Below are links to my published and forthcoming work, a couple of works in progress, and a book proposal. Click on the image for a PDF of the text. Click on the title to be taken to the published version (where applicable).
Tragedy and the Constancy of Norms
Philosophical Studies, published online September 8, 2018.
This paper presents an Anscombian alternative to the traditional deontic conception of ought. According to the Anscombian conception developed here, ought is general as opposed to ‘peculiarly moral’, norm-referring instead of law- or obligation-referring, and ‘heroic’ in the sense that it does not presuppose that individuals can do or be as they ought. Its connection to matters of fact can, moreover, be clearly stated. I emphasize some significant logical characteristics of this conception, and argue that it provides a more suitable account of the ought’s of ethics as compared to the deontic conception.
One particular strength of this conception of ought is that it does justice to the possibility of tragedy in human life, where tragedy is understood as the possibility that a thoroughly well-intentioned individual might sometimes ensure her own moral imperfection, precisely by doing what is morally right or best at every step along the way. To motivate this feature of the view I sketch a corresponding picture of responsibility for actions in terms of ownership of one’s deeds. This conception of responsibility allows that what one ought to do is not always constrained by what one can do, while saving the intuitions about fairness and the practical scope of moral norms that principally motivate ‘ought implies can’. To illustrate and motivate the overall account I discuss a number of cases, including the character Winston from George Orwell’s 1984.
In Philippa Foot on Goodness and Virtue, edited by John Hacker-Wright. Palgrave MacMillan Press (2018): 127-150.
In Natural Goodness, Philippa Foot repeatedly connects facts about human needs with facts about human goodness, or virtue. As a result both proponents and critics of her view tend to treat this connection as the core naturalist thesis upon which her theory principally rests, with proponents asserting and critics denying that human needs can indeed ground a substantive account of the virtues and of right action. In addition to her talk of what humans need, however, Foot also attributes a robustly objective, Aristotelian conception of practical rationality to human beings. This paper argues that the objectivity of morality is grounded, not in facts about human needs, but rather in facts about the nature of human practical rationality.
The Character of Huckleberry Finn
Philosophy and Literature 42 (April 2018): 125-44.
Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn is morally admirable because he follows his heart and does the right thing in a pinch. Or is he? The Character of Huckleberry Finn argues that the standard reading of Huck woefully misunderstands his literary and moral character. The real Huck is strikingly morally passive and thoroughly unreliable, and when the pinch comes, he fails Jim completely. His true character emerges when, with Iris Murdoch’s “justice and love,” we attend to Huck’s youth and his history of unmitigated abuse and neglect. Huck’s case reveals how (and how much) developmental and experiential history matter to moral character.
Twain's Last Laugh
Chapter 5 of Mark Twain and Philosophy, edited Alan Goldman, Rowman and Littlefield, 2017.
Most readings of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn assume the reader will identify with Huck himself, as the novel’s protagonist. But Mark Twain almost certainly identified his White readership with the White adult characters in the novel, who are uniformly despicable, morally benighted, petty, hypocritical, and utterly lacking in self-awareness. If this is right, then the joke is on the White American readership at whom the novel is aimed. This is as true now as it was when the work was originally published. If Twain’s depiction of White American society in Huck Finn does indeed paint that audience a devastating self-portrait, then the novel is a beautiful, subtle, ongoing act of practical irony, and a remarkable feat of ongoing social commentary. The novel is also a permanently open moral invitation, challenging each reader to ask, not with whom do I most want to identify, but with whom ought I to identify, in this novel which purports to give American society its mirror? This is a question worth asking of any novel one reads; if so, the practical irony of Huckleberry Finn brings out an important ethical dimension of engaging with great works of literature, and of the hard and humbling work that may be involved in doing so.
Absorbed Coping and Practical Wisdom
The Journal of Value Inquiry 50:3 (2016): 593-612.
Can practical wisdom be understood in terms of response to affordances, as the latter idea is developed in the work of Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly? I argue that the answer is no, because response to affordances cannot account for the practical role of the agent in her own absorbed coping, including her absorbed acts of practical wisdom. Response to affordances is, as it were, too purely responsive to permit agents to play the role that they are meant to play – and that they must play – in their own actions. Instead, I argue for a version of the claim that practical wisdom is absorbed according to which practical wisdom is at the same time paradigmatically thoughtful and mindful.
On my account absorbed coping can be, and often is, a reason-involving activity. But I do not claim that absorbed, practically wise actions are constitutively reason-involving. For whether practical wisdom is constitutively rational depends upon one’s conception of practical rationality; and in my view Dreyfus presents some powerful reasons for taking a closer look at how we conceive of practical reason. In particular, the more one conceives of practical rationality as the practical application of theoretical rational capacities, the less it will be true that absorbed practically wise actions are constitutively reason-involving. With this in mind, I propose a middle ground between Julia Annas’ and Dreyfus’ accounts of wisdom-as-skill: less reason-involving in some respects than Annas’ conception, but with more room for mindful agency than Dreyfus’ account permits. To this end, I distinguish two aspects of mindful, absorbed coping, having to do with immediacy of attention and situational sensitivity.
Action as Interaction
What is action? It can be tempting to think of an action like a sort of missile, with a point of origin in the agent, and a terminus in the world that the agent aims to impact. But in this paper I argue that action is much better conceived as a certain type of interaction, or relation, between an agent and her environment. Specifically, actions are mind-guided, world-responsive, agent-initiated interactions, which are shaped by the agent's discriminating sense of what the world calls for. According to this conception of action, the norms of action are the norms of an interaction. They are thus both interestingly complex, and non-trivially objective. To explain the idea that action is a kind of interaction, I begin with the commonsense idea that agency, or the capacity for action, is a characteristic of some things in the world but not others. And, like anything else, agency and action have certain distinguishing, typifying traits or marks. Identifying these distinctive marks is one way to answer the question, What is action?
Character: A Persistently Developmental Account
Forthcoming in The Journal of Value Inquiry, special issue on the philosophy of Julia Annas, edited by Tom Angier and Richard Hamilton.
“Character: A Persistently Developmental Account” generalizes an important feature of Julia Annas’ conception of virtue as skill (Intelligent Virtue, 2011). Aristotle said that virtue is a “firm and unchanging” disposition to act (think, decide, feel…) in accordance with excellence. On my view, a person’s character is not firm and unchanging if that means that it is fixed or immutable, like an essence. Instead a person’s character is constituted at a given time by the total history of her actions and experiences, together with their interpretation and self-presentation. Character thus-construed continually changes and develops (whether for better or for worse) because it grows as a person lives. It is best seen on analogy with a living thing, rather than as a firm and unchanging state. On this view, in order to perceive character’s influence on action, we should not ask whether a person’s actions exhibit sameness or qualitative similarity across different contexts. Instead, we should ask whether her actions are rendered intelligible against the backdrop of her life experiences and past actions and their self-presentation, and if so, what sorts of tailored moral evaluations of her character and actions that intelligibility supports.
Hubert Dreyfus on Practical and Embodied Intelligence
With John Schwenkler. Forthcoming in The Routledge Handbook of Skill and Expertise, edited by Carlotta Pavese and Ellen Fridland.
Our essay is devoted to giving a maximally sympathetic interpretation of Dreyfus’ practical philosophy. This takes some doing, as Dreyfus’ views are emphatically contrary to three of Western philosophy’s most fundamental, widely shared assumptions about human nature: namely, that we are (1) rational (2) individuals and (3) agents. Instead, Dreyfus urges us to see ourselves as embodied, world-embedded reciprocators. His views thus provide a crucial counterweight to the over-intellectualization of humans, our actions, and our decision-making processes that is deep to neo-Aristotelian ethics (along with most Western philosophical moral theory).
Disenchantment and the Great Chain of Being
Work in progress. Please do not cite or quote without permission. Comments very welcome!
In this paper I demonstrate the continued influence on ethical theory of an ostensibly-rejected ancient, medieval, and early modern conception of the world as a Great Chain of Being. The assumption that the world is “disenchanted”, intrinsically devoid of value and meaning, is a widely-accepted starting point of contemporary ethics. But I argue that disenchantment owes its plausibility and its seeming-inevitability precisely to the unrealized, ongoing influence of the Great Chain worldview in contemporary ethical thought. I focus in particular on two remnants of the Great Chain: its anthropocentrism, and its hierarchical structure. I trace the influence of the Great Chain paradigm in the ethical thought of Christine Korsgaard and Bernard Williams, whom I treat as representatives of neo-Kantian and neo-Humean constructivism, respectively. The overall argument is parallel in structure to the argument that Elizabeth Anscombe makes concerning ‘peculiarly moral’ concepts in “Modern Moral Philosophy”. While some, one, or all of our current ethical theories may turn out to be very well suited to the human phenomena they aim to capture, we will not be in a position to know this until we have first developed a theory of value and of humanity’s place in nature that is less constrained by illicit survivals from the Great Chain worldview.
Generics and Characteristic-Based Evaluations
Slated for presentation at the 2019 Conference on Essentialism and Anti-Essentialism(Third Meeting of the Canadian Metaphysics Collaborative), Banff, Alberta.
This paper concerns the relationship between a certain kind of evaluative inference, and generic sentences such as Dogs have four legs, Mosquitoes carry the West Nile virus, and Stoves are hot. Such generics play an essential role in a very basic kind of evaluative or normative reasoning. This role cannot be played by generics if they are construed as generalizations, in the way that many semantic theories of generics propose to do. Therefore, I argue, generics cannot be understood as generalizations; instead, they are qualitative characterizations of kinds. The view that generics are qualitative characterizations of kinds suggests a helpful way of thinking about some of the puzzling questions posed by generics’ odd logical properties.
This is book proposal/project description that I am using to apply to national fellowships in anticipation of a possible post-tenure leave period. The manuscript is in progress. “Ethics and the Great Chain of Being” and “Traditional Naturalism” represent core elements of the argument.
Can ordinary facts about human nature provide a secular, objective basis for ethics? Neo-Aristotelian philosopher Philippa Foot (1920-2010) thought that they could. But on her view, the human kind itself constitutes a moral norm for individual human beings. It is therefore widely supposed — and reasonably enough! — that her view must somehow rely on an unscientific Aristotelian metaphysics of essences and ends. The book’s argument meets this concern directly with a secular, post-Darwinian value theory. In so doing, it clears the way for a suitably revised version of Foot’s ethical naturalism to receive the serious consideration that I think it deserves, as a viable and compelling metaethical and ethical view.