What are the ethical implications of purchasing R. Kelly CDs or concert tickets when the singer-songwriter has been accused of sexual abuse? If you see a trolley speeding down the track, should you pull the switch to divert the trolley from running over five people lying on the main track, but thereby cause the trolley to run over one person on the side track?

Dr. Jessica Flanigan, associate professor of leadership studies and philosophy, politics, economics, and law (PPEL) asks students to consider these types of ethical dilemmas.

“I want to get students more involved in ethics, to have it become a part of their everyday life,” the University’s inaugural ethics fellow said. “University of Richmond has an exceptionally strong focus on ethics research for an institution its size. Ethicists work across disciplines at the Jepson School of Leadership Studies, the PPEL Program, the Philosophy Department, and the Political Science Department.”

When Flanigan joined the Jepson School faculty in 2012, she was eager to harness that strength. In 2015, she created the University’s Political Philosophy Faculty Learning Community, now known as the Ethics Working Group. The cross-campus group hosts guest speakers to discuss research and developments in the field of ethics.

Since becoming the University’s ethics fellow in August 2018, Flanigan has been hosting, participating in, and otherwise supporting conversations among faculty, students, and staff about ethical issues.
“I’ve given guest lectures on Aristotle and the good life for the Philosophy Department, the ethics of Adderall for the Psychology Department, and sweatshops as well as charisma and authenticity in leadership for the Jepson School,” she said.

Flanigan exposes students to ethical discussions outside the classroom as well. As the college fellow for first-year residence hall Lora Robins Court, she facilitated a discussion of the previously mentioned trolley problem (a popular thought experiment in ethics) and a debate about ethical decision making in a world where perceived reality is actually computer simulation.

Next, she plans to host a pop-up “Ask-a-Philosopher” booth in Lora Robins Court, where residents can drop by to discuss ethical questions with her.

Since 2013, Flanigan has coached the Jepson School’s Ethics Bowl team, comprising four students who compete in the annual Southeast Regional Intercollegiate Ethics Bowl. This year, team members debated a wide range of issues, including kosher slaughter laws, restoration of felons’ voting rights, offshore money laundering, and trans-racial identity.

“From working with Dr. Flanigan, I have learned the importance of considering counterarguments, how to prepare to refute objections, and how to boil my thoughts down to concise, clear, and easily digestible language,” said team member Holly McNaughton, ’19. “My participation in the Ethics Bowl has been one of the best parts of my Jepson experience. It made me more confident in my ability to engage in thoughtful, intellectual discourse.”

Team member Eliana Fleischer, ’20, concurred. “By teaching me to articulate both sides of a dilemma, Dr. Flanigan strengthened my process for arriving at ethical conclusions. I now enjoy bringing ethical questions into discussions I have in classes and with my friends.”

Other students, such as Jenny Crowell, ’19, have undertaken independent studies with Flanigan. Crowell, a student-athlete, is applying an ethical lens to her research on the effects of sports-related brain injuries.

Noting the centrality of ethics to a Jepson School education, Flanigan continues to look for more ways to connect students to ethics.

“I’m planning a workshop for faculty who are interested in incorporating philosophy as a way of life into their pedagogy,” she said. “Through their teaching, faculty could engage students in thinking about living an ethical life.”