My work focuses on the intersection of theoretical and applied ethics. Work in this area attempts to show how abstruse-sounding notions in moral theory can aid in thinking about real-world scenarios. I'm also interested in how psychology and economics can inform value theory.
For example, Love and Death investigates whether it can be rational to regret emotional syndromes that allow us to recover quickly from losses, but which thereby lessen our attachment to others. Recent work in empirical psychology helps illuminate the issue. Wealth, Disability and Happiness discusses how economic research on happiness connects to Aristotelian theories of practical reasoning. In a similar vein, Anticipated Emotions is about the role that feelings like regret and guilt should play in our deliberations, drawing on the neurobiology of pain, and Abortion and Moral Risk examines how a modest fallibilism should inform the abortion debate. Other work in this area includes Should We Let People Starve–For Now?, An Argument against Marriage, Meta-reasoning and Practical Deliberation, and Killing and Dying. I’m also interested in the philosophy of religion (A Simple Argument against Design), epistemology, and the history of philosophy (The Skeptic’s Telos).
Classes I teach include Intro, Moral theory, and grad seminars.
Curriculum vitae: PDF
Wealth, Disability and Happiness
A discussion of the so-called Easterlin and Disability paradoxes. The first says that higher income makes individuals happier within a country, even though the population of a country doesn’t seem to get happier with higher average income. The second says that people with significant disabilities experience far less of an impact on their happiness than one would predict. I argue that these results can’t easily be dismissed, and that they tell us something interesting about the nature of happiness and about practical reasoning. In particular, I argue that the findings provide additional grounds for thinking that there is more to objective welfare than subjective happiness; that there is more to what we care about than welfare; and that contrary to an Aristotelian view of practical reasoning, there seems to be a great deal that we do and value, even in the strictly personal realm, that is unrelated to our happiness or welfare.
Philosophy & Public Affairs (forthcoming) PDF
Abortion and Moral Risk
It is natural for those with permissive attitudes toward abortion to assume that, if they have examined all of the arguments they know against abortion and have concluded that they fail, their moral deliberations are at an end. Surprisingly, this is not the case, as I argue. This is because the mere risk that one of those arguments succeeds can generate a moral reason that counts against the act. If this is so, then liberals may be mistaken about the morality of abortion. However, conservatives who claim that considerations of risk rule out abortion in general are mistaken as well. Instead, risk-based considerations generate an important but not necessarily decisive reason to avoid abortion. The more general issue that emerges is how to accommodate fallibilism about practical judgment in our decision-making.
Philosophy (forthcoming) PDF
Anticipated Emotions and Emotional Valence
This paper addresses two questions: first, when making decisions about what to do, does the mere fact that we will feel regretful or guilty or proud afterward give us reason to act? I argue that these emotions of self-assessment give us little or no reason to act. The second question concerns emotional valence--how desirable or undesirable our emotions are. What is it that determines the valence of an emotion like regret? I argue that the valence of emotions, and indeed of feelings like pain more broadly, is a function of the sensations they involve. As I suggest, understanding the point about emotional valence helps us answer the first question about anticipated emotions. The paper concludes with a discussion of death-bed regrets, and of whether teenagers should listen to their annoying parents.
Philosopher's Imprint (forthcoming) PDF
A Simple Argument against Design
Did God design life on earth? (1) We can conceive of the issue in terms of "likelihoods"--how probable the design-hypothesis renders our evidence, versus how probable the competing Darwinian hypothesis renders that evidence. (2) God, as traditionally conceived, had many more options by which to bring about life as we observe it than were available to natural selection, as far as our evidence goes. (The relevant parameters were, in many cases, far more constrained under natural selection.) (3) If this is true, then utterly mundane features of the world, like that the earth is very old, would actually be powerful evidence that the world was not designed, since that outcome was "optional" on the design hypothesis but nearly inevitable on natural selection. Theists like myself might find this evidence unwelcome, but as I stress, this is only one piece of evidence among many.
Religious Studies (forthcoming) PDF
Michael Zimmerman, Living with Uncertainty
Book review and a brief critical discussion of whether moral obligations are subjective, objective or evidential. Suppose drug A will cure your patient, drug C will kill him, and B will bring a partial cure. Normally, of course, you should prescribe A. But does this change if you falsely believe C would be best? (Subjectivists say Yes.) What if your evidence is silent on whether A or C is the killer--should you then prescribe B? Zimmerman argues your obligations are a function of your evidence, not your beliefs or what would be objectively best, but what if you have false beliefs about your evidence?
Ethics 119 (2009), 606-611 PDF
Meta-reasoning and Practical Deliberation
Sometimes there is evidence about what we would decide to do from an improved deliberative position--one in which we have better information, say, or are subject to less bias, or are able to consider the relevant facts with greater vividness. I argue that in such situations we should act on that evidence, and that there are some important ethical and prudential applications for this idea. Following through with this suggestion allows us to respond to the fact that we are prone to error by making the appropriate adjustments in our decision-making. A secondary goal is to explore the neglected role of vividness in our decision-making.
Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 79 (2009), 653-670 PDF
Love and Death
Empirical evidence indicates that bereaved spouses are surprisingly muted in their responses to their loss, and that after a few months many of the bereaved return to their emotional baseline. Psychologists think this is good news: resilience is adaptive, and we should welcome evidence that there is less suffering in the world. I explore various reasons we might have for regretting our resilience, both because of what resilience tells us about our own significance vis-a-vis loved ones, and because resilience may render us incapable of comprehending how things really stand, value-wise. I also compare our actual dispositions to extreme alternatives ("sub-resilience" and "super-resilience"), and consider whether we might endorse (plain) resilience as a kind of mean.
The Journal of Philosophy 104 (2007): 301-316 PDF
Should We Let People Starve–For Now?
It may well be that we could save more people overall by not aiding those in need now and instead giving aid in the future. This would be true, for instance, if either the price of life-saving interventions fell, or if we could increase our wealth in real terms over time. Additionally, saving people later is better for us, since we can invest the money in a way that benefits us. Instead of giving $1,000,000 now, we might use that money to buy a mansion that we could then live in till we sold it at a profit decades later, and give the money away then. This would allow us to save more people and to lessen the costs of giving for us. Together, these two points create a puzzling case for answering the title-question affirmatively.
Analysis 66 (2006), 240-247 PDF
Killing and Dying
Everyone knows that killing is wrong and dying is bad. But how are the two related? Surprisingly, there is disagreement on this point, and settling that disagreement is important, since how we explain the wrongness of killing has practical implications for whom it is permissible to kill. The harm-based account of killing that says killing is wrong for the boring reason that dying is bad, and I defend that account against an important objection mounted by proponents of an alternative, respect-based view. Along the way, I discuss why it might be bad to die even at the biological limits of human life, and whether it's a misfortune not to be an immortal god.
American Philosophical Quarterly 43 (2006), 235-248 PDF
The Pyrrhonian Skeptic's Telos
Commentators have focused on the epistemology of Sextus Empiricus, but his avowed aim of ataraxia, or tranquility, deserves attention as well. After warding off various lesser criticisms of the Skeptic's aim, I identify the central problem: the Skeptic is supposed to be dedicated to suspending judgment concerning theoretical matters, yet his aim seems to embody a controversial philosophical view. I discuss various ways of resolving this issue and what might motivate the Skeptic's continued adherence to a disputed aim.
Ancient Philosophy 24 (2004), 425-441 PDF
An Argument against Marriage
I develop and examine the "Bachelor's Argument," which consists of the following dilemma. Assume that marriage involves something like a promise to be in a lifelong relationship with another person. Either that promise has lifelong binding force or it doesn't. If it does, marriage is crazy, since it commits us to a relationship with someone even after we cease to love or even like them. Alternatively, if the promise loses its force once we cease to love our spouse, then the commitment lacks authority in the only circumstance in which it is needed and is therefore pointless.
Philosophy 78 (2003), 79-91 PDF
Reply to Landau [on marriage]
Philosophy 80 (2005), 279-284 PDF
Parfit on Pains, Pleasures and the Time of their Occurrence
A discussion of the so-called bias toward the future (we care about future pleasant and unpleasant experiences, but much less about past ones). I provide reasons for doubting that we would be better off without such a bias, and consider different explanations of why we have it.
Canadian Journal of Philosophy 32 (2002), 67-82 PDF