Meet Professor Vida Panitch, a faculty member in our Department and Director of the Ethics and Public Affairs (EPAF) PhD Program here at Carleton University.  

Professor Panitch researches markets, universal basic income, exploitation, commodification, inequality, and other adjacent topics. Last winter, she took over as Director of EPAF, an affiliate program of the Department of Philosophy, so we thought this would be a great moment to chat with her about her research, EPAF, and its future directions.     

Thank you for taking the time to talk with us, Professor Panitch! You’ve contributed significantly to our philosophical community at Carleton over the years. You’ve recently taken over as Director of Carleton’s EPAF program, a role previously held by program founder Professor Jay Drydyk. We understand that this program aims to unite the tools of philosophy with policy issues. How do you see the relationship between the two? How can philosophy, and philosophers, inform public decision-making? 

Prof. Vida Panitch: Thank you so much for inviting me to be a part of this terrific spotlight initiative. I am delighted to be answering these questions in my new capacity as the Director of the PhD Program in Ethics and Public Affairs here at Carleton. The program is unique in offering students the opportunity to apply their skills in ethical reasoning to practical problems of public concern, under the co-supervision of both a philosopher and a social scientist. There are many complex social issues that confound legislators and policy-makers; arguments come at them from all sides, sometimes badly made, sometimes grounded in private interests, and often all in conflict to such a degree that solutions seem intractable. The EPAF program encourages our students to engage in public reason analysis to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of both theoretical and empirical arguments for and against specific policies, so that they might propose a new way forward on a complex social issue.  

In addition to your teaching and impressive track record of scholarly publications, you’ve done podcast interviews about your work, you regularly give interviews and write in newspapers, just to scratch the surface of your involvement in public philosophy. Could you tell us a bit about what motivates you to share your work so broadly?  

VP: When our research project touches on issues of public concern it seems to me that we would only be completing half the task of that project if we were to keep our findings to ourselves, or to share them solely with other academics. When the problems that seem most live to us as ethicists and political philosophers are ones that deeply affect the lives of citizens and pertain to the legitimacy of the institutions through which citizens interact with one another and the state, then bringing our proposals to the public forum is as important a task as that of producing novel and compelling arguments for others in our field. And public knowledge transfer should be undertaken in accessible and intelligible ways and through various mediums, if the hope is to engage with and even contribute to meaningful social change. Also, it’s fun!! I love talking about the ethical issues that motivate me with anyone and everyone who shares these interests. And as much as we may have to contribute to public debates as ethicists and political philosophers we have even more to learn from the empirical findings and lived experiences of others.  

The origins of EPAF are fairly recent, having celebrated its first graduating Ph.D. class last year. What are some of the topics your students have chosen to work on? Where are some of your graduates now? 

VP: Our students have worked on some fascinating and important topics. One of our recent graduates looked at the extent to which conditional cash transfer programs in the developing world contribute to (rather than disrupt) patterns of gender exploitation. Another graduate’s work examined privacy issues pertaining to genetic information, specifically as it applies to medical insurance. And yet another looked at Canada’s truth and reconciliation process from the perspective of relational justice. Our graduates now hold positions in the federal government, Canadian academia, and the private sector.  

The role of Director of EPAF seems perfectly suited to your background and expertise. Are there any links between your research and the EPAF program, specifically its initiatives and its future, that you would like to tell us about? 

VP: I do believe that the philosopher who is moved by questions of ethics and justice should seek to engage with as many stakeholders as possible in the production of their research findings, and to make sure these findings contribute to public discourse. So yes, I think that the work I do, and the mandate of the EPAF program, are strongly aligned. I am excited by the breadth and impact of the research being done by our many affiliated faculty members from across many fields at Carleton and beyond, and by each new class of incoming students. I see this community growing each year and growing stronger and more impactful together.  

And given these links, what is the main research project you are particularly excited about at the moment? 

VP: My main area of study is political philosophy, distributive justice, and the boundaries of markets. I am particularly interested in markets in public goods, including health care and education, and physical goods, including body parts and intimate services, and the extent to which theories of exploitation, commodification, and inequality can help us determine their permissible regulation.  I am perplexed by the question of whether some markets are problematic because certain goods are fundamentally wrong to buy and sell (and which ones), or whether they are wrong because vulnerability produces market transactions that wouldn’t otherwise occur, in which case we should be focused on the redistribution of wealth rather than outright bans on the sale of specific goods.  I am currently co-editing the Routledge Handbook of Commodification, which draws together original, wide-ranging, and interdisciplinary research around this very question for the first time, and in so doing seeks to establish commodification studies as a multi-disciplinary field of research unto itself. 

Last year you were awarded a competitive SSHRC Explore Research Development Grant to support a project on “Basic Income, Philosophy, and Public Policy.” Congratulations! Could you please describe some of the goals you have for this project? 

VP: What fascinates me about the idea of a basic income, from both a philosophical and policy perspective, is how many different arguments exist in its favour, and its disfavour. Not to mention what unlikely allies, and enemies, the idea has garnered. I am convinced by the progressiveness of a policy move towards unconditional cash benefits on which a life can firmly rest, and I am certain that many of the markets we currently have reason to worry about due to their exploitative potential would become less troubling against the backdrop of a decent and consistent social minimum. But I am skeptical that the grant would be high enough to achieve these laudable aims and I worry that it might come to replace rather than round out many of the in-kind social services on which so many of us rely.  

My current SSHRC project explores health-based arguments for basic income, which have yet to find voice in public discourse despite the mounting evidence of positive health outcomes (and decreased health care costs) associated with a basic income. This grant has enabled me, with two international collaborators, to propose and successfully be awarded a fellowship from the Brocher Foundation to host an international workshop called The Health Dividend: Can a Basic Income Address Health Inequities? The workshop will take place at the foundation’s home on Lake Geneva in spring 2023. I also hope to start a research hub based in EPAF for students and researchers engaged in projects that explore the potential risks and rewards of a basic income in Canada. 

Interesting. Let’s go back in time a bit. Before ultimately deciding to enroll in the PhD program in philosophy at the University of Toronto, you likely considered applying to a variety of potential schools and programs. What aspects of Carleton’s EPAF program would have been attractive to you as a prospective PhD student? 

VP: What a great question! I knew I was passionate about the topic of inequality, as a concrete social ill, and as a complex philosophical concept.  But when I was considering PhD programs, I was mostly doing so with the impression that a PhD would offer a clear and untroubled path to an academic job while giving me the chance to engage with the philosophical materials and puzzles that excited me. It didn’t really occur to me at the time that I could connect my drive for intellectual puzzle solving to the social change I wanted to see in the world. If I’d known about a program that would have allowed me to look at questions of inequality both as an intellectual puzzle and as a problem of social injustice with respect to which I could offer concrete solutions, I would absolutely have applied. I also would have been very excited by the EPAF practicum (doing philosophy in the real world, for credit, sign me up!). And I would have been even more keen on the program’s objective to prepare students simultaneously for a career in academia and the public sector.  

Thank you for answering our questions, Professor Panitch. We have certainly learned a lot about you and the EPAF program. As we close this interview, do you have any final thoughts to add? Or anything further you wish to say about your work or EPAF? 

VP: I just want to add how incredibly impressed I am by the work of our past and current students. The EPAF program is so fortunate to have drawn such creative, driven, engaged and engaging scholars who are passionate about justice and an absolute delight to work with. It is an honour as Director to be part of their intellectual and professional journeys.  

Thanks Professor Panitch for answering our questions. You can find more about Prof. Vida Panitch and her research at her page on our website, her Twitter, and her PhilPeople page. You can find out more about the EPAF program at the program’s website, its Facebook page, and its Twitter. Keep an eye out for our next Spotlight coming December 2022! 

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