Public Humanities Project Explores Contemporary Issues Through Philosophic Theories

Anda brings Ethical Decision Making course to incarcerated youth

Ashli Anda (Philosophy), the 2023–24 Mellon Pre-Doctoral Fellow in Public Humanities, writes about her fellowship project, what drew her to this work, and what “public humanities” means to her.

What motivated you to apply for the fellowship?

The description for the HRI-Mellon Pre-Doctoral Fellowship in Public Humanities stood out to me because it blended my academic and personal commitments to interdisciplinarity, collaborative knowledge-building, and creating community connections. Even though the call for applicants read like my work would be a great fit, I was hesitant to apply for this fellowship largely because I was unfamiliar with “public humanities” research, so I went to the fellowship information session that HRI hosted. At that session, I was able to ask questions and get feedback on how different projects could satisfy the terms of the fellowship and meaningfully push my research forward. For other graduate students who are interested in applying for fellowships with HRI, I strongly recommend getting to know the people at HRI, attending programming at HRI, and attending information sessions for their fellowships.

Please describe your research. What is unique about your topic? What drives your interest in it?

My dissertation offers a nonideal Kantian theory of punishment that provides an experiential account of legal subjects and a social critical framework for understanding the institutional structures that result in over punishment and mass incarceration. By expanding upon Kant’s theory of human nature, we can view legal subjects as more than just rule followers or breakers. Instead, legal subjects are vulnerable human beings prone to physical, emotional, and social injury—vulnerability which is exacerbated just in virtue of being subject to a criminal law with a history of trivializing and perpetuating gendered and racialized harm.

Many appealing and persuasive interpretations of Kant’s writings on punishment focus on retributivism and the state’s authority to punish but I noticed that human beings and vulnerability were largely missing in those conversations. To be clear, I don’t think Kant or Kantians have been overlooking the obvious fact that human beings are subject to criminal law. Instead, I think being explicit about that fact prompts us to consider how and whether we can reconcile human interests and lives with current modes of punishment. Along these same lines, I think it is important to shed light on the targeted aspect of mass incarceration. Targeted mass incarceration tells us that some human beings are being treated differently than others and a Kantian theory of punishment must have something to say about how the criminal law, supposedly a justice-seeking institution, can justify such unequal treatment.

What’s unique about how my work approaches the topic of legal punishment in Kantian theorizing is that it is concerned both with theoretical systematicity and addressing injustices related to how we punish wrongdoers. The usefulness of bridging legal and political theories in the history of philosophy with contemporary, real-world issues is that we can track changing social-political values and patterns of injustice to better appreciate how time and place contextualize punishment practices.

“My research is highly personal because I love people who have done wrong, and I love people who have been wronged. I’ve experienced the difficulties of accessing the law for help and I’ve witnessed the deep and wide impact of being subject to and punished by the criminal law. My general interest in philosophy is how it can help us make sense of our lives and that same interest drove my dissertation research.”

Tell us about your community-facing project for this fellowship. 

My community-facing project for this fellowship was to develop an “Ethical Decision Making” course to teach at the Champaign County Juvenile Detention Center (JDC). I wanted to build a course that would allow me to draw on my prior experience teaching in prisons and my training in ethics to facilitate interesting and relevant conversations about decision making. When I was a child, discussions about decision making were almost entirely framed in terms of obedience which resulted in a pretty shallow understanding that there are good decisions and bad ones, and I had to make the good ones to avoid getting in trouble with my mom, the law, and God. I didn’t feel like I knew how to make good decisions. What sorts of considerations was I supposed to make? How would I weigh my options? What counts as a “good” decision and why?

The course I developed is designed to give students multiple and varying answers to these questions by drawing on moral philosophy, game theory, and our personal experiences. When philosophers teach introductory ethics, it is common to cover the moral philosophies of thinkers like Aristotle (virtue ethics), Immanuel Kant (deontological ethics), and John Stuart Mill (consequentialism). In “Ethical Decision Making,” we study the basics of virtue ethics, deontological ethics, consequentialism, and game theory to have frameworks for thinking through the roles we occupy and how we carry those roles out well. Many of my students report that it is very important to them to be loyal friends, protective siblings, dutiful children, and loving, reliable parents. In our class, we critically question those roles and survey the values and strategies we can appeal to as we face the corresponding responsibilities. When it comes to friendship, for example, we discuss care and reciprocity, and we ask what loyalty is and try to figure out when we owe someone loyalty.

Most recently, I’ve been fortunate to co-teach this course with Katha Patel, a pre-law undergraduate student here at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. I always intended to bring more people into the JDC with me and I knew Katha would be a great fit after reading her article in Smile Politely, “The Revolving Door of Incarceration: A Crisis for Our Youth.” There she draws attention to youth recidivism rates in Champaign County and encourages community members to rethink the needs of our incarcerated youth and their families. Katha and I will continue to offer “Ethical Decision Making” throughout the summer before handing over the class to our campus’s “Minorities and Philosophy” chapter, founded and organized by graduate students in philosophy and education.

In addition to doing a deep dive into decision making with them, I wanted to be a source of encouragement and support for the kids at JDC. I wanted to show them that they have community members who care about and believe in them. It was important to me to offer a practical benefit for the kids in my class, so I offer them letters of support and letters of recommendation which they often need for court or job searches. If you are a community member with some time to spare and some care to give, consider volunteering at the JDC as a tutor or to share one of your hobbies with the kids.

How has this fellowship impacted the way you approach your research?

“Through this fellowship, I’ve been so fortunate to have the support of HRI Director Antoinette Burton and my faculty mentor Shelley Weinberg. They have helped me troubleshoot practical teaching issues, shared in my care and concern for the students, and validated that there is room in the academy for work like mine and people like me.”

This fellowship changed the way I approach my research because now I am confidently pursuing a research program which looks unlike much of the philosophy I was trained to do but is clearly needed to build stronger and more inclusive community relationships both on and off campus.