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. 

Moral Worth

In my dissertation, I argue that to adequately understand moral worth we must understand it as the practical corollary of knowledge. Knowledge requires more than just believing truly; it requires that truth play the right explanatory role in why you believe. Likewise, moral worth requires more than just that you perform the right action—the rightness must play the right explanatory role in why you acted. However, just as the right connection to truth is not secured by taking truth as a reason for belief; so the right connection to rightness is not secured by taking rightness as a reason for action. This reveals that both of the standard view of moral worth are mistaken. Progress requires looking outside the content of one’s practical syllogism and instead attending to the non-inferential grounds of practical reasoning.

Constraints

Normative Ethics: There is an odd puzzle that crops up from time to time in ethics. Sometimes there are considerations that are normatively relevant to our classification of actions, say for instance relevant to whether an action violates a moral constraint, but that should be practically irrelevant to the deliberating agent. For example, what one knows at the time of action is often relevant to whether one violates a constraint, but it would be perverse for agents themselves to worry about whether or not their true beliefs rise to the level of knowledge. Similarly, many constraints are constraints against intentional actions, yet it would be perverse to for an agent to spend a lot of time making sure that whenever they kill someone that the killing was unintended.  

 

In this project, I argue that these deliberatively inert normative considerations can best be understood as emerging from the formal structure of an agent’s practical reasoning, and that this, in turn, has important implications for how ethicists theorize about constraints. The reason knowledge is relevant to constraints is not because it is important, from the agent's perspective, to punish someone they know to be guilty. Rather, it is important for the agent to only punish someone who is guilty, but there is also a knowledge norm of practical reasoning. As such, knowledge emerges as relevant to our assessment of whether someone acted well.

 

This has important implications for how we approach constraints. For example, much of the work on the intent/foresight distinction focuses on explaining why it is so much worse (either for the person killed, or for the person killing) to kill someone intentionally than to kill someone as a foreseen consequence of another action. I argue that deontologists should admit there is no such explanation, but also that that does not pose any problem for a commitment to the intention/foresight distinction.   

Applied Ethics: Once one recognizes the role formal elements, like knowledge norms, play in practical reason, it raises neglected questions in applied ethics. For example, in just war one should only kill combatants; but this then requires one to know that the person one is targeting is a combatant. This creates a challenge, however, because certain probabilistic algorithms, while they might deliver a high degree of certainty, are unable to secure knowledge. This presents a problem for attempts to integrate autonomous weaponry within the deontological parameters of just war theory. 

Similar worries applied to other uses of probabilistic algorithms. For instance, there are troubling issues raised by probabilistic recidivism projections or certain measures of statistical risk in bioethics. 

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).