Paper Abstracts


Below are abstracts of all my articles and reviews, both published and unpublished.  Published work can be accessed via the links.  I am happy share work in progress, so just email me if you’re interested.  

Published Work

“Doing Moral Philosophy Without Normativity” Journal of the American Philosophical Association, August 2023
This paper challenges widespread talk about morality’s ‘normativity’. My principal target is not any specific claim or thesis within the burgeoning literature on ‘normativity’, however. Rather, I aim to reject a more amorphous, more “political” claim to intra-disciplinary authority or preeminence, which is evident in the rhetoric of those studying ‘normativity’ nowadays. My hope is to persuade other philosophers who, like me, persist in being interested in long-standing questions about our morals, to be considerably more reticent about accepting this claim. On closer examination, those studying ‘normativity’ have very little to offer us, when it comes to posing our questions about morals and debating the answers to them.

“Realistic Liberalism and the Politics of ‘Normativity’” European Journal of Philosophy, 2023
Following in the footsteps of Bernard Williams, I aim to delineate and advance a more realistic, less moralistic approach to thinking about morals and politics in a liberal culture. To do so, I push back against one framing of what Williams meant in urging greater realism, and in criticizing what he saw as political theory's excessive moralism, which has recently gained traction. According to a number of recent authors, the important issue Williams raised should be understood in terms of whether there are two “kinds” or “sources” of “normativity” found in liberal politics and morality, respectively: Realists are said to accuse their Moralist opponents of countenancing only one normativity, which is moral, when in fact there are two, one of which is “distinctively political.” I show how this now popular framing leads to a number of distortions, particularly insofar as our aim is to understand Williams' moral and political thought. I go on to argue that, once these are sorted out, the term ‘normativity’ itself contributes to the problem—current usages of the term are inextricably bound up with a recognizably moralistic style of thought, of the sort that Williams encouraged us to oppose.

“Everywhere Chimerical” Ergo, 2021
In this paper I advocate for an approach to thinking about moral obligation and how it moves us that runs counter to most mainstream thought in ethics.  Many assume, with Kant, that bona fide moral obligation must involve some truly unconditional, categorical, or inescapable rational constraint.  Following in Hume’s footsteps, I suggest viewing our paradigmatic obligations as instead deriving from the rules of important social practices, followed out of a felt sense of reverence or regard.  I do not offer a complete defense of this “Humean” approach here; instead, I respond to a familiar kind of objection, using that as the occasion to flesh out features of the approach that are often overlooked.  Some allege that seeing our obligations Hume’s way could lead to a troubling kind of conflict, between an agent’s motive to fulfill her obligations and the very values that, for her, make a given practice and its rules worthy of her devotion.  I aim to disarm this charge, though not by denying that this sort of motivational conflict can arise.  Rather, I argue that once the source and nature of conflict are better understood, its possibility is not a reason to abandon the Humean approach.  Indeed, far from a strike against it, the way the Humean approach to obligation helps us to make good sense of certain kinds of motivational conflict is ethically attractive, and so a selling point. 

“Promising as Doxastic Entrustment” Journal of Ethics, 2019
I present a novel way to think about promising: Promising as Doxastic Entrustment.  The main idea is that promising is inviting another to entrust her belief to you, and that taking a promiser’s word is freely choosing to accept this sort of invitation.  Viewing promising as doxastic entrustment allows us to emphasize and understand the more “positive” face of promissory obligation.  In giving your word to another, you are not merely making yourself accountable to her in the sense of becoming subject to her complaining or blaming should you fail to perform.  Rather, through promising you assume responsibility to another for her believing in your word: her belief therein becomes “yours” to look after, care for, and make true.  The view thus provides a rich, novel understanding of the unique interpersonal bond forged through promising, which results from freely given trust, in exchange for freely assumed responsibility for what is entrusted: namely, a bit of the promisee’s own mind. 

Serving Two Masters: Ethics, Epistemology, and Taking People at Their Word” Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 2019
Word-taking has both an epistemic and an ethical dimension.  I argue in this paper that we have no good way of understanding how both ethical and epistemic considerations can be brought to bear when someone makes up her mind to take another at her word, even as we recognize that they must.  This difficulty runs deep, and takes the familiar form of a skeptical problem.  It originates in an otherwise powerful and compelling way of thinking about what distinguishes theoretical from practical reason.  But that picture breaks down, especially in hard cases, where we find ourselves pulled in opposed directions by our ethical and epistemic responsibilities.  My primary interest is in diagnosing the problem, to which I do not see any easy solution.  However, at the end of the paper, I suggest three issues that deserve more attention in thinking about how the problem might be solved.

“Lying Among Friends” in Lying: Language, Knowledge, Ethics, and Politics, OUP 2018
This paper considers why lies told in friendship (and in the context of other, similar forms of intimacy) are especially vicious.  I answer this question through first presenting one familiar form of friendship, the value of which depends on reciprocal knowledge between friends by way of voluntary acts of self-disclosure.  This form of friendship requires a robust commitment to honesty, and gives rise to a corresponding obligation to believe what our friends say.  Meeting this obligation to trust our friends, however, requires becoming especially vulnerable to them: we must be prepared to let them shape our conception of what the world is like and, in certain extreme cases, we may even feel obligated to believe things we know we cannot justify to anyone else.  The viciousness of lies told among friends, then, can be understood as rooted in this special form of vulnerability, which such lies exploit.

“Promising by Right” Philosopher’s Imprint, 2017
I appropriate and develop an important Nietzschean insight about promising: a person who offers her promise claims the right to give her word as a source of security or assurance, a right to “serve as her own guarantor.”  I interpret this in the following way.  In offering your promise, you put forward your word as something worthy of being believed by others, therein claiming to be a person of your word.  To recognize your right to promise – to count you as a person of your word – your audience must be willing to take you at your word.  That is, they must be willing to treat your promise as a sound basis for believing.  I explore the way this familiar, though often overlooked, part of the ethics of promising can shed new light on the activity.  Among other things, it pulls us away from a constricting focus on our ability to put ourselves under an obligation “at will” when we promise, emphasizing instead our interest in being able to, as Nietzsche put it, “stand security for ourselves.”

“’Why?’ Gets No Answer” Journal of Nietzsche Studies, 2016
In this substantial review essay, I consider Paul Katsafanas's recent attempt to provide a constitutivist defense of ethics, informed by his rich and original reconstruction of Nietzsche's theory of agency. In particular, I focus on the ambition to combat nihilism (conceived as a special brand of ethical skepticism), by offering a vindication of the authority of ethical values.  I offer some reasons to question the viability of this strategy in general, as well as some considerations concerning the dispute between Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, which lead me to wonder about attributing such a strategy to Nietzsche in particular.  Rather than reading Nietzsche as sharing the constitutivist's defining ambition, I suggest that contemporary ethical theory may have more to learn from Nietzsche when it comes to diagnosing what the constitutivist is trying to do, and why. Nietzsche's understanding of nihilism suggests that seeking irrefutable foundations for our values may itself be a symptom of, rather than the cure for, the kind of ethical skepticism that plagues us.

“Promising Ourselves, Promising Others” Journal of Ethics, 2015
This paper begins with a common skeptical worry about self-promising: how can a promise made to yourself bind, with nobody other than you to demand you keep it?  To allay this concern, it is necessary to reconceive the role that promises to self are fit to play in life.  Self-promising need not be thought of as a way of attempting to impose a rational constraint on the will in order to resist temptation; rather, in self-promising we aim to actively stand fast to our values in the face of forces that might otherwise lead us to forget or abandon them.  I develop this line, borrowing Nietzsche’s suggestion that promising requires “memory of the will.”  I then extend the idea to interpersonal promises, arguing that “memory of the will” is no less necessary to sustaining commitment to others.

“People of Our Word” Jurisprudence, 2015
In this substantial review essay of David Owens’ Shaping the Normative Landscape, I raise a number of worries about Owens’ strategy, to explain many of our paradigmatic obligations in terms of an underlying “normative interest” i.e. a “bare” interest in being able to determine what we are obliged to do.

 

Work in Progress/Under Review

 “Reasoning by Society’s Practices” (Under Review – Draft Available)
I explicate and defend The Society’s Practices Reasoning Principle.  According to the principle, practical reasoning that treats the rules of a certain privileged set of social practices as having ultimate authority is to count as morally correct.  The principle, along with the basic shape of its defense, embodies a central insight of John Rawls’ “Two Concepts of Rules.”  To defend the principle, I consider three skeptical responses to Rawls as foils.  Michael Thompson has recently argued that Rawls’ own defense fails, because he is too focused on a narrow “logical thesis” about all practices, including e.g. baseball and chess; Kieran Setiya, who draws on Thompson’s criticism, argues that Rawls’ discussion harbors a basic conflation between “motivating” and “normative” reasons; and Jack Smart’s infamous arguments about “rule-worship” suggest that accepting any view like Rawls’ about the role of the rules of social practices would license forms of reasoning that are straightforwardly irrational.  I show how each of these objections misses the mark.  The defense of the Society’s Practices Reasoning Principle that emerges is formidable.  

“A Modest Conception of Moral Right & Wrong” (R&R – Draft Available)
Taking inspiration from Hume, I advance a conception of the deontological part of morality that is rooted in the actual moral rules that are established and followed within our society.  Elsewhere, I have argued that this approach provides a way of thinking about how we are genuinely “bound in a moral way” to keep our moral obligations that it is both ethically attractive and psychologically realistic. Here, I focus on an implication the approach has for our evaluation and criticism of actions, which some may initially find peculiar. Sometimes we should judge of an action that it was (unqualifiedly) right, and the result of flawless reasoning by the agent; and yet, we may also have cause to regard that same action as, in other respects, deeply morally deficient. Using Nomy Arpaly’s conception of “responsiveness to right-making moral reasons” as a foil, I argue that this unorthodox feature leads us to more subtle and helpful evaluations of actions – especially actions undertaken in the context of wicked social institutions. The conception also encourages us to take a more conflicted, less confident, attitude toward many of our own righteous and rational actions – and perhaps even toward our capacity for living together by moral rules itself.

“An Indeterminate Conception of Practical Reasoning” (Under Review – Draft Available)
This paper makes a case for treating the boundary between what counts as practical reasoning and what does not as essentially indeterminate.  The idea that there is an “essential indeterminacy in what can be counted as a rational deliberative process” was put forward by Bernard Williams’ in his well-known discussion of statements about an agent’s reasons for action.  But in contrast to the more familiar argument of that paper, the idea has received almost no attention.  To understand and defend the idea, I first offer a somewhat novel reconstruction of the more familiar argument against making claims about a person’s reasons intended on an “external” interpretation.  On my reading, the argument shows how making such statements runs afoul of ideals of honesty in our interpersonal dealings.  I then argue for countenancing an essential indeterminacy in what counts as practical reasoning, via a re-application of these same ideals of honesty, albeit at a higher level of abstraction.  One advantage of understanding the entire discussion of reasons statements and reasoning along these lines is that it highlights the deeply anti-rationalistic flavor of Williams’ own interest in the subject.  Unsurprisingly, Williams’ treatment displays a deep affinity with the anti-rationalistic ethics advanced by Hume.  It also turns out to be at cross purposes with the far more rationalistic ethical vision that animates more recent attempts to advance a “Humean Theory of Reasons,” which is sometimes mistakenly seen as following in Williams’ footsteps. 

"Toppling the Myth of Spiritual Meritocracy" (Draft Available)
How should we aspire to respond to our vulnerability to the most severe forms of loss, failure, betrayal, suffering, and the like, some measure of which necessarily befall each of us?  Using ideas of Bernard Williams and Christine Korsgaard as a launching point, I explore two opposed answers to this question, and try to tease out some implications these answers have for moral philosophy.  According to Williams, in living any kind of life capable of earning and sustaining the conviction for its subject that it is a life worth living, a person necessarily exposes herself to possibilities for misfortune that are total or complete in the particular sense that, were they to happen to her, she would then have cause to conclude that her own life was, after all, not worthwhile.  According to Korsgaard, by contrast, it is both possible and desirable to order or organize our individual lives in such a way that we eliminate this form of vulnerability.  It makes sense to pursue an ideal on which a person's sense of her own worth is inviolate: we should aspire to live in a way that, no matter what other misfortunes may befall us, we each have adequate ground for finding worth in our own existence.  Though I tend to side with Williams and against Korsgaard in thinking that this kind of vulnerability cannot be eliminated, I am also interested in a point of broad agreement between them.  Both Williams and Korsgaard evidently believe that how a person chooses to respond to this problem surrounding our (in)vulnerability will be, and should be, intimately connected to her confidence in many of the central tenets of morality.

"How to Think Realistically About the Non-Ideal"  (in progress)
Charles Mills'  pathbreaking criticisms of “Ideal Theory” in political philosophy are among the most penetrating, precisely because he recognized how methodological mistakes in philosophy are often not mere “innocent” intellectual errors.  Rather, he makes a persuasive case that they sometimes result from ideological commitments that – in our own time and place – function to mask the character and severity of intransigent social problems surrounding racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression.   Some philosophers have lately noticed the affinity between the “non-ideal” theorizing championed by Mills, and the ideas of “Political Realists” like Bernard Williams, who (along with Isaiah Berlin and Judith Sklar) emphasize the importance of evaluating liberal arrangements in ways more rooted in the real history and complex social role of ever evolving and contested liberal ideals and principles.  But for some, the overlap between these two camps spurs a debate concerning the correct taxonomy of inquiry.  Some have, for instance, emphasized how both oppose a common enemy: the mainstream of liberal political thought.  Because of this, it has been suggested we categorize arguments against “Ideal Theory” as a species in the broader genus of “Political Realism.”  Others have objected to this, claiming that the two traditions are better understood as making orthogonal types of criticism, even if their target is often the same.   Rather than pursuing this taxonomic issue, I raise a different kind of question.  Given the evident consonance between these two critical styles of thought, what might those of us attracted to them both have to gain by putting them in more careful dialog with one another?  What do we stand to learn, that is, when it comes to using these two styles of political thought, in order to address the urgent and recalcitrant problems in contemporary liberal life?  By drawing these two traditions together, I argue we can mount principled opposition to many now-popular styles of thinking in moral and political philosophy, more powerful than the critical arguments marshaled by either tradition on its own.  More positively, by letting these styles of thinking mutually inform and complement one another, I argue that we can develop powerful new tools for raising and answering urgent questions surrounding how to navigate the recalcitrant forms of moral and political conflict that arise when we work to redress oppression and injustice in modern liberal societies.

“Why Is There Such a Subject as Moral Philosophy?” (in progress)
Early in his landmark article “Contractualism and Utilitarianism” T.M. Scanlon tells us that, “There is such a subject as moral philosophy for much the same reason that there is such a subject as the philosophy of mathematics.”  Scanlon draws several parallels between looking to philosophy for answers to questions about morals and about math, concerning the grounds of truth, objectivity, and knowledge.  While Scanlon’s remarks express one widely shared vision of what moral philosophy is for, they can be contrasted with a very different one found in Rawls’ writings.  The emphasis on a “political-not-metaphysical” conception of justice from Rawls’ later work provides a vivid example; but throughout his career, Rawls understood the role of moral philosophy, along with the criteria for its success, in a way that was recognizably “political.”  Moral philosophy grows out of the need to solve practical problems – particularly those that characterize social interaction and conflict.   There is such a subject as moral philosophy, in other words, because we need to develop a more reflective and self-critical view of the morals to which we subscribe, in order to find more effect ways of addressing the practical problems and challenges that characterize human social life.  After fleshing out key differences in these two ways of understanding moral philosophy’s raison d’etre, I suggest some reasons for favoring Rawls’ approach.  Unsurprisingly, the argument is a practical one.  The fractious forms of moral conflict that increasingly characterize our own “time and place” require us to take the more Rawlsian approach, if we are to have any hope of utilizing moral philosophy in diagnosing and addressing them.