In Conversation With LSR Visiting Faculty Fellow Amy Sepinwall

Friday, Feb 23, 2018

Amy Sepinwall is an associate professor in the Department of Legal Studies and Business Ethics at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. She has two main research streams, one interrogating the notion of corporate constitutional rights and the other calling for an expansion of the conceptions of responsibility standardly advanced in law and ethics. Sepinwall is pursuing both of these topics as a Laurance S. Rockefeller Visiting Faculty Fellow at the University Center for Human Values (UCHV). 

"My scholarship generally addresses cases, in law and in moral philosophy, where one person bears responsibility for the wrongs or harms or missteps of another," Sepinwall said. "The contours and the justification for shared responsibility are not well worked out, and I hope to clarify them, and also to defend a broader conception of our shared responsibility than is typically acknowledged. In particular, I aim to establish that we can bear moral responsibility for wrongs even where we haven't culpably contributed to them."

Prior work has sought to draw out the responsibility of parents for wrongs of their children; CEOs for wrongs of their employees; and citizens for wrongs of their government. This year, Sepinwall is focusing on shared responsibility- or complicity- in the retail sphere. "My central project at Princeton engages with the complicity claims of wedding vendors who oppose same-sex marriage on religious grounds and who seek to deny goods or services for gay weddings as a result," she said.

She cited one of this year's most important Supreme Court cases, Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado, as an example, which involves a Colorado baker who argues that his First Amendment rights protect him from having to obey Colorado's anti-discrimination law.

"Ideological commitments might tempt one into thinking that, when it comes to the marketplace, the contest between religious freedom and gay rights is an easy one," Sepinwall said. "My own commitments urge the conclusion that the state should not allow any business owner to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.  And indeed that is just what I ultimately conclude in my work."

However, she noted that this conclusion is not an easy one to defend, "not least of all because a searching inquiry that abstracts the complicity question from the marriage equality debate leaves one with genuine uncertainty about when, as a moral matter, we should excuse or instead compel conduct that contravenes conscience."

At her LSR seminar on April 30, Sepinwall will workshop a paper that reflects her intervention in the wedding vendor debate by addressing two central questions: 

1.    Should the law treat the conscientious objections of wedding vendors whose work involves speech or artistry (poets-for-hire, photographers, perhaps cake decorators) more seriously than those of wedding vendors whose work is not expressive (chauffeurs, reception hall owners)? 
2.    Does the fact that these claims arise in the marketplace make a difference? Should we think that store owners should leave their consciences at home, as it were?

"I love how intellectually charged the program as a whole is, and I love the intensity of engagement with the other fellows, along with faculty across the university whose interests intersect with mine," Sepinwall said. "It has been a wonderfully vibrant year so far."