Where possible, the links in the titles below take you to jstor or to an on-line journal, with pre-prints linked at the end of the citation. Where only pre-prints are available, the entire citation is one link. Please feel free to email me if you have any trouble accessing these papers.
Pinning to the top, for the pandemic:
“Don’t Confuse Technology with Teaching,” Chronicle of Higher Education 63, no. 44 (August 13, 2012): A19.
This short opinion piece calls upon us to sharpen our understanding of what education is and what educators do. “A set of podcasts [or, now, “asynchronous” lectures] is the 21st-century equivalent of a textbook, not the 21st-century equivalent of a teacher.”
This chapter presents two contrasting pictures of the will. On the first, “the will” is a psychological structure or module within a person that originates spontaneous or endogenous activity, independently of external influence. On the second, “the will” is that collection of ordinary states of mind (cares, concerns, beliefs, desires, commitments, fears, etc.) that generates intentional, or voluntary, or responsible activity—it is the functioning together of those aspects of mind that account for human activity. A challenge is posed for each. The challenge for the first is to say how the outputs of this module are the activity of the person. The challenge for the second is to say how psychological activity that might be entirely explained by a person’s history and environment can nonetheless be free and responsible activity. The replies take up an important question about the role of consciousness, in each picture.
This chapter presents four different senses of “voluntary” that might be in play. First, voluntary1 movement contrasts with bodily movement not guided by the person—such as blinking or digesting, which are involuntary1. Second, you might move voluntarily1, and yet make a mistake—you might send an email to the wrong person—you then act involuntarily2. In contrast, voluntary2 action is successful. Third, you might purposely and even successfully do something you didn’t want to do—through the cargo overboard during the storm. In such cases, you act involuntarily3. In contrast, you might act happily, as a volunteer, so to speak. You then act voluntarily3. Finally, sometimes you can be manipulated or deceived into acting as a volunteer—in which case you lack an important form of freedom. We might say that you act involuntarily4. I suggest that the first two senses might be fruitfully studied by neuroscience, while the final sense marks a distinction draw by ethical reflection.
“Fairness, Sanction, and Condemnation,” Oxford Studies in Agency and Responsibility, David Shoemaker, ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021). (pre-print)
I here press an often overlooked question: Why does the fairness of a sanction require an adequate opportunity to avoid it? By pressing this question, I believe I have come to better understand something that has long puzzled me, namely, what philosophers (and others) might have in mind when they talk about “true moral responsibility,” or the “condemnatory force” of moral blame, or perhaps even “basic desert.” In presenting this understanding of “condemnation” or of “basic desert,” I am presenting an idea that I do not, myself, endorse—one to which I am, myself, opposed. I present and defend it, hoping that, if what I say accurately captures what people have in mind, it will also show how condemnation or desert, in this sense, can be left behind.
“Reasoning First,” Routledge Handbook of Practical Reasoning, Ruth Chang and Kurt Sylvan, eds., (New York: Routledge Press, 2021): 349–65. (pre-print)
Many think of reasons as facts, propositions, or considerations that stand in some relation (or relations) to attitudes, actions, states of affairs. The relation may be an explanatory one or a “normative” one—though some are uncomfortable with irreducibly “normative” relations. I will suggest that we should, instead, see reasons as items in pieces of reasoning. They relate, in the first instance, not to psychological states or events or states of affairs, but to questions. That relation is neither explanatory nor “normative.” If we must give it a label, we could call it “rational”—but that will mean, I think, only that the consideration bears on the question. By thus putting reasoning first, we not only avoid a handful of difficulties that have plagued thinking about reasons, but we also bring back to center-stage the importance of rational agency.
Freedom, Resentment, and the Metaphysics of Morals (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020). (pre-print).
Nearly sixty years after its publication, P. F. Strawson’s “Freedom and Resentment” continues to inspire important work. Its main legacy has been the notion of “reactive attitudes.” Surprisingly, Strawson’s central argument—an argument to the conclusion that no general thesis (such as the thesis of determinism) could provide us reason to abandon these attitudes—has received little attention. When the argument is considered, it is often interpreted as relying on a claim about our psychological capacities: we are simply not capable of abandoning the reactive attitudes, across the board, in something like the way we are simply not capable of remembering everything we are told. A different line interprets Strawson as relying on something like a conceptual point: you can neither support nor call into question the whole of a practice using notions that are, themselves, constituted by that practice. Neither interpretation would lead to you to expect what you will find, looking at the central text: Strawson twice accuses his opponent of being caught in some kind of contradiction. So neither interpretation, on its own, is correct. By providing a close reading of the central text, I do my best to articulate Strawson’s more interesting, and more powerful, argument. The argument depends on an underlying picture of the nature of moral demands and moral relationships—a picture that has gone largely unnoticed, that is naturalistic without being reductionistic, and that is, I think, worthy of serious consideration. (See the “Neither/Nor” tab, on this website, for two different summaries.)
“Fake It ’til You Make It,” interview by Mike Schuh, Portable Gray 3, no. 1 (Spring 2020): 38–43.
An interview about the NBC sitcom The Good Place, which includes some thoughts about trying to be good and some talk of contractualism as a moral theory.
“Introduction,” with Todd May, The Good Place and Philosophy (Wiley Blackwell, forthcoming).
A short introduction for a collection of articles about philosophy and the NBC sitcom.
“Agency and Responsibility,” Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Agency, Luca Ferrero, ed., (New York: Routledge Press, forthcoming). (pre-print)
I first sketch the different things we might have in mind, when thinking about responsibility. I then relate each of those to possible investigations of human agency. The most interesting such relation, in my opinion, is that between agency and what I call “responsibility as mattering.” I offer some hypotheses about that relation.
“I’ll Bet You Think This Blame Is About You,” Oxford Studies in Agency and Responsibility, Volume 5: Essays on Themes from the Work of Gary Watson, Justin Coates and Neal Tognazzini, eds. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019): 60–87. (pre-print)
There seems to be widespread agreement that to be responsible for something is to be deserving of certain consequences on account of that thing. Call this the “merited-consequences” conception of responsibility. I think there is something off, or askew, in this conception, though I find it hard to articulate just what it is. The phenomena the merited-consequences conception is trying to capture could be better captured, I think, by noting the characteristic way in which certain minds can rightly matter to other such minds—the way in which certain minds can carry a certain kind of importance, made manifest in certain sorts of responses. Mattering, not meriting, seems to me central. However, since I cannot yet better articulate an alternative, I continue in the merit-consequences framework. I focus on a particular class of consequences: those that are non-voluntary, in a sense explained. The non-voluntariness of these reactions has two important upshots. First, questions about their justification will be complex. Second, they are not well thought of as consequences voluntarily imposed upon the wrongdoer by the responder. By focusing on merited consequences and overlooking non-voluntariness, we risk misunderstanding the significance of moral criticism and of certain reactions to moral failure.
“Reflection and Responsibility,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 42, no. 1 (Winter 2014): 3–41. (pre-print)
A common line of thought claims that we are responsible for ourselves and our actions, while less sophisticated creatures are not, because we are, and they are not, self-aware. Our self-awareness is thought to provide us with a kind of control over ourselves that they lack: we can reflect upon ourselves, upon our thoughts and actions, and so ensure that they are as we would have them to be. Thus, our capacity for reflection provides us with the control over ourselves that grounds our responsibility. I argue that this thought is subtly, but badly, confused. It uses, as its model for the control that grounds our responsibility, the kind of control we exercise over ordinary objects and over our own voluntary actions: we represent to ourselves what to do or how to change things, and then we bring about that which we represent. But we cannot use this model to explain our responsibility for ourselves and our actions: if there is a question about why or how we are responsible for ourselves and our actions, it cannot be answered by appeal to a sophisticated, self-directed action. There must be some more fundamental account of how or why we are responsible. I replace the usual account with a novel but natural view: responsible mental activity can be modeled, not as an ordinary action, but as the settling of a question. This shift will require abandoning the tempting but troublesome thought that responsible activity involves discretion and awareness—which, I argue, we must abandon in any case.
“The Use of Reasons in Thought (and the use of earmarks in arguments),” Ethics 124, no. 1 (October 2013): 114–27. (pre-print)
Here I defend my solution to the wrong kind of reason problem (JPhil, 2005, below) against Mark Schroeder’s criticisms (Ethics, 2012). In doing so, I highlight an important difference between other accounts of reasons and my own. While others understand reasons as considerations that count in favor of attitudes, I understand reasons as considerations that bear (or are taken to bear) on questions. Thus, to relate reasons to attitudes, on my account, we must consider the relation between attitudes and questions. By considering this latter relation, we not only solve the wrong kind of reason problem, but we also bring into view rational agency—the use of reasons in thought.
“Reasons for Action,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 111 (2011): 407–27. (pre-print)
Donald Davidson opens his seminal “Actions, Reasons, and Causes” with the following question: “What is the relation between a reason and an action when the reason explains the action by giving the agent’s reason for doing what he did?” His answer to this question (or what is typically taken to be his answer) has generated some confusion and made for some difficulty in understanding the role of the agent’s reasons in the explanation of action. I hope to dispel some of the confusion and to offer a very modest, formal answer to Davidson’s question. I will propose an account of the form the explanation of action should take, when we care to preserve the proper role of the agent’s own reasons for acting.
“Believing at Will,” Belief and Agency, David Hunter, ed., The Canadian Journal of Philosophy Supplementary Volume 35 (2009): 149–87. (pre-print)
It has seemed to many philosophers—perhaps to most—that believing is not voluntary, that we cannot believe at will. It has seemed to many of these that this inability is not a merely contingent psychological limitation but rather is a deep fact about belief, perhaps a conceptual limitation. But it has been very difficult to say exactly why we cannot believe at will. I earlier offered an account of why we cannot believe at will. I argued that nothing could qualify both as having been done “at will,” in the relevant sense, and as a belief. Thus, no believer could believe at will. If my arguments are correct, our inability to believe at will reveals no genuine lack in our powers of mind, any more than an inability to draw a square circle reveals a lack of artistic skill. My account has been recently criticized by Kieran Setiya, who has provided an account of his own. Here I revisit and defend my account, hopefully in a way that will both make my thought clearer and illumine some of the broader differences between Setiya’s approach and my own. I then briefly consider Setiya’s own argument, in part to further develop the contrast. (Link to the published version above. Download a preprint here.)
“Of Metaethics and Motivation: The Appeal of Contractualism,” Reasons and Recognition: Essays on the Philosophy of T. M. Scanlon, R. Jay Wallace, Rahul Kumar, and Samuel Freeman, eds. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011): 101–128. (pre-print)
In his 1982 article, T. M. Scanlon noted that, despite the widespread attention to Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, the appeal of contractualism as a moral theory had been underappreciated. It seems to me that, nearly thirty years later, despite the widespread attention to Scanlon’s work, this appeal is still largely underappreciated. In this paper, I try to present Scanlon’s appealing answer to what he once called “the question of motivation” and the relation of this answer to the more metaethical “question of subject matter.” I then defend Scanlon’s view against various, standard objections, which, I claim, simply misunderstand it. I close by considering what it would take to wed Scanlon’s attractive answer to the question of motivation to another, non-contractualist, theory. I conclude that, even if the marriage could be arranged, a good part of the appeal of contractualism would inevitably be lost.
“Making a Difference,” Social Theory and Practice, 37, no. 1 (January 2011): 81–94.
For a special issue dedicated to John Martin Fischer’s work. I suggest that Fischer concedes too much to the consequence argument when he grants that we may not make a difference. I provide a broad sketch of (my take on) the dispute between compatibilists and incompatibilists, while suggesting that some of the discussion may have confused the freedom required for moral responsibility with a very different notion of autonomy, one which is, instead, required to make a certain sort of difference.
“The Will as Reason,” Philosophical Perspectives 23, no.1 (2009): 201–220. (pre-print)
I here defend an account of the will as practical reason—or, using Kant’s phrase, as “reason in its practical employment”—as against a view of the will as a capacity for choice, in addition to reason, by which we execute practical judgments in action. Certain commonplaces show distance between judgment and action and thus seem to reveal the need for a capacity, in addition to reason, by which we execute judgment in action. However, another ordinary fact pushes in the other direction: the activities of the will are activities for which the person is answerable in a very particular sort of way. This answerability is most easily understood if willing involves settling a question, where that is the kind of activity done for reasons. I suggest that we can accommodate the commonplaces while still understanding the will as reason in its practical employment, by abandoning the assumption that practical reasoning concludes in a judgment. Rather, reasoning which concludes in a judgment—reasoning directed at the question of whether p—is theoretical reasoning. In its practical employment, reason is directed at the question of whether to x; it concludes, not in a judgment about x-ing, but rather in an intention to x.
“Two Kinds of Agency,” Mental Actions, Lucy O’Brien and Matthew Soteriou, eds. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009): 138–162. (pre-print)
I argue that making a certain assumption allows us to conceptualize more clearly our agency over our minds. The assumption is this: certain attitudes (most uncontroversially, belief and intention) embody their subject’s answer to some question or set of questions. I first explain the assumption and then show that, given the assumption, we should expect to exercise agency over this class of attitudes in (at least) two distinct ways: either by answering for ourselves the question they embody or by acting upon them in ways designed to affect them according to our purposes—in roughly the way we exercise agency over most ordinary objects. The two forms of agency are rarely distinguished, because the first does not display the most familiar and prominent features of agency, while the second seems to require an exercise of the first, at two distinct points. Nonetheless, many complex exercises of agency over our minds are easily seen—I think best seen—as composed of these two, more simple, forms.
“The Reasons of Trust,” Australasian Journal of Philosophy 86, no. 2 (June 2008): 213–236. (pre-print)
Trust is required for any collective enterprise; a psychologically healthy person must be capable of trusting others; trusting relationships are a vital component of a fulfilling life. Trust may also be recommended as a way to build greater trust in a particular relationship, a way to build the self-esteem of the one trusted, or as a way to avoid hurting someone’s feelings. It may be required by one’s role as friend, teacher, or parent. Trust is, in each of these ways, useful, valuable, important, or required. Yet I argue that, although each of these considerations genuinely counts in favor of trusting—and so, in some way, succeeds as a reason for trust—they cannot be taken up as one’s reasons for trusting someone to do something. To whatever degree these are one’s reasons for doing what one does, to that degree one is not trusting.
“Responsibility for Believing,” Synthese 161, no. 3 (April 2008): 357–373. (pre-print)
To some it seems that rejecting doxastic voluntarism (rejecting the claim that we can believe at will) calls into question our responsibility for our beliefs. The underlying assumption seems to be that we are responsible only for what is voluntary. Thus, if we cannot believe voluntarily, we cannot be responsible for our beliefs. Yet it also seems clear that we are responsible for our beliefs. But any tension here is only apparent. The underlying assumption, that we can be responsible only for what is voluntary, is false. It holds in some central cases—and thus acquires its plausibility—but it does not hold generally. In fact, on at least one plausible account of what it is for a thing to be voluntary and what it is to be responsible for something, beliefs are not voluntary and yet, in failing to be voluntary, they are a paradigmatic example of the sort of thing for which we are most fundamentally responsible. This paper sketches such an account.
“Sher’s Defense of Blame,” Philosophical Studies 137, no. 1 (January 2008): 19–30.
(This is a comment prepared for an Author Meets Critic session at the Pacific Division APA meeting in April 2007). In his In Praise of Blame, George Sher aims to provide an analysis of blame that will itself yield a defense by allowing him to argue that morality and blame “stand or fall together.” He thus opposes anyone who recommends jettisoning blame while preserving (the rest of) morality. In this comment, I examine Sher’s defense of blame. Though I am much in sympathy with Sher’s strategy of defending blame by providing an analysis that shows its connection to our commitment to morality, I question his execution of this strategy. Sher hopes to defend our blaming practices by showing our dispositions to them to be a merely contingent consequence of a belief-desire pair that is itself justified by whatever justifies our commitment to morality. I doubt our blaming practices can be defended in this way. In explaining my doubts, I provide a short comparison of Sher’s approach with that of P. F. Strawson in “Freedom of Resentment.” I suggest that we might do better by exploring the connection between our commitment to morality and our blaming practices themselves.
“Rational Capacity as a Condition on Blame,” Philosophical Books 48, no. 2 (April 2007): 109–123. (pre-print)
In “Rational Capacities” Michael Smith outlines the sense of capacity he believes to be required before blame is appropriate. I question whether this sense of capacity is required. In so doing, I consider different ways in which blame might be conditioned. I argue, controversially, that a moral demand can apply even to someone who is incapable of satisfying it. (Link to the published version above. Download a preprint here.)
“Controlling Attitudes,” Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 87, no. 1 (March 2006): 45–74. (pre-print)
I argue that, although belief is subject to two quite robust forms of agency, believing at will is impossible; one cannot believe in the way one ordinarily acts. Further, the same is true of intention: although intention is subject to two quite robust forms of agency, the features of belief that render believing less than voluntary are present for intention, as well. It turns out, perhaps surprisingly, that you can no more intend at will than believe at will.
“The Wrong Kind of Reason,” The Journal of Philosophy 102, no. 9 (September 2005): 437–457.
Many philosophers currently writing about reasons identify a reason as a consideration that counts in favor of an action or attitude. This account generates a recalcitrant ambiguity; it fails to distinguish between two quite different sets of considerations that count in favor of certain attitudes, only one of which are the “proper” or “appropriate” kind of reason for them. The ambiguity has been the topic of recent discussion, under the head “the wrong kind of reasons problem.” If we instead identify a reason as a consideration that bears on a question, we can distinguish “kinds” of reasons by distinguishing between kinds of questions on which a consideration can bear. Further, we can distinguish the “right” kind of reasons for certain attitudes from the “wrong” kind by considering the relation between the question on which the consideration bears and the attitudes of which it counts in favor.
“The Force and Fairness of Blame,” Philosophical Perspectives 18, no. 1 (2004): 115–148. (pre-print)
Its sometimes thought that the special force of blame—that which distinguishes blame from mere description or grading—places extra justificatory burdens on blaming. Unlike describing or grading, blaming is unfair unless certain conditions are met (unless, e.g., the wrongdoer could have done otherwise or is able to control her behavior by the light of moral reasons). I argue that this thought is confused. Much of blame’s force is found in a set of judgments—most centrally, the judgment that someone showed disregard for others. But once we grant that those judgments are true, their characteristic force cannot render them unfair.
“Articulating an Uncompromising Forgiveness,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 62, no. 3 (May 2001): 529–555. (pre-print)
I first pose a challenge which, it seems to me, any philosophical account of forgiveness must meet: the account must be articulate and it must allow for forgiveness that is uncompromising. I then examine an account of forgiveness which appears to meet this challenge. Upon closer examination we discover that this account actually fails to meet the challenge—but it fails in very instructive ways. The account takes two missteps which seem to be taken by almost everyone discussing forgiveness. At the end, I sketch an alternative account of forgiveness, one that I think meets the challenge and avoids the missteps.