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Sleepy

April 22, 2010

My sister and I have another publication out, this time on treating the sources of sleep problems.

Oh, sure, I know what you’re going to say: What? You don’t work on sleep. You work on environmental ethics.

True, that. But I’m a versatile cat, dig? A veritable renaissance philosopher.

Here’s the back story on my philosophy of sleep stuff. A lot of my research focuses on freedom, autonomy, and obligations stemming from freedom and autonomy. Most of the time, to suss out obligations stemming from freedom and autonomy (as opposed to harms), I hone in on arguments without straightforward victims (as victims are commonly conceived). The environment ends up being a pretty good source of cases where nobody gets hurt in the traditional sense. So I employ cases in environmental ethics to challenge what I take to be the dominant view in applied ethics and public policy.

My sister, as it happens, doesn’t work in the environment. She’s a public health demographer and statistician whose primary body of research focuses on sleep. She has been working for a while on identifying social determinants of sleep, mirroring, in many respects, some of the work in the social determinants of health. She is also, as it happens, someone with whom I speak on a regular basis.

At any rate, we talk…and in talking, we talk about our research. The social determinants of health, as it further happens, has this peculiar non-empirical dimension that also spills over into the justice and political theory literature, which is really my domain.

And so, there’s one final piece of this puzzle: sleep is a very strange behavior. Unlike most behaviors that are, roughly speaking, behaviors that we choose — I choose to exercise or eat cake — sleep doesn’t admit of the same sort of analysis. Why not? Because it’s a non-experience good. I’m actually not even sure if it is a ‘good’ in the technical sense. We don’t choose to sleep in the same way that we choose other things in our lives. That observation about the peculiar nature of sleep, coupled with concerns about how such sleep-related choices, are all caught up in the picture of autonomy that we employ, as well as, ultimately, the relationship between autonomy and justice. Our obligations, I think, stem from our autonomy.

So you see, the thoughts are not as distant from one another as it first might seem.

Here’s the abstract:

Based on theoretical and empirical work, we argue that autonomy is likely an important underlying source of healthy sleep. The implication is that ‘treatment’ for sleep problems cannot be understood as an individual-level behavioral problem but must instead be addressed in concert with larger scale social factors that may be inhibiting high-quality sufficient sleep in large segments of the population. When sleep is understood as a proxy for health, the implications extend even further. Policies and interventions that facilitate the autonomy of individuals therefore may not only help reduce individual sleep problems but also have broader consequences for ameliorating social disparities in health.

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