10 Questions for Amy McKiernan, Assistant Professor of Philosophy

Amy McKiernan

Photo by Carl Socolow '77.

by Alexander Bossakov ’20

1.  What interests you about the combination of ethics and civic engagement?

Dickinson’s focus on civic engagement challenges our community to take seriously our obligations in local and global contexts. Ethics can guide this work, making it clear why we have obligations and how we should make decisions on the basis of these obligations. Without ethics, the reasons why we should participate in civic engagement are not explicit.

2.  You’re currently leading a campuswide effort to help faculty members incorporate ethics into their syllabi. Tell me more about that.

We created an Ethics Across the Curriculum summer study group for faculty members interested in building ethical reasoning into their courses. This new study group is part of the broader civic learning and community engagement initiative supported by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. This May, 12 faculty members from nine departments participated in the study group. We plan to offer this study group annually for interested faculty.

3.  What are some the most interesting or difficult conversations you’re having with students in or outside class?

We’ve been talking about the importance of critical thinking and active listening, especially during disagreements. I had a recent conversation with students about responsibility and ignorance. We asked, “Are we responsible for our ignorance? Are we ever responsible for harm even if we did not intend to cause harm?” This included an excellent discussion of privilege and power in our communities.

4.   What are some of the practical applications of the philosophy of blame and punishment that you study?

Blame plays a role in our interpersonal and institutional practices. I’m interested in the role that blame plays in reinforcing social norms and the differences between morally valuable and harmful blaming practices, especially as this relates to self-blame and victim-blaming.

5.  How is an undergraduate institution suited for ethics-driven discourse? 

A focus on ethics encourages discourse on how we make meaning and why we value what we value. This is relevant to students making decisions about future vocations, interpersonal relationships and who they want to become.

6.  What is something you learned from participating in a reading group on philosophy and social justice with death row inmates at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution? 

I learned the importance of reciprocal education and community healing. I also learned to think about mass incarceration in the U.S. as more than what happens inside of prisons. Challenging mass incarceration in the U.S. requires us to think about a constellation of moral issues, including racism, racial profiling and surveillance, trauma, implicit bias, the school-to-prison pipeline and voter disenfranchisement, to name a few.

7.  How do your critical prison studies complement your study of feminist philosophy?

Before engaging with people who are incarcerated, I had not considered the fact that the same person might be both a “victim” and a “perpetrator.” The combination of feminist philosophy and critical prison studies has challenged me to think about categories that I previously took for granted. 

8.  How can empathy make us better scholars? Can reason and emotion go hand in hand in academics, or are they at odds with each other?

Reason and emotion both have important work to do in academia. Expressions of emotions like joy, gratitude, disappointment and anger may make it clear that we care. We also learn about ourselves when we experience strong emotional reactions. As for empathy and scholarship, empathy encourages us to consider diverse perspectives when engaging in teaching, research and service. I do not think that empathy is about assuming that we can know what it means to “live in someone else’s shoes.” Instead, empathy reminds us that we are vulnerable and interdependent members of a shared world.

9.  What is your most memorable moment at Dickinson so far?

Seeing hundreds of students sitting outside on a bright day in August during Orientation discussing ethical thought experiments (like the trolley problem) and talking with each other about ethical issues that they might face as new college students.

10. What are your plans for the future? What do you hope to accomplish in the next year?  

I’m so excited to continue working on the Ethics Across the Curriculum Initiative. Over the next five years, it will be possible for more than 50 faculty members to participate in the summer study group, and all students will have participated in sessions on ethical reasoning during Orientation. Short term, we are designing sessions on empathy and compassion to include alongside the ethical reasoning session at Orientation this summer.

Read more from the summer 2018 issue of Dickinson Magazine.


Published August 3, 2018