The following unpublished pieces are in varying states of preparation. Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to see the current draft.
This paper is a response to Glen Pettigrove’s “What Virtue Adds to Value” (APR 4.2). Pettigrove appeals to the moral phenomena surrounding love, forgiveness and ambition in support of the view that, sometimes, virtue is fundamental in the order of value. I object that this view is unable to explain the forms of discrimination that distinguish the good forms of love, forgiveness and ambition from bad ones.
“Foundations, Derivations, Applications: Replies to Bykvist, Arpaly, Steele, and Tenenbaum”, forthcoming in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research.
A set of replies to the comments of Krister Bykvist, Nomy Arpaly, Katie Steele and Sergio Tenenbaum on my book Concern, Respect and Cooperation.
“Liberty, Security, and Fairness”
What constraints should be imposed on individual liberty for the sake of protecting our collective security? A helpful approach to answering this question is offered by a theory that grounds political obligation and authority in a moral requirement of fair contribution to mutually beneficial cooperative schemes. This approach encourages us to split the opening question into two — a question of correctness and a question of legitimacy — and generates a detailed set of answers to both subsidiary questions, with a nuanced and plausible set of implications. The plausibility of its treatment of the issues surrounding liberty and security, I argue, helps to confer credibility on the fairness-based theory that carries these implications.
“Moral Disagreement, Self-Trust, and Complacency”
When you make a moral judgement, how ought you to respond to facts about other people’s disagreement with you? I approach this question by developing a theme from recent literature on responsiveness to reasons. This emphasizes the possibility of rational responsiveness to the reasons bearing on one’s action which is not accompanied by an ability to describe those reasons or their relationship to each other. Being rationally responsive to reasons is one ability; being able to explain in what one’s rational responsiveness to reasons consists is another; and one can have either of these two kinds of proficiency without the other. I seek to show how this casts light on our responses to moral disagreement. There are circumstances in which it makes sense to think that I am being rationally responsive to reasons in judging as I do, without being equipped with an explanation of how it is that I am better placed than those with whom I disagree. An investigation of these cases can help us to identify the conditions in which trusting one’s own moral judgement can avoid accusations of complacency, without imposing conditions on justified self-trust that lead to an uncompletable regress.
“Narrative Virtues and Second-Order Reasons”, forthcoming in Joseph Ulatowski and Liezl Van Zyl (eds), Virtue, Narrative, and the Self: Explorations of Character in Philosophy of Mind and Action (New York: Routledge, 2021).
One approach to thinking about virtues conceives of them as dispositions to respond well to the reasons we have. This “reasons-responsiveness” approach helps to illuminate what is distinctive about such virtues as loyalty and the kind of integrity that amounts to constancy in sustaining one’s allegiances to important goods. These virtues are ways of responding well to facts about the narrative shape that one’s relationships and allegiances have given to one’s life. Of particular interest are the forms that these narrative virtues take when they are responses to the way one’s life has been shaped by one’s previous reasons-responsive decisions. Narrative virtues with this feature are responses to second-order reasons – reasons the content of which involves one’s having responded to other reasons. Appreciating this helps us to distinguish different forms of loyalty and integrity from each other; to see the relationship between these virtues and the choices we face between the plurality of life-shaping goods, not all of which can be accommodated in a single life; to see how a virtuous sensitivity to the life-allegiances one has formed in resolving those choices need not be unduly self-regarding; and to appreciate what there is for someone who faces such choices to think about.
“Offsetting and Risk-Imposition”, co-authored with Christian Barry
Suppose you perform two actions. The first imposes a risk of harm that, on its own, would be excessive; but the second reduces the risk of harm by a corresponding amount. By pairing the two actions together to form a set of actions that is risk-neutral, can you thereby make your overall course of conduct permissible? This question is theoretically interesting, because the answer is apparently: sometimes Yes, sometimes No. It is also practically important, because it bears on the moral status of practices such as offsetting personal greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In this article we propose a criterion for distinguishing between cases where pairing risk-increasing and risk-reducing actions makes each action permissible, and those where it does not: the Principle of Aggregate Risk-Imposition. We work towards this by considering a range of examples that illustrate various illegitimate ways of pairing risk-increasing actions with risk-reducing ones, and asking what goes wrong in each case. We then use this criterion to evaluate GHG offsetting. Is offsetting a legitimate way of removing the risk-imposition associated with GHG emissions, or not? Controversially, we argue that this turns out to depend on the form that the offsetting takes. According to the criterion we defend, offsetting by sequestering (for example, by planting trees) has the right form to be morally legitimate; but offsetting by forestalling (for example, by supplying people with more efficient cooking stoves or funding clean energy generation) is usually morally dubious.
“Reasons and Fittingness”
According to the “fitting response” tradition of thinking about value, good things are fitting objects of favour-responses and bad things of disfavour-responses. What is the relationship between the relation of fittingness, so understood, and the relation of being-a-normative-reason-for? A widespread view treats normative reasons as primitive, and explains fitting responses as those for which there are reasons of the “right kind”. This paper adds to recent efforts to develop a fittingness-priority view with the opposite explanatory direction. Its proposal is that a normative reason for an action, thought or feeling is a consideration that it is fitting to include in the thought through which one determines what one will do, think or feel. When this proposal is carefully developed, it provides an appealing explanation of how our normative reasons can have the different sources they do and, more generally, of the relationship between the normative and evaluative domains.
“Welfare as Individual Flourishing”
A prominent kind of Neo-Classical theory of welfare identifies it with flourishing as a human being. Such theories face a fundamental objection: the objection from forms of flourishing that are bad for their possessor. But they give rise to an important challenge: what could welfare possibly be, if it is not a way of being good? In response, we can separate two ideas that such theories combine. One is the idea of flourishing as successful activity sustained through the mutually supportive operation of an individual’s component parts. The other is the idea of fulfilling the capacities that are distinctive of the life-form to which the individual belongs. Non-humans can flourish in the first way only if they flourish in the second. But humans are different, since we can set our own goals. So the first idea can be separated from the second, and used as the foundation for a theory of human welfare. Your welfare is your flourishing, not as a human being, but as you. I show how an account of welfare based on this idea can explain how it is a way of being good, can accommodate what is attractive in other theories of welfare, and can also illuminate its importance.
“Williams, Berlin, and the Vindication Problem”
One of the most important lessons Bernard Williams seeks to draw from the history of moral philosophy is that the ethical questions we face, and the resources we have for answering them, are contingent and local. As with all other aspects of our culture, our ethical culture has a history, we are situated at a particular place within it, and this determines what living well, and relating to each other well, can consist in for us. There is no “Archimedean point” from which to seek universal answers to ethical questions about the living of a human life that are timeless and historically unconditioned. This poses a challenge that is at once philosophical and practical: How can a reflective awareness of the culturally particular and contingent nature of ethical life be reconciled with a commitment to the seriousness of ethical questions, and the objectivity that this seriousness requires us to attribute to them? My essay offers a discussion of this challenge with two main aims. One is to raise some questions about the success of Williams’s own response to that challenge. The other is to make the case for a different but related response, drawing on themes from one of Williams’s intellectual mentors, Isaiah Berlin. Berlin emphasizes that the history of our attempts at self-expression and self-understanding displays a plurality of goods around which fulfilling human lives may be structured, but also forces us to recognize that we must choose between them: we must embrace some values in competition with others, and all of the alternatives available to us involve some loss. Within your own life, this gives you the task of fashioning that life in a way that makes sense as a response to the range of circumstance-dependent goods that happen to be presented to you. I shall argue that a corresponding task is faced by us collectively, when we ask how it makes sense to continue the ethical project within which we happen to find ourselves, situated at a particular point in its history. My contention will be that this gives us a way of meeting Williams’s challenge: it shows how ethical thought can be stably self-aware, while retaining the idea that true ethical progress is possible.