Monique Wonderly: "Attached" to Questions at the Intersection of Philosophy and Psychology

Feb. 27, 2017

In addition to a new cohort of distinct scholars that the University Center for Human Values brings to campus each year as part of its signature visiting faculty fellows program, it also supports postdoctoral research associates in diverse areas relating to human values in public and private life.

In 2002, The Harold T. Shapiro Postdoctoral Fellowship in Bioethics was created to provide an opportunity for an outstanding scholar to spend from one to three years at Princeton to further his/her scholarship and participate in the University’s teaching program. The fellowship was set up in the name of Princeton’s 18th president, Harold T. Shapiro, who has a strong interest in bioethics and public policy. The position looks for scholars studying ethical issues arising from developments in medicine or the biological sciences.

Similarly, Monique Wonderly’s interest in ethics arose during her time studying biomedical sciences. While she intended to pursue the study of biomedical sciences upon entering the University of Michigan, her participation in a research program at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel before her freshman year served as a turning point in her future academic interests. In particular, a group visit to the Yad Vashem World Holocaust Museum in Israel had such an effect on Wonderly that it marked the beginning of her change of course to ethics and moral psychology. Ultimately, Wonderly completed dual bachelor’s degrees in philosophy and psychology, a master’s degree in philosophy at Western Michigan University, and then earned her Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of California-Riverside, specializing in theoretical and applied ethics, moral psychology, agency theory, and the philosophy of emotion.

Now Wonderly is pursuing her interdisciplinary research at Princeton as the Center’s sixth HTS postdoctoral research associate. Her focus on ethics, emotional attachment, and psychopathology represents an exciting addition to the array of topics pursued by previous HTS scholars, whose interests have ranged from the intersection of philosophy and public policy to the ethical, historical, and policy issues in medicine and public health.

Wonderly’s research parallels the course she created as part of her teaching requirement: a new junior/senior seminar: CHV332/PHI347: Ethics and Pathologies of Attachment, which examines issues at the intersection of emotional attachment, ethics, and agency theory. In particular, the course explores whether and how disordered attachment orientations bear on questions concerning the moral agency and ethical treatment of members of certain clinical populations, mainly psychopaths and those suffering from addiction. This course also fulfills a requirement for the Center’s undergraduate certificate program in Values and Public Life (VPL).

“Psychopathy is a ‘hot topic’ in terms of applied ethics,” said Wonderly, “as it often engenders a great deal of curiosity and interest among both researchers involved in the medical humanities and moral responsibility theorists.” 

CHV332/PHI 347 is a challenging course, however, because there are no undergraduate texts that focus on ethics and pathologies of attachment, Wonderly said. Much of the material she uses is pitched at a high level, as it comes from journals and books aimed at professional academics and graduate students. The course is shaped and run largely like a graduate seminar. 

To help undergraduates follow and absorb the dense course material, Wonderly explained that part of her teaching method is to keep a running PowerPoint presentation during class summarizing the reading points and then the second half of her seminar focuses on discussions of the readings. Additionally, students contribute questions and comments beforehand, so that Wonderly can guide the course discussion to address their specific concerns and interests.

Her method works, as exemplified by the enthusiastic course evaluations of her students, who come from many different disciplines.

Wonderly has enjoyed teaching the course, and she has indicated that she will likely offer it again next year.

As CHV 332 is also part of the Center’s VPL curriculum, program Director Anna Stilz wanted to take the opportunity to plan a VPL program event in conjunction with one of the curriculum offerings, much like academic events experienced by faculty and graduate students. Rather than inviting VPL students to an already scheduled Center event, VPL initiated an academic event in which the students as priority guests participate in a classic Center event, including the ensuing dinner at Prospect House where the conversation continues in a more intimate environment. Not only does this give students direct access to notable academics, but it further exposes them to academic life, research, and also to how events can contribute to information that drives public policy.

The panel conversation organized in conjunction with Wonderly’s seminar was: Psychopathy, Emotion, and Moral Responsibility and included two renowned neuroscientists whose research concerns the biological bases of psychopathy and two philosophers who work in ethics and agency theory and are particularly concerned with investigating morally compromised agency. 

Living in a world with morally compromised individuals among us is an interesting dilemma in the least, but in extreme circumstances, it can have tremendous social consequences. In fact, one of the panelists, neuroscientist Adrian Raine writes: “noninstitutionalized individuals with psychopathic traits not only may outnumber the institutionalized psychopathic population, but also may in the long run be more dangerous and destructive to society.”

With the addition of Wonderly’s interests in the areas of agency theory, mental health care ethics, and the philosophy of emotional attachment to the diverse areas of interest of the Center’s faculty and visiting scholars since its inception, faculty, students, and the University community at large had an opportunity to hear about another bioethical dilemma that warrants attention from the public sphere.