What is the Moral of the Story?
Teaching Philosophy Inside and Outside the Classroom
Throughout the past year, COVID-19 caused a global pandemic, included countries addressing issues like shutdowns and distribution of vaccines. But, while the response to the pandemic requires science, it also requires ethical judgement, according to Justin Bernstein, Ph.D., a new assistant professor in the Dorothy F. Schmidt College of Arts and Letters.
This is where Bernstein’s research comes in, he said. His first area addresses questions in ethics and political philosophy, while the second focuses on topics in bioethics, such as how governments, medical practitioners and ordinary citizens ought to respond to collective action problems relating to health — or a global pandemic.
His interest in political philosophy began as an undergraduate at Vassar College in New York. “I was impressed by how easily my professors could think in certain ways — how they could reconstruct complicated arguments from texts that were unclear to me. Moreover, they seemed to do all of this effortlessly,” he said.
While earning a doctorate degree from the University of Pennsylvania, he developed an interest in teaching, and was awarded the Penn Prize in Excellence in Teaching and the Penn Center for Teaching and Learning Graduate Fellowship. “Having my passion and devotion acknowledged through teaching awards while studying philosophy as a graduate student felt very validating,” said Bernstein, adding that he has one goal as an educator: to help people see familiar problems in a new, productive light, whether they are his students or the general public.
Before arriving at FAU, Bernstein was a postdoctoral research fellow at The Berman Institute of Bioethics at Johns Hopkins University.
He also recently became a member of FAU’s Center for the Future Mind. “The center will be an excellent resource for thinking about ethical issues concerning artificial intelligence,” he said. “At the center, I will lead the technology, health and human flourishing initiative. This initiative includes projects concerning the ethics of infectious disease and the ethics of the global food system.”
Here is more about Bernstein’s research and future goals:
Q: What’s your research focus?
A. My work on moral and political philosophy focuses on developing theories on what renders states, government institutions, and actions by government officials politically just or legitimate. I find this topic interesting because the government has such a profound role in shaping our lives, but there are deep and abiding moral disagreements about what that role should be. My work in bioethics looks at a more specific version of these questions. I address what makes various policies aimed at promoting public health just or legitimate.
Q. Do you have any advice for becoming a researcher in your field?
A. I’d say read outside of your discipline and look for ways in which your theoretical work can help solve real-world problems. I think this is generic advice for lots of fields in the humanities, but it’s still worth emphasizing. Relatedly, always think about how to explain to non-experts why your research matters. My impression is that people value scholars who are able to seamlessly move between abstract, niche academic debates and accessible work that interests a broader audience. Finally, focus on problems where you strongly disagree with most of the published work—for me, at least, that’s an indicator that I might have something new and interesting to say.
Q. What’s an accomplishment you are proud of?
A. In 2018, I convinced Ezekiel Emanuel, an American oncologist and bioethicist, that the flu vaccine should be mandatory. Then together we co-authored an op-ed piece defending that view in the New York Times. I also co-authored the entry in the entry "Public Health Ethics," in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, with Ruth Faden, founder of the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics, and Sirine Shebaya, an immigrants' rights activist and civil rights lawyer.
Publishing these articles is important to me because of their potential to reach a much broader audience than an average article in a philosophy journal. Additionally, the encyclopedia entry will hopefully have a significant impact on how public health ethicists think about their work now and in the future.
Q: What are your greatest goals and ambitions you set for yourself?
A. Getting up before 9 a.m. two days in a row. I’m a night owl and it’s always a struggle to get up early.
Most of my work on political legitimacy focuses on ‘macro’ questions, about what makes ‘the State’ just or legitimate. My work is meant to be useful at the ‘micro’ level—what makes particular actions by political officials just or legitimate. I’d really like for my work to reorient philosophical discussions towards these micro questions.
I’d also like some of my work on ethical issues concerning infectious disease to inform public discourse about the pandemic, as well as the government’s response.