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Center for Practical & Professional Ethics Sacramento State University

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16th Annual Fall Ethics Symposium: Ethics and the City

(a co-production of Cosumnes River College and Sac State's Ethics Center)

Cities are underrated engines of well-being. But in many ways their performance is handicapped by policy affected by ignorance, inertia, racism, and other forms of inequity. Can the creative and cooperative forces driving cities continue to outpace the effects of such policies? What sort of policies effectively rectify the handicapping forces and encourage the creative forces? Speakers will take up these and related questions from different disciplinary and ideological perspectives.


Ryan Muldoon, Philosophy, Buffalo. Cities and the Possibility of Inclusive Freedom, Wednesday, September 29, 1-2:30pm Watch Video

Individual freedom is often conceived of as being able to live one’s life without interference. Jefferson’s model of a free citizen was that of a yeoman farmer – someone in control of their economic and political destiny, and able to come together with neighbors as the need arose to solve common problems. One can own their own land and be the master of their own destiny. Key to these models is the idea that freedom is independence. A free person is not dependent on others for their wellbeing, and can thus avoid entanglements that might welcome subsequent interference. While this is an account of freedom with a vaunted tradition, there are other ways of conceiving of freedom that suggest that freedom is more of a social enterprise. Amartya Sen, for instance, understands freedom as the realizable options one has in one’s life. Freedom, then, is understood not merely by how much you can be left to your own devices, but how many different paths your life could take. This conception of freedom also alters the implied geography of freedom. Whereas the Jeffersonian model suggests a rural lifestyle is most free, Sen's model of freedom suggests that an urban life is the most free. Cities are, after all, engines of economic opportunity – agglomerations of people allow for finer divisions of labor and greater productivity. What is true for economic activity is also true for cultural activities as well – the more people there are, the easier it will be for more kinds of cultural production and consumption. The US has had a long history of people moving to cities for economic opportunity, but also an important history of people moving to cities to escape oppression. The Great Migration saw huge numbers of African-Americans moving to Northern cities to live a freer life. International immigrants and refugees likewise move to cities for greater freedom. Minorities of various kinds come to cities to find community, find refuge, and take advantage of a more open and tolerant social environment.

Of course, life in a city is full of entanglements and sources of interference. The freedom to be left alone or unconstrained is harder to achieve in a city, simply because one’s actions impact others far more directly in a more dense environment. You can’t easily get away from other people in a city, and so their interests and rights will more regularly bump up against your own. But even with these constraints, cities still can vastly expand one’s set of real choices.

In this talk, I will explore the ways in which cities reliably generate greater individual freedom, and the ways in which there is an uneven expansion of freedom. I will suggest that city-scale market agglomeration, paired with tolerant civic institutions, create the possibility of what I’ll call inclusive freedom – freedoms whose value increases when others have them as well.

Eric van Holm, California Department of Justice. The Wicked Roots of Gentrification, Tuesday, October 5, 5-6:30pm Watch Video

Gentrification is a defining trait of 21st century cities, being associated with changes in neighborhood character and rising home prices. Despite the widespread concern about gentrification, efforts to develop a widely accepted definition have had limited success and initiatives to ameliorate its effects have been incomplete. Making the issue more complicated are the many benefits purported to arise from gentrification’s presence, and the willingness of developers, city officials, and some residents to often welcome it. Despite a sizable academic literature on the topic, findings of the positive and ill effects of gentrification are often absent, mixed, or contradictory. As such, to understand the pernicious nature of gentrification and to prevent further cycles of disinvestment and reinvestment, it is critical to evaluate the (wicked) roots of the process.

Paola Suarez, Economics, Seton Hall. Women and the Gig Economy, Thursday, October 7, 10:30am-noon. Watch Video

New technologies and digital platforms have ushered gig, freelance, contract and other types of independent work opportunities. While there has been plenty of attention on independent workers and the gig economy as a whole, there is less attention on the variability of work characteristics among different independent work opportunities, specifically as it relates to the participation of women in this workforce. Existing data indicate that some digital platforms are more male-dominated while others are more female-dominated. What accounts for these differences?

Our research empirically examines the variability of work within independent work opportunities in relation to female participation. We analyze work characteristics in the United States from the Occupational Information Network (O*Net) database that reflect greater temporal flexibility, which has been shown to vary across occupations and to attract more female workers. Our findings suggest that women in independent work, like women in traditional work, do self-select into the types of jobs that offer greater temporal flexibility. Our findings also reveal that measures of temporal flexibility in the context of traditional work may not necessarily map onto temporal flexibility in the context of independent work. Overall, these findings may have implications for public policy, labor laws, and ethical considerations regarding the gig economy and women’s work.

Jesus Hernandez, JCH Research. When Public Policy Becomes a Public Nuisance: Fiduciary Responsibility and the Myth of Equity in Sacramento, Tuesday, October 12, 10:30am-noon Watch Video

An important function for city government is to organize and support the places where we live so that we can live socially and economically productive lives in a healthy and safe environment. Through public policy, cities set societal norms for behavior and provide the soft and hard infrastructure needed to deploy the social determinants of health. These social determinants are required to support market productivity as well as the places/neighborhoods we call home. But what happens when public policy creates an imbalance in market productivity and market outcomes? What happens when we can consistently measure this imbalance over decades of time by race and by place?

This discussion explores the problem of race-based market interventions supported by public policy that result in an intergenerational cumulative trauma -- creating vulnerability to catastrophe for some while leaving others flush with resources. Using the concepts of public nuisance law, market organization, and fiduciary responsibility, this discussion presents examples of housing, public infrastructure investment, zoning, health care delivery, and city sponsored development projects to demonstrate how public policy becomes an unchecked barrier to racial, social, and economic equity in the city.

Robert Wassmer, Public Policy and Administration, CSU Sacramento. The Ethics and Consequences of California’s Local Government Restrictions on Housing, Wednesday, October 13, 10:30-noon Watch Video

The presence of “affordable” housing, be it rental or owner-occupied, distributed throughout a metropolitan area is essential to the wellbeing of its lower-income households, the region’s overall economic productivity, offering equal access to K-12 education opportunities, and minimizing the region’s greenhouse gas emissions. Since California’s population primarily resides in metropolitan areas, it is not surprising that state policy leaders actively promote metropolitan-wide affordable housing as a desirable policy outcome. However, these metropolitan areas consist of local jurisdictions (cities or unincorporated portions of a county) and neighborhoods within these jurisdictions whose vocal citizens and leaders often ask “what is in it for us” when evaluating the desirability of more affordable housing within their boundaries. Thus, the NIMBYism of many California homeowners supporting more affordable housing, but just not in my neighborhood. The resulting undersupply of housing is the primary reason for California’s “housing affordability crisis.” This talk lays out California’s history, institutions, laws, and practices that allow such to continue. It also covers what the State has done to overcome this situation and why it is politically difficult to do more. I hope the talk helps frame the ethical quandary of whether the State should use its power to achieve its already established affordable housing policy goals at the cost of less local control over local land-use decisions related to housing.

This event is sponsored by The Institute for Humane Studies and Cosumnes River College