the Commons Network writes:

Even though the intergroups have no legislative power, they can be valuable having such a representation in the European Parliament. At the minimum, it is a multiparty forum where one can exchange views and propose ideas on particular subjects in an informal way. Those who choose to work with such an intergroup, its Members of Parliament, and civil society or lobbyists, share the notion that a certain topic is important and can focus on how to get things done.

Now there will also be a Commons Intergroup. This particular group will allow for discussions on policy from a shared perspective: the idea that “the commons” – is an important and helpful way of framing the important themes of present times. As there can only be so many Intergroups, inevitably the group is the result of a political compromise. It has been formed by Members of the European Parliament from the Greens, the left group GUE, the large Social Democrat party (S&D) and the group EFDD which now includes Beppe Grillo with his Cinque Stelle party. The movement on water as a commons has been instrumental for the mobilization of the intergroup. 

For political reasons, the Commons Intergroup is one of two subgroups of the European Parliamentary intergroup on Common Goods and Public Services. MEP Marisa Matias from GUE is the president of the Commons Intergroup.

read more

How to Build a “Shareable City”

Shareable and the Sustainable Economies Law Center have released a fantastic new report surveying the ways in which cities can adopt policies to promote “sharing” in a range of areas -- food, housing, transportation and jobs.  The landmark report, “Policies for Shareable Cities:  A Sharing Economy Policy Primer for Urban Leaders,” pulls together “scores of innovative, high impact policies that US city governments have put in place to help citizens share resources, co-produce, and create their own jobs.” 

What exactly is a “sharing city”?  It’s one that encourages carsharing and bikesharing programs through specific policies, such as designating “pick-up spots” for ridesharing and altering local taxes to make carsharing more attractive.  A sharing city is one that encourages urban agriculture on vacant lots and allows homegrown vegetables to be sold in the neighborhood.  A shareable city supports innovations like shared workspaces, shared commercial kitchens, community-financed start-ups, community-owned commercial centers, and spaces for “pop-up” businesses.  It also encourages home-based micro-enterprises by lowering permitting barriers.

What’s impressive about this 40-page report is that it provides a practical action plan that any city could pick up and implement immediately.  Yes, there are larger federal and state policies that could help make cities more shareable and liveable, but it is a misconception that only such big, bold policy reforms will work.  Municipalities can take a wide number of modest steps right now that, by supporting the "micro-dynamics" of social life, can have enormous macro-impacts on the affordability, social fabric and quality of life of a city.  As a report focused on American cities, it’s unclear to me how far the policy recommendations may apply to non-American cities....but I suspect that many of the ideas could work abroad.  

The report’s introduction explains the rationale behind the shareable city:

The sharing economy challenges core assumptions made in the 20th century planning and regulatory frameworks – namely, that residential, commercial, industrial and agricultural activities should be physically separated from one another, and that each single family household operates as an independent economic unit.  The sharing economy brings people and their work back together through sharing, gifting, bartering, and peer-to-peer buying and selling.  City governments can increasingly step into the role of facilitators of the sharing economy by designing infrastructure, services, incentives and regulations that factor in the social exchanges of this game-changing movement. 

read more