CURRENT RESEARCH Projects

My primary research interests are in ethics and the philosophy of action. Much of my work involves applying Anscombian and Kantian insights about action to puzzles and problems in ethical theory. 
I am also convinced of the ancient insistence that philosophy, when does well, helps one live well. As such, I think the primary end of philosophy is not in the mere production of esoteric academic insight, but rather in equipping humans in general with the capacity to think well about how they live. Thus, I write at a popular level both on applied ethics for the Prindle Post and blog on ethics and philosophy of religion at The Olive Press

Moral Worth

In my dissertation I use work on the basing relation to develop an account of moral worth, an account according to which acting for the right reason is not enough, you must also infer from that reason with the proper sort of categorical necessity.

 

I show in my dissertation that no reason for which an agent acts---whether it be `because the act is right' or `because it will save a child's life'---is sufficient to secure moral worth. All such accounts fail to secure categoricity. Suppose I wake up one morning and want a mushroom omelet. This of course gives me reason to make a mushroom omelet, but the force of that reason depends entirely on the force of the desire. Were I to suddenly no longer want a mushroom omelet, I would no longer have any reason to make one. My reason to make a mushroom omelet, then, is hypothetical.

 

In contrast, suppose I see a child drowning. I will want to save the child, and will have reason to jump into the lake. But unlike in the omelet case, the force of my reason to save the child does not depend on the force of my desire. Were I to suddenly no longer desire the child survive, that would not mean I no longer have reason to act. My reason to save the child is, therefore, categorical.

 

Morally worthy action  needs to somehow account of the categorical  nature of moral reasons. Thus, it is not something given just by the reason for which an agent acts. An agent could jump into the lake for the final end of saving the child. Yet still we would be left with the question, did she act with the same sort of understanding one has when they make a mushroom omelet? If so, even if the agent did the right thing for the right reason, the act is still not morally worthy.

 

This categoricity cannot be secured by adding reasons for which an agent acts. Rather, the agent's practical reasoning must be formally characterized by categorical necessity. This, I then argue, is parallel to the role that an understanding of validity plays in practical inference. It is not enough that an agent conclude something from premises that entail a conclusion. They must understand that conclusion as being rationally necessitated by the premises. Yet, that the conclusion is rationally necessitated is not itself one of the premises from which the agent reasons, it is not itself a reason for belief. 

Having established that the two questions are isomorphic, I then I use Ram Neta's account of the basing relation as a launching point for developing a parallel account of moral worth in the case of practical inference. 

There are actions, like intentionally killing the innocent, that are always wrong. Interestingly, many, if not most, ethicists don't seem to realize this. Many find the very idea of a constraint implausible or incoherent, and many of those who admit constraints are reticent to say they are absolute. 

And there is something odd about constraints. For one thing, many aspects of constraints are evaluatively relevant but deliberatively inert considerations. We see this in the role intention plays in constraints. We evaluate someone who intentionally kills an innocent person differently from someone who acts while foreseeing an innocent person will die. Yet an agent deeply concerned not with preventing death, but rather with preventing intentional killings, misunderstands what is so bad about murder in the first place.

 

We likewise see this in the role knowledge plays in constraints. It is impermissible not just to operate on someone without consent, but to operate on someone you do not know has consented. Yet a doctor who peruses epistemology journals to be certain of her knowledge, rather than spending her time better informing the patient, misunderstands what consent is all about.

 

Many contemporary approaches to constraints try to explain constraints by pointing to some peculiar (agent- or patient-centered) evil that occur when a killing is known or intended. I argue that this is the wrong way to understand constraints. Rather, the relevance of intent and knowledge arise because those features play special formal roles in the practical syllogism. To intend evil is to see something, like the death of innocent person, that cannot be good as good. Likewise, knowledge is relevant to constraints not because knowledge appears in the content of one's ends, but because, a la Williamson, there is a knowledge norm of practical belief.

Constraints

THE NEW CREATION

If humans will ultimately live forever in God's perfected kingdom, that destiny should probably impact our current understanding of ethics. Oddly, however, the new creation does not seem to play a particularly central role even in religious work on ethics. 

One place this is particularly striking is in work on the virtues. Most explanations of the value of the virtues cite the role virtues play in ameliorating evil conditions and maintaining good ones. For example, courage seems to principally helps us deal with a world in which death is a reality. But this poses a problem for the Christian ethicist. It seems that the virtues would lose their value once we enter the new creation. For example, what use is courage when we will no longer confront death nor pain? 

In my work, I try to give a principled explanation of how our understanding of the new creation can fruitfully inform our understanding of virtue. In my preliminary work, I have argued that the four cardinal virtues are each necessary to enjoy one aspect of the ideal conditions of paradise. In future work, I plan on expanding on this picture and showing its broader explanatory power (especially on issues like divine judgement).