James Stacey Taylor: “The IHS Community Has Made All the Difference”

For over twenty years, James Stacey Taylor has been an active participant in the IHS scholarly community, participating in seminars and workshops from all angles of classical liberal thought. One recent IHS manuscript workshop for his forthcoming book provided critical insights that made the manuscript “much better than it otherwise would have been,” he says.

James Stacey Taylor
James Stacey Taylor

Taylor’s manuscript “Bloody Bioethics: Why Prohibiting Plasma Compensation Harms Patients and Wrongs Donors” (forthcoming in March 2022), defends open markets in blood plasma. Taylor, a professor of philosophy at The College of New Jersey, has spent years probing important questions like whether markets in human organs are moral. One chapter from the book has been expanded into a whole new book, also expected by March 2022, titled “Markets with Limits: How the Commodification of Academia Derails Debate.”

Currently, by prohibiting the sale of blood plasma, he says, it’s increasingly difficult for patients to receive indispensable blood transfusions. If there remains a price ceiling at zero, there will be a constant shortage of blood plasma. He believes that by allowing people to buy and sell blood plasma, sick patients in need of blood plasma will be able to get it.

“If you prohibit people from being paid, you’re going to exploit a certain subset of donors. For example, banning the sale of blood plasma is coercive to those donors who would have sold their plasma and those who would have purchased it if a legal market existed.”

– James Stacey Taylor

Initially, Taylor’s interest in studying the bioethics of organ sales was unplanned. During his youth, he was drawn to the study of law, where he hoped to become a barrister. But one fortuitous trip to the library convinced him that his passion for arguments could be explored in further depth in the annals of philosophy, a detour that Taylor was glad to have made.

He says that “I initially thought that the law was the best way to go because it’s so argument driven. But then I realized that this discipline called philosophy was available. And so, I declined my place to study law in university and took a year off, and then applied to study philosophy. That was a wonderful decision.”

When Taylor was still an undergraduate, he heard about IHS from his professor, who showed him a pamphlet advertising an upcoming summer seminar. Taylor decided to give it a try and attended his first summer seminar at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania.

Later, when Taylor went to graduate school, he read a paper by Paul Hughes, a professor of philosophy at the University of Michigan. The paper struck Taylor as rather unusual. In the article, Hughes argues against legalizing an open market in kidney sales on the grounds that it would restrict bodily autonomy, and therefore the ability to make fully independent decisions.

Taylor found that argument to be interesting but viewed Hughes’ stance as fundamentally misguided. If the idea is to give people more personal autonomy, Taylor reasoned, “then you would want people to have more options, not fewer. You would want people to guide and direct for themselves in accordance with their own desires and wishes,” he says.

This led Taylor to write his first book “Stakes and Kidneys” (2005) which explores the moral intuition behind an open exchange for human kidneys. In the book, he argues that lifting barriers to kidney markets expands the space of “personal autonomy, well-being and human dignity.”

Similarly, he states that the philosophical argument dovetails neatly with the economic and practical argument as well. “If you allow people to be paid for kidneys,” he explains, “you will get more kidneys and enhance well-being.”

Currently, the waiting list for Americans looking for a kidney donor is roughly 100,000, and over 4,000 people die each year as a result. According to Taylor, this gaping supply shortage would be narrowed if markets were allowed to operate for these life-saving kidneys. 

It’s not only kidney markets that ought to be legalized, he adds, but markets in all human organs.

In fact, he states that allowing these markets to function increases social trust and awareness, rather than degrading social cohesion. “It turns out that when we allow markets to function, we’re likely to have more trust and reciprocity,” he says.

Unearthing these misconceptions is precisely what motivated his recent manuscript and inspired him to apply to the IHS manuscript workshop. He remarks that “the participants really liked the work and used the workshop as a collegial conversation to make the manuscript better, which has moved it to an entirely different level of quality following all the feedback.”

“I would recommend IHS workshops to anyone who has a manuscript because it’s been unbelievably useful.”

– James Stacey Taylor

In addition to the manuscript workshops, Taylor has been a regular participant in summer seminars. He loved each experience because the students were inquisitive and deeply committed to discovering new ideas and ways of thinking. “I loved the introduction seminars,” he says, “every student has a divergent viewpoint, which makes for fantastic conversations.”

He’s enjoyed IHS programs so much, that he now serves as a faculty mentor for graduate students in philosophy. Dane Muckler, one of his mentees, even coauthored a paper with Taylor, which Taylor says “was accepted far quicker than any of my solo papers.”

Muckler highlights that “having the opportunity to work with Professor Taylor has been exceedingly helpful in aiding the development of my academic writing and philosophical thinking.”

These opportunities to collaborate and build community, says Taylor, speaks to the importance of IHS programs. “Each event unlocks a door to a whole new world of scholarly engagement,” he reflects.

In each of his research projects, Taylor enjoys looking at puzzles and scrutinizing whether “received wisdom should in fact be received as wisdom.” In many cases within the bioethical sphere, he finds that the status quo doesn’t consider the respect for personal autonomy enough, often to the detriment of human well-being.

Taylor points to the IHS community as a network of scholars exploring more about the world and seeking to make it better. “IHS helps students figure stuff out for themselves. It helps them ask the big questions and it also helps faculty members connect with each other across disciplinary boundaries,” he observes.

He says that the first introduction to IHS from his professor uncovered new roads to explore ideas with other scholars in a unique and collaborative way. “IHS brings people together through a genuine concern with the power of ideas,” he says. This meeting space, he adds, has made all the difference.

The Institute for Humane Studies is celebrating its 60th anniversary in 2021. For more scholar spotlights, video interviews, photo galleries, and in-depth conversations on classical liberal ideas, visit TheIHS.org/60.

60 Years Advancing the Ideas of the Good Society

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