Papers

  Below are links to my published and forthcoming work, and a couple of works in progress.

 

 Click on the image for a PDF of  The Character of Huckleberry Finn .

Click on the image for a PDF of The Character of Huckleberry Finn.

The Character of Huckleberry Finn

Forthcoming in Philosophy and Literature 2017.

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

 Click on the image for a PDF of  Twain's Last Laugh .

Click on the image for a PDF of Twain's Last Laugh.

Forthcoming in Mark Twain and Philosophy, ed. 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.


 Click on the image for a PDF of  Absorbed Coping and Practical Wisdom.

Click on the image for a PDF of Absorbed Coping and Practical Wisdom.

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.


 PDF of  Action as Interaction  coming soon.

PDF of Action as Interaction coming soon.

Action as Interaction

American Philosophical Quarterly 51:1 (January 2014): 75-84.

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?


 PDF of  Tragedy and the Constancy of Norms  coming soon.

PDF of Tragedy and the Constancy of Norms coming soon.

Tragedy and the Constancy of Norms

Work in progress. Please do not cite or quote without permission. Comments very welcome!

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.


 Click on the image for a PDF of  Ethics and the Great Chain of Being .

Click on the image for a PDF of Ethics and the Great Chain of Being.

Ethics 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, first, that the metaphysics of disenchantment itself owes its plausibility and its seeming-inevitability to the sheer continued dominance of the Great Chain worldview in contemporary ethical thought. Next, I turn to consider two particular remnants of the Great Chain in more detail: its anthropocentrism, and its hierarchical structure. I trace the influence of all of these elements of the Great Chain paradigm in the ethical thought of Christine Korsgaard and Bernard Williams, whom I treat as representatives of neo-Kantian constructivism and neo-Humean materialism, 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.