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Saturday, August 13, 2022

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Michigan's Petoskey Marina is part of the Great Lakes watershed. SDSU philosopher Michael Tiboris will help research the region's water rights issues. Photo: Bobak Ha'Eri / Wikimedia Commons Michigan's Petoskey Marina is part of the Great Lakes watershed. SDSU philosopher Michael Tiboris will help research the region's water rights issues. Photo: Bobak Ha'Eri / Wikimedia Commons

Drops of Knowledge

An SDSU philosophy lecturer won a prestigious fellowship to help guide water rights policy discussions in the Great Lakes Basin.
By Michael Price

For the next two years, Michael Tiboris will be intimately involved in highly technical, politically charged discussions over water rights in the Great Lakes watershed. But he’s no hydrologist, nor is he an elected official or community activist. He’s a philosopher, and he’s hoping to help the region’s water-concerned constituents debate their issues more effectively.

Tiboris, a lecturer in the SDSU philosophy department and a fellow with the university’s Institute for Ethics and Public Affairs (IEPA), was recently selected by the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) to be a Global Cities Fellow with the Chicag`o Council on Global Affairs. He will begin his work with the council this summer.

Michael Tiboris
Michael Tiboris

The ACLS aims to give people with doctoral degrees in the humanities opportunities to hone their skills outside academia. In turn, these highly educated and motivated scholars bring a fresh perspective to the worlds of business, science and politics. The 2015 ACLS class of 22 fellows includes scholars from Harvard University, Yale University, Cornell University, the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Chicago, and other top-tier institutions. Tiboris is the only philosophy Ph.D. among his cohort.

Working knowledge

“In the humanities, you typically learn how to be faculty, which comes with a very particular and narrow set of skills,” Tiboris said. “The ACLS fellowship is a huge opportunity for energized, smart, capable people to put their skills to use in policy matters.”

Philosophy doctorates are well trained in research, writing, and communication and are used to working on meaningful projects, he explained, so the skills transfer readily in the non-academic workplace.

“If you put philosophers in policy positions, they’re going to be critical thinkers and bring a knowledge base that hasn’t been influenced too heavily by outside politics,” Tiboris said.

In his position with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, he will be helping research questions surrounding water rights in the Great Lakes region and draft policy statements and research papers. While he doesn’t have a background in civil engineering or water management, he has studied various social justice aspects of water usage and ethics at SDSU in his role as an IEPA fellow.

Different definitions

As a result, he’s comfortable talking about these topics with a variety of experts who are well versed in the technical and political complexities of water rights, but who might not understand what motivates debate and disagreement on these issues.

“In debates about water policy, people often have ethical intuitions about what’s fair and what’s just,” Tiboris said, “but when they walk up to these ethical questions, they just don’t know how to navigate past them. A lot of it stems from what it means to have a ‘right to water.’ People argue using different definitions and concepts and don’t realize that’s where a lot of their difference stems from.

The people I’ve talked to who are interested in water policy are hungry to hear about how philosophers think about these kinds of things.”

The ACLS fellowship will support Tiboris’s position on the Chicago council for up to two years, during which time he also hopes to write a book exploring the ethical issues surrounding water rights.

Longer term, Tiboris isn’t sure whether he will return to academia or pursue a career in public policy when his fellowship ends.

“What I really hope to find is a position where I can make philosophical thought relevant and practical to the public,” he said.