Dr. Jami L Anderson is currently an Associate Professor in the Philosophy Department at University of Michigan-Flint. She primarily teaches courses in neuro- and medical ethics, disability studies, philosophy of medicine and philosophy of law. She is also the co-director of the Center for Cognition and Neuroethics.
Early in my career, I used Georg Hegel’s theory of right as a framework with which to address the problem of justifying state punishment in cases when individuals suffered extreme poverty and social alienation. Not surprisingly, my early publications directly addressed various problems within the literature that addresses Hegel’s theory of state punishment. However, a few years ago I developed a disability studies course and, not too surprisingly perhaps, my research interests moved into a new direction. I focused my attention on projects that examined social and legal policies that relied on problematic assumptions about disability identity.
I am currently completing a paper that addresses the question of whether or not learning impaired adults, in particular those with language impairments such as those experienced by some autistics, are capable of consenting (in the ethical as well as the legal sense) to sexual acts with other adults. This issue is particularly fraught and Disability Rights Activists find themselves divided. Some argue that respect for individuals means respecting their choices, including their choices to undertake sexual relationships (or, perhaps, engage in sexual acts) with others regardless of their level of ability. Further, since the enjoyment of sexual relationships with others is one of the most fundamental pleasures of adult human life, to deny (forbid, criminalize, socially punish) sex acts of these impaired individuals is simply to fail to treat them as fully valuable humans. On the other hand, other Disability Rights Activists argue that some impairments render autonomous consent impossible, therefore all sexual events involving such individuals must be, by definition, exploitative and oppressive, and therefore ought to be criminalized. The implication of this second position is that (pace currently existing constitutional law), cognitively or learning impaired adults should not be legally permitted to marry (since the assumption of the law is that married persons can legally engage in sexual acts). I am particularly interested in critically analyzing the assumptions supporting the claim that linguistically communicated autonomous consent is the standard by which to measure the moral permissibility of sexual acts between adults. Is our society respecting the rights and dignity of individuals who are impaired if we prohibit all sexual acts with such individuals? Or, are we simply rationalizing our disapproval of such sexual acts?
A larger project I am working on is a monograph Canaries in a Coal Mine: Personal Ethics, Social Justice and Autism. This book, which is an outgrowth of research initiated while working on a co-edited book, The Philosophy of Autism published in 2012, analyzes several complicated ethical questions raised by how our society is currently responding to the social phenomenon of autism. Very often parents of very young children diagnosed as AS are told that, unless they undertake years of an expensive and exhausting therapy regime, their child is very likely to live out their days miserable in an expensive and (it is usually implied) abusive institution. Not too surprisingly, the majority of parents find raising an autistic child to be terribly stressful. The solution to this parental misery, we are told, is to seek a cure for autism, spending billions of dollars every year doing so. I believe that this so-called solution is terribly misguided: not only is such a cure unlikely, given the amorphous and ever-evolving definition of autism, but the problematic social structures that create the largest obstacles for autistic children remain unaddressed. Perhaps worst of all, the culture of autism perpetuates the idea that autistic children are utterly “Other” and so it is assumed uncritically that balancing their needs and interests alongside non-autistic individuals’ needs and interests is impossible. Contrariwise, I believe that accommodations that benefit autistic individuals also work to the benefit of non-autistics.
About three years ago, I began working with neurosurgeon Dr. Jawad Shah, M.D. (president of Insight Institute of Neurosurgery and Neuroscience) to found a research center, the Center for Cognition and Neuroethics (CCN http://www.cognethic.org/). Since our first conversation, CCN has blossomed. CCN provides opportunities for research collaborations, not only among faculty and students on this campus, but with anyone in the world who is interested in the working with other scholars and clinicians addressing issues concerning cognition and neuroethics. The one project I am particularly excited about is our newly launched Rethinking Autism Summer Seminar: Mirror Neurons, Empathy and Autism . This seminar will bring scholars from around the world and across disciplines to work with faculty instructor Dr. Gregory Hickock, professor of cognitive sciences from University of California-Irvine, critically analyzing recent research on mirror neurons which has been used to explain autism.